The Chateau de Chillon is one of Switzerland’s most popular tourist destinations. Perched on a rocky island close to the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman), its iconic setting is stunningly beautiful. On the day we went there walking up from Montreux (see last week’s post here), the early morning sun soon turned to mist and fine rain giving the old castle a rather mysterious and haunting appearance.
No surprises then to find out that the history of this sometime fortress, arsenal and prison is somewhat dark despite its serene location! Although a Swiss public holiday (for Mother’s Day) it was not unpleasantly busy with tourists. We were quickly through the entry queue courtesy of our Swiss Passes. These passes are essential in my opinion for travellers to Switzerland, giving discounted entry to many museums and galleries as well as access to all forms of public transport.
The castle was originally founded in 1150 as a fortress for the Counts of Savoy who controlled the strategic north/south route between the lake and the mountains. As time went on they took control of most of the Vaud region – essentially the part of modern day Switzerland that is French speaking.
We made our way down into the dungeons passing by the extensive vaults of the castle wine cellar! The Clos de Chillon (described as a “fruity Chasselas white wine”), is available for purchase at the museum shop, though we had to pass that opportunity by as getting bottles back home again wouldn’t have been too practical.
The dungeon is almost at water level and you could hear the waters of the lake gently lapping against the heavy castle walls. It must have been torture to hear the sound of the water, so close and yet so far, for the unfortunate Francois Bonivard (1493 -1570), the castle’s most famous prisoner. Lord Byron was inspired to write his poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon” after visiting the castle in 1816. An ecclesiastic and political activist with (by all accounts) a rather colourful lifestyle, Bonivard incurred the wrath of the Count of Savoy and was allegedly kept chained up to one of the large stone pillars that support the dungeon ceiling. He was finally released by the Bernese who defeated the Count of Savoy and took over the custodianship of the castle for the next couple of centuries or so (1536 – 1798). It was cold, damp and distinctly oppressive down in the dungeons – definitely not a place to linger, although fascinating at the same time.
We made our way up to the relative light of the main courtyard. Since 1805 the castle has been the property of the Canton of Vaud and restoration work continues today. The castle houses a number of exhibitions and hosts cultural events such as concerts. We toured through the old kitchens and dining areas where there are a number of interactive displays. Apparently you can hire out function rooms to experience your own medieval banquet or children can have a hosted birthday party with a dragon and knight theme.
I loved the displays of old wooden trunks by local artisans especially since one branch of my family were originally trunk makers in London in the 19th century.
The castle has many different sections and it does take some time to go round. One of the highlights was the view from the top tower, which you reach by taking a series of old wooden stairways. Here walkways lead along the ramparts and you can gaze out across the old roof and turrets towards the lake.
We had a few lingering looks back at the lake on the way out via the extensively stocked museum shop and headed off in search of lunch!
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