Undoubtedly the prettiest Swiss castle, Chillon Castle (French: Château de Chillon, pronounced Shee-yon) sits on a rocky islet along the shores of Lake Geneva, near the border of Switzerland and France.
The castle looks like a fairytale fantasy, but it’s an authentic Medieval site – and has foundations from back in Roman times.
Over the years, it’s passed between the hands of three noble families, who have shaped the castle into what you see today.
Around 330,000 tourists visit Chillon every year, 70% of them from countries other than Switzerland, and the castle is the foremost tourist attraction in the Lake Geneva region.
One note: confusingly, Lake Geneva is rendered Lac Léman in French, which has baffled many tourists over the years.
The present day magic of Chillon Castle
Chillon Castle is an oval shaped castle that’s located on a small, rocky outcrop, poking into Lake Geneva. This little, rocky island is a perfect, defensive little promontory, that’s almost been designed to be a defensive spot. For this reason, fortifications have been found here since Roman times.
The little rocky island is pretty much surrounded by water – evidently, the lake forms a natural moat. As a result, access to the castle is via a modern bridge, which crosses the shallows of the lake. This modern bridge is the remains of the old drawbridge, and some of its workings can be seen to today.
Inside the castle, you’ll discover that the buildings and out-houses of the castle are orientated around four small courtyards. The largest of the courtyards is ‘The Courtyard of Honour”, a site of ceremonial importance and the ‘grandest’ of all these communal-areas.
One important thing to bear in mind is that Chillon Castle wasn’t constructed ‘in one go’ – it was originally just a collection of 25 little buildings crammed onto the rocky island.
Over time, these buildings merged and joined to form the impressive structure that’s visible today. When you explore the castle, you’ll see that each of the old rooms and outhouses have been connected to each other through a fairly ingenious network of internal and external passageways.
The layout of the castle is particularly interesting as it effectively has two faces. The side which faces the mainland is primed for defence – it’s peppered with arrow-holes, battlements and fortifications, in preparation for any approaching enemy.
By contrast, the lake-side of the castle is dressed as a genteel palace – naturally protected from the enemy, the sweeping and graceful facade doesn’t have any defensive walls or fortified features.
The infamous dungeons of Chillon Castle
As a result of the writings of Lord Byron (see below), the awe-inspiring dungeons of Chillon Castle have earned themselves a place in castle-notoriety. Impressively, they are cut into the rock upon which the castle stands, and they offer a – damp and dark – taste of imprisoned life.
As well as holding prisoners such as François Bonivard (who was lashed to the 5th column from the entrance-way: see below for more on his life), the dungeons were used as an armoury during early modern times.
The high vaulted ceilings towards the entrance of the dungeons also demonstrate the gothic grandeur of the castle, and are, nowadays, atmospherically lit to demonstrate the brooding magnificence of these cool old chambers.
Part of the dungeon is actually at water level, rather than below it. This means that there’s an access-door which leads from the dungeons onto the banks of Lake Geneva. This little emergency exit came in useful in 1536 – when the Bernese captured the castle, the Savoys fled through this dungeon-door to safety!
A History of Chillon Castle: A Tale of Three Owners
Although we know that Chillon’s little islet was fortified since Roman times, we don’t quite know when the first ‘castle’ foundations were laid.
The first record of there being some kind of recognisable residence comes from about 1150, so we know that elements of the castle are around 850 years old. Over those years, the castle has been shaped by three noble owners – firstly the Savoys, then the Bernese, and finally the Canton of Vaud.
Economically and politically, Chillon Castle has a brilliant strategic location. It’s alongside the old Via Italia – the principal access route for trade into Italy.
From its brilliant position, it could charge tolls and control the import (or export) of goods into Europe. All in all, Chillon was blessed with a perfect little site.
The castle was owned by the Savoy family from about 1150, and the first structures were built by Thomas I of Savoy.
In around 1235, Peter II of Savoy commissioned many of the castle’s most notable elements, including the three spiky towers along the lakeside facade. Indeed, Peter of Savoy was responsible for much of the Medieval castle we see today.
Although the castle was a seat of power for the Savoy family, they didn’t live here full time. Instead, they constantly travelled across their lands and between their castles, to maintain their grip on power.
As a result, the castle was cared for primarily by the Castellan, basically a caretaker or a bailiff. His chambers are entirely visible today.
From the c14th, the Savoy family chose to move the bulk of their administration to Chamberly. Resultantly, the castle fell into disrepair and was primarily used as a prison.
