If you’re travelling to Lake Geneva in Europe, don’t miss a trip to Chillon Castle, the Château de Chillon. Located just outside Montreux, this stunning medieval fortress has an idyllic setting, a shadowy past and a dungeon that has inspired scores of poets and painters. Today, Chillon Castle is Switzerland’s most visited historic site.
A trip to Chillon Castle in Switzerland
Woe betide those who get stuck behind a tour group of teenagers when trying to fight their way down the steps to a castle dungeon. That was my fate at Chillon Castle – the famous Château de Chillon immortalized by Lord Byron in the poem, The Prisoner of Chillon.
Outside, Lake Geneva was a silvery blue and flowers were blooming all along the promenade from Montreux to Veytaux, but I couldn’t wait to sink into the shadows, to visit one of the most written-about dungeons of all time.
The dungeon of Chillon
Ahead of me the teenagers were giggling, sniggering, taking selfies and generally doing what teenagers do. I tried to twist my way through, but they blocked the doorways as we shuffled through a storage room and into the prison, a cavernous room where François Bonivard, the original prisoner of Chillon, had been chained to a pillar and imprisoned for four (or six, depending on who you listen to) torturous years in 1530.
I only lived, I only drewThe accursed breath of dungeon-dewThe Prisoner of Chillon by Lord Byron, 1816
A popular tourist attraction
Scooting around the tour group I made my way to the far end of the room, wondering if anyone here even cared that this was the dungeon where Bonivard, a pastor from Geneva, was shackled to a three-foot chain. Unable to see out the windows, he was convinced his prison lay beneath lake level and could only imagine the sunshine outside.
His crime? Supporting the Reformation and speaking out against the corruption of the ‘Old Faith.’
Byron was here!
“Here you can see Byron’s signature.” The voice of the teenagers’ tour guide rose above the chatter. “He carved it into the pillar that he believed Bonivard was chained to.”
A burst of youthful laughter drowned her out and I couldn’t hear if Byron had gotten the correct pillar or not. (He hadn’t.) But did it matter? In a strange twist of celebrity, Byron’s signature and his romantic account of the prisoner of Chillon have eclipsed, or at least equalled, the suffering of Bonivard himself.
Exploring the cellar of Chillon Castle
The teenagers cleared out, leaving only a few couples and solo travellers, and I was free to explore the room. Stout pillars rose up from the stone floor like petrified trees, slabs of rough rock slashed down into the dungeon’s stone foundations and, on the wall nearest the entrance, a mysterious crucifixion scene from the 15th century had been drawn in charcoal.
No one knows who drew it. Did it give the prisoners solace as they lay here in chains?
Reluctant to leave, I wedged myself onto a rock ledge. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere, to understand why Chillon Castle has been such a powerful draw for so many writers including Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and painters such as Delacroix and Courbet.
Chillon Castle – an authentic attraction
The castle is charming to be sure. Rising up from a rocky outcrop on Lake Geneva, Chillon’s towers and turrets fuel our romantic notion of what a medieval castle should look like. In an age of replicas and theme parks, it has an unrivalled authenticity.
History of the Castle of Chillon
While the first written records of Chillon date back to 1150, and excavations show that the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, its current form was built by Pierre II of Savoy in the 13th century. Strategically situated on an important trade route from England and France to Rome, it was constructed as a fortress, and became the summer home for the ruling Savoy family.
There are three main eras in Chillon’s history:
- The Savoy Period from the 12th century to 1536
- The Bernese Period from 1536 to 1798
- The Vaudois Period from 1798 to today
The castle has never been destroyed but it has been conquered. When the Bernese invaded in 1536, Chillon Castle was conquered in just two days – an attack that resulted in Bonivard, the Prisoner of Chillon, finally gaining his freed.
The prisoner of Chillon
“The cellar is lower than the lake?” a tall young man said to his friends in surprise after skimming over one of the info boards that described Bonivard’s stay.
“It’s not. Bonivard was mistaken,” I piped up from my stone perch. The man looked startled and I realized that with my outfit of wall-matching grey and beige I’d been nearly invisible, a ghostly prisoner come to life. “His chain wasn’t long enough to let him see out the high windows so he only imagined he was below ground,” I explained.
