Castles were built to protect and defend, and at the same time, to imprison and confine. This dichotomy of purpose – a fort and a prison – fascinates visitors to Chillon Castle, the most visited historical building in Switzerland.
Along Lake Geneva, ornate rooms used by nobles have Gothic windows that provide incredible views. But facing land, watchtowers, ramparts, turrets and a moat, serve a more practical purpose – defending against invasion.
Through the years, the structure has inspired writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Victor Hugo and artists such as Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet.
Lord Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” tells of the chilling incarceration of the Genevois monk François Bonivard from 1532 to 1536. The poem is a 392-line narrative written in 1816, and it immortalizes the castle, although not in a flattering light. Lord Byron was so moved by his visit that he carved his name on a pillar in the dungeon, which still can be seen.
Visitors have a choice of several tours, including a self-guided tour, a guided tour with a narrator wearing a period costume or an in-depth tour with wine tasting. Chasselas grapes are grown near the walls; award-winning wine is now made and stored in the castle.
Tours go to many areas of the castle, including four great halls that overlook the lake, three courtyards, the Bernese Chamber bedroom and the Duke of Savoy's Camera Domini room, complete with 14th-century medieval murals painted by Jean de Grandson. Saint George's chapel was built in the 13th century and recently restored in 1995. The chapel was a private place of worship for the Dukes of Savoy, and its 14th century paintings fortunately survived the Reformation.
Some of the most memorable parts of the castle lie beneath, in the underground rooms and dungeon. Archways reminiscent of 13th-century Gothic cathedrals produce an eerie feeling. It's easy to imagine Bonivard suffering while chained in the cold, damp prison room.
Chillon Castle's beautiful setting, combined with the fascinating history of the structure, ensures a memorable experience. The castle is only minutes from Montreux and two hours by car from Basel.