However, the Savoy’s grasp on power was beginning to loosen, and they began to make rash decisions, and started to unfairly imprison political rivals. Resultantly, in 1536, the Bernese stormed the castle as part of a larger uprising, and freed their prisoners from the castle dungeons.
Unfortunately, despite passing hands to the Bernese, the castle continued its lengthy decline. Until the 1850s, Chillon was primarily used as a prison and an armoury, despite being captured from the Bernese during the Vaud revolution in about 1798.
However, in 1887, thanks to the publicity of some eminent poets and intellectuals (see below!), an association was set up to care for and to restore the castle to its former glory.
Incidentally, the castle remains in the hands of the Canton of Vaud to this day.
How Chillon Earned Its First Tourists: By Becoming An Inspiration to Romantic Poets, Writers, and Intellectuals
In the 1800s, Chillon became an inspiration to prominent Romantic intellectuals.
Because of the castle’s spot on the banks of the sublime Lake Geneva, and due to its faded glory, it became an attractive choice for this new generation of thinkers, concerned with the power of nature, the significance of the past, and the follies of industrialisation.
Jean-Jaques Rousseau set part of one of this novels, La Nouvelle Heloise in the castle, and Chillon also served as inspiration to Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo.
Of all the Romantic intellectuals inspired by Chillon Castle, the most notable was Lord Byron, one of the foremost English Romantic poets. His piece “The Prisoner of Chillon Castle” tells the plight of François Bonivard, a political agitator trapped inside the castle’s mighty dungeons.
The narrative poem was based on true events – François Bonivard was indeed imprisoned in the dungeons of Chillon, in around 1530, for about four years.
His crime? He had fiercely resisted the ‘unpatriotic’ acts of the Savoy family. He was the sort of individual that Lord Byron loved to write about – a lone man, standing up to the injustice of society, who used his imagination of the natural world to comfort himself in his solitude.
Lord Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon Castle – an Extract
This extract from the poem describes the miserable dungeons of Chillon from the perspective of a prisoner.
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 imprison’d ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
Creeping o’er the floor so damp,
Like a marsh’s meteor lamp:
And in each pillar there is a ring,
And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away,
Till I have done with this new day,
Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun so rise
For years— I cannot count them o’er,
I lost their long and heavy score
When my last brother droop’d and died,
And I lay living by his side.
Lord Byron, writing in 1816.
Not content with just making a mark on Chillon Castle through literature, Lord Bryon scratched his name into the walls of the castle! His act of graffiti is still visible today – but it’s protected behind perspex, and is a major tourist attraction in itself.
All-in-all, the attentions of these prominent intellectuals transformed Chillon Castle in the eyes of the European aristocracy. Lord Byron effectively acted as the greatest salesman of all, and European gentry began to flock to the region, to take in the unspoiled scenery and the dramatic castle setting. These were the foundations of the tourist boom that Chillon still enjoys to this day.
The Interior of the Castle: from Elegant State Rooms To Medieval Toilet Humour
Chillon Castle is made up of more than 40 rooms, ranging from little alcoves which were Medieval toilets, to grand state rooms such as the Castellan’s Dining Hall – decked in dark-wood, with beautiful painted family crests adorning the walls.
Because the Savoy family travelled frequently between their castles (in order to keep an eye on their lands and their property) there’s not very much furniture inside the castle, although the decor of the rooms is lavish and extensive.
Don’t miss the impressively decorated window-seats. These were originally designed to be roomy seating-places for ladies to sew in the light. Nowadays, they’re a relaxing place to sit and admire the amazing view across Lake Geneva.
Back in Medieval times, Chillon Castle had a luxury that few other castles could boast of – access to a running supply of fresh water from the adjacent lake. Although it sounds trivial today, you can’t underestimate the significance – most Medieval castles would have been fetid pits of disease and stench.
From the 1500s onwards, the elegant bedroom of the Chambre Bernoise was equipped with a supply of running water, channelled from the lake.
However, it wouldn’t have just been the gentry of the castle who benefited from the the luxuries of fresh water. The lake-facing side of the castle is studded with Medieval guarderobes (toilets!), which opened out onto the water below.
Chillon Castle has a huge amount of toilets compared to other Medieval castles – but the stench of the place would probably have still been terrible.
However, what’s really interesting is the insight they give into Medieval-toilet habits. Some toilets were designed for two (!) – evidently, privacy wasn’t too important! Additionally, a couple of the old bathrooms are still decorated with crude, Medieval, toilet-humour graffiti – which, despite being more than 700 years old, still raises a titter among modern visitors.
If you’re interested in more smelly realities of living in a fortress, don’t miss my page on Medieval castle life.