The dark history of Chillon
The man didn’t seem to appreciate my helpful tips. Perhaps he wasn’t over his fright. He and his friends walked off with the briefest of nods, and for a blissful moment I was alone in the dungeon. The silence was heavy. It might have been my imagination but the presence of despair, hope and hopelessness seemed as thick as the three-foot walls.
Other prisoners of Chillon
Bonivard and his fellow inmates (many of whom didn’t survive) weren’t Chillon’s only prisoners. During a devastating plague in 1348, Jews from the nearby town of Villeneuve were imprisoned and tortured here, blamed for causing the Black Death by poisoning the wells and food.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries the hunt turned to witches, and in 1613, 27 convicted ‘witches’ were burned in one of the castle’s courtyards.
A romantic attraction
Unlike Chillon’s many prisoners, I had the freedom to shake off the chill of the dungeon and leave the cellar behind. Before I emerged into the sunlight, however, I wondered if it was the castle’s grim history that had inspired Lord Byron and so many others? Or was it Chillon’s medieval beauty, highlighted against the stunning backdrop of Lake Geneva and the Alps?
Some say it’s both, the grim and the glorious wrestling in some sort of irresistible tangle. Whatever the reason, the Castle of Chillon continues to cast its spell over travellers and artists alike.
Travel guide for the Castle of Chillon
Highlights of Chillon Castle
While I was slightly obsessed with the dungeon, there is so much more to see at Chillon Castle. Highlights include the three courtyards and four impressive Great Halls once used for banquets by the Savoys. One room not to miss is the Camera Domini, which was for the private use of the Duke of Savoy; don’t miss its faded 14th-century murals.
There is a Weapon’s Room and the castle defences to explore with their sentry walk and double ramparts. The Peter II Room contains an exhibit about the history of the Savoys, and the gift shop is 100 years old.
Get a free brochure and room-to-room guide at the entrance desk.
Best ways to get to Chillon Castle
To get to the Château de Chillon I took the train to Montreux from Lausanne (about 20 minutes), then walked down to the waterfront and along the 4-kilometre promenade to the castle. To get back to Montreux from Chillon Castle you can take the bus. To catch the bus, cross the walkway over the highway from the castle and you’ll see the stop.
To get from Montreux to Chillon Castle by bus you can take VMC bus no. 201 from the train station to the Veytaux stop.
To get to Chillon Castle from Geneva, take the train to Montreux and follow the above suggestions.
Get to Chillon Castle by boat
Why not a historic paddle steamer? This is how Mark Twain did it, and it must be the most romantic way to visit the Castle of Chillon. During high season there are departures from Lausanne, Vevey, Montreux and Villeneuve. Boat stop: Chillon. To catch the boat back, the dock is just beside the castle. Check out the CGN website for details.
Chillon Castle price: Adult CHF 12.50, Child CHF 6.
Chillon Castle hours: During April to September, the castle is open from 9:00 a.m. to 7 p.m., with last entry at 6 p.m. From Nov to Feb hours for Chillon are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. At any other time of year hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
How to tour Chillon Castle: You can wander around on your own, using the free brochure/guide or rent an audio guide for CHF 6. If you want to download the audioguide beforehand on your own device it’s only CHF 3.
Where to stay around Lake Geneva
If you’re visiting Chillon, Montreux makes an excellent base. Other good options include Vevey and Lausanne, while Geneva and Evian-les-Bains are slightly farther away. Search for hotels here:
Resources for travel in Switzerland
For more info on visiting the Castle of Chillon visit the castle website. For travel in Switzerland visit the Switzerland Tourism website. And thanks to the Swiss Travel System for providing me with a rail pass so I could tour around.
What else to see around Lake Geneva: Just next to Montreux is the lovely town of Vevey. Read my blog post on the fascinating new Chaplin Museum: Chaplin’s World. Or explore the French spa town Evian-les-Bains.
Love Europe? Read my Where to Go in Europe blog post.