Blanca Knodel is standing on her “balcony” and the wind whips her hair. The wind isn’t surprising. Her balcony is a walkway around a set of turrets 105 feet above the ground. Blanca Knodel is a tower keeper in the German city of Bad Wimpfen, and wind, stairs, and stunning views are part of her job.
Bad Wimpfen claims to have the longest continuing tradition of a live-in tower keeper in all of Germany, in part for tourism, and in part to keep a medieval profession alive. The tower keeper lives in a 570-square foot apartment right below the balcony. Although Blanca Knodel is the city’s first female tower keeper, she isn’t the only one in Germany. Münster also has a female tower keeper.
According to Bad Wimpfen’s homepage, the tower is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The cost is 1.50€ per person, and you pay 134 steps above the street, at the door to the tower keeper’s apartment.
Blanca Knodel talks of her life above the city, Mark Twain’s visit to Bad Wimpfen, and how to get a free beer.
Interview with the Tower Keeper
Ann Marie: How long have you been at the job, Frau Knodel?
Blanca Knodel: Nineteen years.
How did you get it?
I belong to one of the oldest families in Baden-Württemberg. I love the Blue Tower, and my grandmother’s sister even used to live here in the tower keeper’s apartment. When my predecessor became ill, I covered for him. Eventually I took over with my three children.
Frau Knodel hands me a pamphlet. It says Bad Wimpfen has complete personnel records for its tower keepers going back to 1626. The records before that time were destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but sporadic documentation surviving from the 14th century indicates the city had a tower keeper who lived continually in the tower.
My job might even go back to the 13th century.
What were the tower keeper’s duties in the Middle Ages?
To watch out for enemies and fires and to raise the alarm. Also to toll the hours.
Did the tower keeper have any crime-prevention functions? If someone raised the hue and cry, for instance, would the tower keeper look for the fleeing criminal from above and let the town know where to look?
Probably not; that was more the job of the night watchman. If a crime happened at night, it would be really hard to spot a fleeing criminal in the darkness from way up here.
They didn’t have street lamps back then….
No, they didn’t!
What are the tower keeper’s job duties today?
I have primarily public relations duties – selling tickets and giving information to tourists visiting the tower.
Are there any advantages to being the tower keeper?
Yes! I’m so high above everything else; it is so quiet and peaceful. I have a tremendous view. And all my visitors are friendly. People climb the 134 steps to my apartment only if they really want to see me. I get absolutely no solicitors!
And the disadvantages?
Carrying my groceries. The tower does have a small elevator just for groceries, but it starts at the third floor and ends one floor below my apartment. So that means I have to haul my groceries up several floors. The worst part is carrying up cases of beer. On the days I go shopping, I offer a free beer to anyone who helps carry a case up the stairs.
Even to American tourists?
Yes, of course! I usually go shopping on Wednesdays, so come by and see if you can help me with my beer….
Check for cases of beer when you enter the tower. Frau Knodel usually puts a note on them and you are welcome to carry one up.
How often do you get American tourists?
Regularly. The Blue Tower isn’t a secret tip. It appears in the guide books and I get guests of all nationalities.
Mark Twain visited Bad Wimpfen in 1878 and sketched one of the towers. Would you say this picture is of the Blue Tower or the Red Tower?
That looks like the Red Tower. By 1878, the Blue Tower already had its present form – with the turrets. But I don’t know why Mark Twain made the Red Tower leaning. Was he thinking of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
It may have just been one of Mark Twain’s jokes. He wrote that this picture was just a copy. He says he gave the original to the mayor of Bad Wimpfen.
(Laughing) If Mark Twain gave a picture to our mayor, believe me, I would know about it. If Bad Wimpfen had a Mark Twain picture in its archives, I would know.
You can’t always believe what Mark Twain says! But on the other hand, Twain wasn’t famous yet in Germany. If you were the mayor, and if a tourist who was a nobody gave you this picture of your town, would you keep it?
Okay, I get your point. No!
You also have a pet cat. How has it adjusted to living in the tower? Does it ever go out?
My cat’s outdoor territory is the tower itself. In the mornings, before all the tourists come, it patrols the stairs and hunts silverfish and spiders.
There aren’t any mice in the tower?
Not that I know of.
Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower also has a music tradition.
Yes! Every Sunday at noon, from April to October, musicians play a hymn from the four sides of the tower. Bad Wimpfen has been doing that for at least a century.
What are your most interesting memories of living in the tower?
I have an upright piano in my apartment. It took four men seven minutes to carry it all the way up the tower. Once they got it into my apartment, I told them they brought the wrong piano.
What?! It wasn’t the piano you ordered?
Well yes, actually it was, but I was just trying to joke with them. They didn’t think I was funny at all.
The oldest guest who ever visited me was 95 years old. I shared a glass of wine with him at the top, and afterwards he used to call me every half year to tell me he would never forget the experience.
I won’t forget the experience either, Fr. Knodel. Thanks so much for the interview.
What would you enjoy about the job if you were a tower keeper?
Coming soon: more about Mark Twain in Bad Wimpfen and all the funny things he had to say about it.