Château de Chillon
One of the greatest things about living in Geneva is being so close to so many literary landmarks. I'm awfully aware of the Shelleys when I walk along the lake beneath Cologny, of Edith Wharton when we lunch in Ouchy, and Zelda Fitzgerald when we walk through the flowery lakeside in Vevey. I've personally mythicized their presences in the area over the years, but none of my private musings really compare to the very public, very known story of Lord Byron and the Château de Chillon.
George Gordon Byron traveled to Chillon with Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 26th of June, 1816, two hundred years ago yesterday. He was so struck with the place that he wrote a poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon," soon thereafter about – eponymously – a prisoner in the dungeons of the castle. The castle dungeons look out onto some of the most gorgeous spots on the lake, so that Byron was struck with the contrast between the bleak, stoney interior, and the pristine views of Leman and the Alps is not at all surprising.
Many people travel to visit Chillon these days, some inspired by Byron, others keen to visit the most popular tourist site in Switzerland, and I was able to make two of my own pilgrimages to the castle this year. I'd try to visit it on many occasions in the past, always asking my mom to stop on our drives along the lake, but I had little luck until one of my friends suggested she, A, and I all go on a visit together in September (sadly without my best friend who was supposed to come but was stuck in Italy).
A arranged for us to take a steamboat from Vevey, and we arrived at the castle shortly before lunch. We ate in the gardens and then took our time exploring every nook and cranny of the medieval castle. We were enchanted by the dungeons (pictures of which you can see here) and the faded murals of the castle. Little furniture survives in Chillon (which, let's be honest, is usually one of my favorite things to see when visiting castles), but just about every room looks out on to the mountain-drawn lake and little of the castle consequently seems bare. We spent hours going through the castle that day, going so far as to climb the very narrow stairs to the top of one of the towers (which ended in A needing to go down the stairs backwards and guide me because I hated how narrow and steep they were and was terrified o go back down again), but I knew then that we'd have to come back.
And come back we did! As part of the two hundredth anniversary of the summer Byron and the Shelleys spent around Lac Léman, the universities of Lausanne, Neuchâtel, and Geneva banded together and organized a study trip going from Lausanne to Chillon to the Foundation Bodmer in Geneva (a place for which I have great affection, but that's for another time) to celebrate both the inspiration behind "The Prisoner of Chillon" and Mary Shelley's creation of Frankenstein. A was lucky enough to audit the class that organized the trip in Lausanne, and Rory – aforementioned Italian Best Friend – and I managed to get tickets to tag along from Geneva. We had a wonderful day, starting with an early morning train ride to Lausanne to have pancakes, eggs, and full English breakfasts at the Blackbird Coffee & Breakfast Club (a place A and I discovered in March and love), and then we made our way to Chillon with our universities.
This latest trip was at the end of May, and the castle was set up to host the "1816-2016 Byron is back!" exhibition. We got to listen to a talk about the exhibition, walk around the castle, and take part in a reading of the poem – or rather A took part in a reading of the poem while Rory and I listened.
Visiting was just as fulfilling this time, both aesthetically and intellectually, and had the benefit of being even more caffeinated as we were greeted at the castle with coffee. Having now seen the castle at different times of year, I can easily understand why it's such a haunting and inspirational place.