I’m worried. I’m on a boat surging along Lake Geneva in glorious sunshine and the ticket collector is getting nearer and nearer. I’m clutching the family train tickets, which I thought in good faith would get us on the boats, but now I’m not sure. Everyone around me seems to have a different ticket. I don’t know the penalty for using the wrong travel pass but I’m just a little concerned that I’m going to end up thrown into the dungeons of our final destination – the Chateau de Chillon.
But I needn’t have worried – the ticket collector merely flicks his eyes across the half-price Swiss passes and lets them go. He even smiles before passing on to the next passenger and leaving us to feast our eyes on the lush green vineyards that cling to the slopes above the lake. We may not understand how the system works – but it does work.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It surely has to be one of the finest medieval fortresses in Europe.
- The setting on Lake Geneva is fabulous – and approaching by boat is particularly dramatic.
- Wonderful for history buffs and those trying to recreate a Grand Tour of Europe.
The ferry from Lausanne dots in and out of the villages, stops at the picturesque harbour of Vevey, docks briefly at the opulent sprawl of Montreux. The gentle vineyards give way to steep slopes and trees as the scenery becomes more spectacular and more forbidding. And then at the end of the lake, we come to Chillon.
Here’s where I experience the slightest sense of disappointment. The Chateau de Chillon is described by guidebooks as dominating the approaches to central Switzerland. But the Swiss obsession with efficient transport has prised a huge dual carriageway out of the mountainside above it and it’s impossible to see the fortress as it used to be.
With a little thought, however, it’s possible to understand what gave Chillon its strategic significance and the very existence of that huge road helps to do just that. Because the fact is that there’s nowhere else to put the road: the only historic route possible along the northern shore was right past the Chateau itself.
The Prisoner of Chillon
We get off the boat and shuffle across the wooden bridge into the chateau. It’s a stunning Brothers-Grimm type of building from the outside and just as crazily cramped within, making it difficult for us to orientate ourselves — the site plans in the guide and the interpretive panels are invaluable. You can go into more than forty vaulted rooms, most of them small and dark, with walls many feet thick. The chateau dominated travel via lake and road across this part of Europe for centuries, making the families who held it very powerful indeed. Looking across the lake from the battlements, I’m not surprised.
But for all its historic significance and medieval glory, the chateau is most famous for having hosted a notorious captive. The Prisoner of Chillon isn’t just a (rather long and impenetrable) poem by Lord Byron; it’s a real person. François Bonnivard was imprisoned in this dungeon (‘damp vault’s dayless gloom’ as Byron put it) for six years in the 16th century simply, it would seem, for disagreeing with the local lords. Given the Swiss reputation for efficiency and following the rules, it’s no wonder I was nervous about travelling on the wrong ticket
Ignoring the suggested route, we make straight for Bonnivard’s prison, and very impressive it is too. It’s dark, it’s chilly and it’s thoroughly miserable: The idea of six years chained up in it is horrendous. By the time we’ve looked at Byron’s name carved into the stone (presumably graffiti was okay in the 19thc) I may be in awe but I can’t wait to get out of it.
Exploring the Chateau
The rest of the chateau is very folksy-medieval. I like it, although I confess that I can’t quite work out how much of it is original and how much is restored, which has to be a tribute to all those who’ve contributed to its on-going restoration. I’m particularly taken with the wooden walkways which lead us around the inside of the two courtyards.
I don’t know if we’re very popular among the other visitors, though, because we seem to be the only ones wandering about in our own sweet way and end up running against the traffic as everyone else slavishly visits each room in numbered order. But hey, it’s not an imprisonable offence – and given the fate of poor old Bonnivard, who may well have been the last Swiss to go against the flow, that’s probably just as well.
As we set off to walk back to Montreux the rain, which has been threatening for an hour, finally arrives. A brief and brutal thunderstorm lashes down upon us, sweeping in from France. And behind us the glowering Chateau de Chillon, dressed in hues of grey and dark, dark blue, continues to keep watch on the ancient route through central Europe.
- Arriving at Chillon by boat is special. There are plenty of ferries pottering about from port to port on Lake Geneva but not all call at the Chateau. Check with the local tourist information office wherever you’re based. We travelled from Lausanne, which takes about 1hr 45 minutes.
- Chillon is easily accessible on foot from Montreux. There’s a lakeside walkway which gets you there in about half an hour or so, depending on how fast you walk. Or there are regular buses (10 minutes).
- There are limited eating facilities with just a kiosk selling sandwiches, drinks and ice cream outside the castle walls.