Stone Castle of Chillon Imprisons Dark Memories

<i> Brisick is a free-lance writer living in Westlake Village</i> .

Chillon! Thy prison is a holy place,

And thy sad floor an altar--for ‘twas trod,

Until his very steps have left a trace

Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,

By Bonivard! ...

--Lord Byron

The rocky islet of Chillon, which Lord Byron helped make famous in the above sonnet and in his longer poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” hugs the eastern end of Lake Leman (best known as Lake Geneva) a few kilometers from here.

Byron created an unforgettable portrait of Francois Bonivard, who languished for four years in the Chillon castle dungeon. Even if not exactly true to the facts, the poem is a heart-rending statement of a man’s devotion to his religious beliefs and a splendid introduction to one of Europe’s most exemplary castles.

Chillon, even without Byron’s testimony, imposes itself upon one’s consciousness. Three semicircular towers of the 13th Century dominate its exterior wall, while from the center of the fortress the castle keep rises above them. Edging in from the lake, the waters of the moat offer a tranquil contrast.

The interior opens the darker aspects of castle life--the dungeon, torture chamber, gibbet and arsenal, as well as its lighter side--the banquet and receptions halls, bed chambers and chapel.

These are aged spaces; they echo with stories of counts and dukes, of revelry and religiosity, of a spirit of long ago.

Chillon is a “restored” castle, to peg it correctly. The Bernese of Switzerland shored it up after a strong earthquake in 1584, but it was the archeologist Albert Naef, helped by detailed plans that showed the changes through the ages, who did the major work of restoration at the end of the 19th Century.

Chillon served many functions. At one time a fortress, a lookout, a princely residence, an administrative center, prison and arsenal, the building--perforce--always needed a bit of remodeling.

The Romans, judging from coins and other remains founded in excavations in 1896, probably used the rock as an outpost. Later generations recognized the strategic position of this little islet: Between the lake and the mountains it stood above the narrow road that led south into Italy. It was an ideal spot for defense and to collect taxes on goods that passed that way.

The castle keep, an old tower of refuge, probably was built in the 11th Century; on the land side--the most vulnerable point of attack, the formidable towers, comprising a second exterior “curtain” wall, were added two centuries later.

It was then that the House of Savoy held dominion over this part of Switzerland, and its counts made Chillon their ducal residence. The Bernese ended all that in 1536 when they captured the castle from their Catholic enemy and in the process freed its most famous prisoner.

Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls;

A thousand feet in depth below

Its mossy waters meet and flow;

Thus much the fathom-line was sent

From Chillon’s snow-white battlement,

Which round about the wave enthralls:

A double dungeon wall and wave

Have made--and like a living grave.

As the prior of St. Victor’s, Francois Bonivard had been imprisoned by Duke Charles III of Savoy because he favored the Reformation and wanted to introduce it in Geneva.

Byron, who visited Chillon in 1816, cast the situation in his poem, taking a bit of artistic license in the process. By then, Byron’s celebrity notwithstanding, the castle had seen its better days; it was fast becoming a neglected anachronism.

Years later the restoration changed all that, and today’s visitor, with only a soupcon of imagination, can easily move back a few centuries in time.

The old moat, having been cleared of detritus from the ages, still laps its water against grassy shore and stony wall. One crosses it via a covered bridge; it replaced the old drawbridge that must have succumbed to too many foot soldiers, too many closings and openings.

Stately courtyards flanked by several levels of ceremonial halls and living quarters fill the upper floors, while down below, on the less penetrable lake side (surely the dankest part of the castle) the dungeon spreads its gloom.

“There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,/ In Chillon’s dungeon’s deep and old,” wrote the poet. But the vaulted ceiling and the columns of unembellished stone speak of a harmony, a quiet aesthetic, that belongs as much to a church as to a dungeon.

From 1532 to 1536 Bonivard was here, chained to one of the pillars. The pillar still stands, close to the one where Byron, in the tradition of graffiti makers through the ages, carved his name. Now, 173 years later, the poet’s name merits a glass-enclosed case, and like most graffiti, appears indestructible.

Not far from the dungeon, castle restorers found the ruin of what was the original chapel, a tiny structure hiding such fragments as a delicate shrine and a Carolingian altar stone.

Up above, the rooms evoke the more princely side of medieval life: the Hall of the Chatelain (the high bailiff), with its handsome windows and pillars from the Savoy period; the Bernese chambers, with their decorative 16th-Century wall patterns of flowers and birds, and the Hall of Knights, once the grand reception hall for the Savoyards, and later the official room of the Bernese high bailiffs of Vevey, lords of the castle, who made Chillon their residence from 1536 to 1733.

The Bernese coats of arms are set in the walls; the Bernese added a large fireplace and mullioned windows that overlook the lake.

Several of the halls serve as museums, wherein are displayed artifacts from the Middle Ages and early modern Europe: a musket from 1600, stone sculptures found in the moat and four large models that show the rock as it was, the first construction in the 9th Century--after Chillon’s strategic site became apparent, and the subsequent alterations.

Among the oldest parts of the castle is the keep, a place where defenders of old could always, as a last resort, barricade themselves in its highest reaches. Builders over the centuries tried to make it all the more formidable, adding stories until it reached its present height of 86 feet.

During the restoration its walls had to be reinforced. When they were opened, restorers found 50 large franc pieces minted during the 13th Century. One wonders whether they were deliberately put there for future generations to discover, or whether they were tucked away in some final act of desperation.

It is a relatively easy climb up the gnarled wooden steps that lead to the top level of the keep, and from there one commands a panoramic view of the castle with its courtyards and machicolated towers, the lake, and, hovering above it all, the mountains. These are the same mountains that Bonivard, climbing up to a small window, looked at with such longing:

I saw them--and they were the same,

They were not changed like me in frame;

I saw their thousand years of snow

On high--their wide long lake below,

And the blue Rhone in fullest flow;

Bonivard’s story, preserved in Byron’s stirring lines, no doubt represents only one among the many that might be whispered from the walls and battlements, from the rooms and courtyards of Chillon. For Byron, for today’s visitor, the castle stands as a venerable and remarkably authentic testament to another age, another spirit.

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The Castle of Chillon is at the eastern end of Lake Leman about 90 kilometers from Geneva. A train from Geneva Airport can get you to Chillon in less than an hour; the drive by car along the northern edge of the lake, via Lausanne, takes about an hour and a half.

Montreux, about two kilometers away, along with Vevey a little to the west, are the main resorts at this end of the lake. The cities offer an exciting night life--casinos and discos as well as a full range of hotels in all price categories.

The Hyatt Continental and the Hotel Excelsior are among the deluxe hotels. Just three minutes away from the castle is the Bonivard, a 19th-Century hotel recently refurbished. Many of the hotels offer packages: three days and two nights, starting at $75 U.S. per person. Weeklong packages also are available.

The Montreux-Vevey area is the scene of several festivals: the Montreux International Jazz Festival in July and the Montreux-Vevey Classical Music Festival from late August until early October.

For more information on travel to Switzerland, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 250 Stockton St., San Francisco 94108, (415) 362-2260.