The Chateau de Chillon is the most-visited historic building in Switzerland. There must be a reason, beyond the fact that it’s easy to get to on the edge of Lake Geneva near Montreux.
You enter the Middle Ages as you cross the little castle’s covered bridge into its walled courtyards. This is no fairytale castle, but rawly beautiful nonetheless. Rough-hewn stairs lead up to battlements cut with arrow slits, though the chateau was never attacked. Rooms have huge fireplaces and lead-latticed windows looking across the lake, along the shores and up the hill. The rocky dungeon was the inspiration for a famous poem. Even the well-restored multi-seat privy (fortunately, for historic display only) brings you a feel for un-romanticized medieval life.
The first known written mention of Chateau de Chillon comes down to us from 1150 when the Counts of Savoy controlled the fortified castle. In the 13th century, these lords extended their power over the Vaud region. Under Pierre II of Savoy, whose mother was from Geneva, the castle was enlarged and embellished, not just because it offered strategic views of lake shipping, but because its beautiful location made it a seductive summer residence for the counts.
By the 16th century, the castle had fallen into disrepair. Then its new lords, the Bernese counts, swept it out and spruced it up again. Much of what we see today as we walk the flagstones and look out from the towers is thanks to them.
François Bonivard, the castle’s most famous prisoner, also owed the Bernese his thanks. A Protestant monk, historian (and libertine) from Geneva who was a member of the Savoyard family, he fell into political dispute with the family and, in 1530, was chained in the Chillon dungeon. In 1536 he was freed by the Bernese. Nearly 300 years later, English poet George Gordon Lord Byron, after visiting Chillon and hearing Bonivard’s story, immortalized the man in his powerful poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon”.
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns,
massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprisoned ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
Some visitors to Chillon remember the dungeon, with its high vaulted ceilings, torturously out-of-reach windows and raw rock walls, as the most memorable part of the castle.
You can decide for yourself. Chateau de Chillon is open year-round.
April – Sept: 9 – 19h
Oct: 9:30 – 18h
Nov – Feb: 10 – 17h
March: 930 – 18h
(Last entry for each day is an hour before closing)
Entry tickets range from CHF 12.50 for adults and CHF 6 for children to various discounts for students, families, apprentices, Swiss soldiers in uniform, seniors, groups and others.
Chillon also has lots of seasonal programmes and exhibits in which medieval arts, crafts, and daily life come alive. This Christmas season, you can walk among the revelers and crafts people.
Until April can also visit a Medieval Factory.
By Bill Harby