Chillon! Thy prison is a holy place,
And thy sad floor an altar, for ‘twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace
Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! - May none those marks efface!
For they appeal from tyranny to God.
George Gordon, Lord Byron; Sonnet on Chillon
François Bonivard (1496-1570) was the prior of St Victor, near Geneva, when he opposed the efforts of Charles III, Duke of Savoy, to control Geneva. After imprisoning Bonivard for 3 years at Grolée, the Duke released the monk—only to later re-imprison him, this time at the château of Chillon. Bonivard was incarcerated till 1536, when the Bernese captured the château. Less than 300 years later, Byron, touring Switzerland with friend and fellow poet P B Shelley, visited Château Chillon and was inspired to write The Prisoner of Chillon.
By the time we arrived at Chillon after a long boat ride, we were so hungry, we wouldn’t have known inspiration if it hit us on the head.
I don’t remember whose idea it was to take the boat from Ouchy to Chillon. Yes, Lac Leman’s paddle steamers are pretty; but they take an awfully long time to get anywhere. Having left Ouchy at 11.45 AM, we reached Château Chillon at 1.30 PM, starving and irritable. Fortunately, the pier’s near the château, so a short walk brought us to the castle’s snack bar where we bought sausage rolls, coffee and jam doughnuts: not gourmet fare, admittedly, but adequate.
At the turnstile leading into the castle, we were given a free tourist guide in English, and were told that our Swiss passes were valid, so we wouldn’t need to pay the CHF12 fee per person. The guide—a single sheet folded into a concertina—suggests a route, with detailed instructions on where to turn, climb or descend, etc. Since each section of the castle also has a number at the entrance, it’s easy for visitors to make their way around by themselves. Audio guides are also available for a small fee.
We began by reading through the history of Château Chillon. The castle stands on a rocky island and has been a fortification at least since the 12th century, when it was occupied by the Dukes of Savoy. By 1536, the Bernese had ousted the Savoyards (freeing Bonivard in the process). In 1798, the château became part of the canton of Vaud. Excavations and restoration of the castle began in the 19th century under the aegis of the archaeologist Albert Naef. More on this gentleman later.
Making our way through the first courtyard, we went down into the cellar and the storehouse, which in its present condition dates back to the 13th century. It has a vaulted roof supported on stone pillars, but the architectural finesse seems to have been restricted to the top half: part of the floor consists of the rock—without any attempts at levelling—on which the castle’s built. They’ve made an attempt to recreate a medieval cellar, with a rack full of sacks, baskets, barrels and casks. Cute.
Beyond the cellar and storehouse is the prison, and then (more specifically), Bonivard’s prison, which inspired Byron. Near the entrance of the dungeon, the plastered wall is decorated with an illustration of the crucifixion, and if you look towards your right as you walk along away from the entrance, you’ll see a plaque dedicated to Byron, embedded in the rock that forms part of the wall. And one of the pillars has a little bit of graffiti scratched into it by Byron. Not a good tourist, this man.
Following the instructions in our visitors’ guide, we made our way through the relatively nondescript crypt (which contains traces of an altar), through the second courtyard, and into the first of the more sumptuous chambers of the château: the Constables’ Dining Room. Lavishly painted, with a wooden ceiling, and tapestries woven with animal and heraldic figures, the room is set with rough tables and chairs, each `tablecloth’ being a printed sheet that has lots of interesting information (also in English) about banquets in medieval Switzerland: menus, etiquette, entertainment, and the like. Nearly each room in the château has boards or other signs with additional information, illustrations or trivia pertaining to the room, written in French, German and English.
On the floor above the Constables’ Dining Room, we arrived at the Aula Nova, a ceremonial room which the constables used. The vaulted ceiling was restored by Naef and gang in the 1920’s, and the paintings on the wall are also not original—they were inspired by murals elsewhere in the château. What we liked about the Aula Nova was the display of arms and armour here: gleaming, fearsome, and definitely dangerous.
A little further, and we arrived at the small but attractive Bernese Bedroom, with its four poster bed, carved chests (which, by the way, are abundant in the château—all exquisite examples of woodwork), and prettily painted fruit, flowers, vines and birds on the plastered walls. Past the Bernese Bedroom, the next major chamber was the Coat of Arms Hall. This, as the name suggests, is liberally painted, all along the top half of the walls, with the coats of arms of the Bernese bailiffs who resided at Chillon when it came under Bernese rule. We had a fun time examining the tiny bears painted above the coats of arms: there’s a regular regiment of them, using lances and swords and whatnot to fight each other. And, as if to push home the fact that Bern equals bear, the hall is dedicated to the animal. A large statue of a bear stands near the entrance, there’s plenty of trivia about bears all across the room, and the central section is devoted to teddy bears. Neither Tarun nor I are especially keen on teddies, but there was information here on how the toy got its name (we have Theodore Roosevelt to thank for that); how they were originally manufactured; and—of course—a large collection of teddies, including old rag-stuffed ones with boot-button eyes. There was even a very jazzy teddy covered with what looked like rhinestones!
Having had our fill of bears, we moved on to the Camera Domini, known for the murals of animals painted on its walls; and, beyond, to the Latrines. A wooden board with strategically placed holes above stone funnels line one side of the room, and (as in all the rooms), there’s additional information on a board on the side. In this case, the trivia consists mainly of some pretty graphic and disgusting medieval illustrations, so if you’re even slightly sensitive about stuff like that, avoid peeking!
From the latrines, we made our way down (a staircase!) to the Wooden Room, probably once used to house the ladies of Savoy. Then, past the chapel and through the third courtyard, we arrived at the Aula Magna. This hall, with its distinctive black-and-white painted walls, was originally used for banquets, and is back today to being rented out for functions and parties. The black marble pillars of the hall are 13th century, as are the tall windows that line one side of the hall, offering a fine view of Lac Leman.
The next interesting room that we came to was the Torture Room (our guide was cautious in referring to it—ungrammatically? —as the `Called Torture Room’). The guide went on to say that this was probably used as a small sitting room or dressing room during the Savoy period, though the Bernese used it to torture people. We found no signs of blood-curdling torture devices; instead, we learnt that the pretty green-and-white pattern of the central pillar is in an unusual 13th century style.
Beyond this, we went through another set of latrines, past the Camera Nova (where the restoration committee headed by Naef held its meetings), and into the Models Room, which contains models of the château at different stages. This room also has photographs and information about the work carried out by Naef and his team in the 1920’s to restore Château Chillon.
Looming above these chambers are the Sentries’ Galleries, long wooden corridors that run along the periphery of the castle and were constantly patrolled. After walking down a couple of these, we thought of turning back, but a quick glance at the guide showed us that the galleries lead up to the 11th century keep, so we decided to persevere—and were richly rewarded. Not that the keep is exceptional. It’s a tower divided into a series of rough wooden rooms one atop the other, linked by sturdy ladder-like staircases. If heights aren’t your thing, or if you have a problem with balance, this isn’t the place for you. But if you want a breathtaking view across the castle, Lac Leman and the surrounding areas—Montreux, the vineyards of Chillon, etc—there’s no beating the keep.
Château Chillon is a must-do if you’re in this part of Switzerland. It’s well maintained, easy to get to, and both fun and informative. Don’t miss this.