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Monday, December 5, 2016

A Castle In Switzerland: Visiting Chateau de Chillon at Lake Geneva

Chateau de Chillon in Switzerland

This post just really did not want to write itself. I have been staring at the keyboard for a few days now, willing myself to come up with words to fill this oh-so empty word document, and so far everything I have come up with has happily wandered into the trash. I love reading about travel, but I struggle with travel writing because it so plainly draws attention to the areas I struggle with as a writer. I return home from every single trip with vivid memories and impressions that I don’t always know how to replicate in the written word and knowing what I want to say, but not having the means – or rather the ability – to do so makes me feel frustrated quickly.

I suppose I could easily avoid these frustrations if I resorted to publish more photography-based accounts of my travels, but something inside me – let’s just call it pride – balks at that thought. There may be times when a picture truly is worth more than a thousand words, but I believe that the written word can be infinitely more powerful if used effectively and I don't think I would do my travel experiences justice if I wouldn't at least try to put my memories on paper. I started my blog out of a love for writing and a strong desire to improve and while travel writing might always be an area in which I find myself struggling to some degree, I am trying to remember that words have been and always will be the root of this blog.

On our way to the French Alps back at the end of August, we stopped at Lake Geneva to visit Chateau de Chillon, a castle located just outside of the town of Montreux on the eastern shore of the lake. I had wanted to visit this castle ever since I had first seen it on another blog a few years ago and when I noticed that it was right by the highway that we were going to take to Chamonix, I suggested a stop to spend a few hours enjoying the Swiss summer sun.

Chateau de Chillon is easily one of the most beautiful and interesting castles I have ever seen. I am not exactly a novice when it comes to visiting castles – this year alone, I have toured a series of castles in North Wales that have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and seen Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria – but there is something about Chillon that makes me want to sing its praises especially loudly. In the almost nine hundred years that the castle has existed, Chillon has been a fortress and a prison, a noble residence and a place remembered in literature and history and a building that has seen and endured the rise and fall of many rulers. Today, it is one of the most popular sights in Switzerland and an absolute delight to visit - and should you ever find yourself in this area of the world, you do not want to miss this place.

Lake Geneva is one of the largest lakes in Europe and located on the border of Switzerland and France. While the northern shore is lined by mellow hills and elegant towns, the southern shore is dominated by the majestic peaks of the French Alps and it is this contrast of scenery that gives the region its unique appeal. Chateau de Chillon is built on a tiny little island just off the waterfront and hardly noticable from the street that wraps around the lake unless you rememer to look out for it. High above in the mountains that slowly begin to rise and grow taller, cars race towards France on a busy highway, but down at the lake the pace is slower and more relaxed as would be befitting for a monument as dignified as Chillon.

On the day of our visit, most of Central Europe was firmly stuck in the middle of a heatwave and so we were greeted by scorching temperatures and the intense light of the midday sun as soon as we got out of the car. We had managed to grab the last free spot in the small parking lot next to the castle and so it was only a short walk to the castle along the shore. The water of the lake was crystal clear and the reflection of the sunlight made it sparkle in a rather mesmerizing way and strolling along the lake almost felt like a visit to the Mediterranean.

Since nearly every picture I had seen of Chillon before had been taken in the fall or winter, I had been unprepared for the onslaught of color that we encountered in the summer: The sky, the water, even the mountains in the background, seemed to blend into each other so seamlessly that at times it was hard to tell where one begun and the other ended, the horizon getting temporarily getting lost in all the different shades of blue. Even though noon is just about the worst time of the day to take pictures – the sun washes out all colors and creates all sorts of unflattering harsh shadows – I couldn’t stop hitting the shutter because the scenery that unfolded in front of me was just too gorgeous not to.

Chateau de Chillon looks quite small from the outside, but there is a lot to explore and discover and one can easily get lost in all the grand rooms, crooked little walkways and tall towers that occupy the castle for hours. I have seldomly come across a castle that has fitted the bill of a quintessential medieval castle quite as well as Chillon and its extraordinarily good condition makes it a particularly fun place to escape into the past. The many wooden details and the iconic court of arms of Savoy that could be seen at various places, gave the castle exactly the sort of alpine appearance one would expect to find in Switzerland and in my mind the architecture of Chillon seemed to be the perfect mixture of a stately castle and a cozy mountain chalet.

While touring the castle, the one thing that intrigued me the most was the light. The sun was shining so brightly and uninhibited that it would bounce off the surface of the lake and find its way into the otherwise sombre and dark rooms of the castle where it illuminated the walls and the ceilings with its lively movements. It was a most fascinating dance that left me spellbound, if not to say dumbfounded, and even now I have trouble comprehending how something as simple as light reflecting off water could have as intense of an effect. I tried to capture it on camera, but to no avail, and thus was left to enjoy this moment in all its fleetingness.

Lord Byron traveled to Lake Geneva in 1816 and upon visiting this castle wrote his fabled poem The Prisoner of Chillon, which tells the story of François Bornivard, an ardent supporter of the Reformation who was imprisoned in the dungeons of the castle for many years in the 16th century. In Lord Byron’s work, Bornivard is chained to a large Gothic pillar, his comrades long dead, there is barely a sunbeam to light up the darkness of the dungeons and his existence is miserable and devoid of any hope, the castle being nothing to him, but a living grave. How different in contrast was our experience!

It’s easy to see and understand why Chateau de Chillon is one of Switzerland’s prime tourist attractions. Set in a stunning environment and surrounded by centuries of history, this castle is easily one of the most attractive I have ever visited and I would love to go back during the colder times of the year one day to be able to experience its darker sides as well.

Have you visited Chateau de Chillon before? What’s your favorite castle in Europe?


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