Justine Tyerman

International Travel

Fairy tale castle

Fairy tale castle

Justine Tyerman out-stays her welcome in a medieval Swiss castle.

I sat in a window seat at Chillon Castle’s great banquet hall, visualising the scene 600 years ago – dukes, duchesses and guests in their finery, tables laden with food and huge logs blazing in massive open fireplaces.

Feasts at the medieval castle on the shore of Switzerland’s sparkling Lake Geneva were legendary events held over several days. The quantity of food prepared was astonishing. According to an account written in 1420, for every day of the banquet, 10 or so cooks prepared 100 piglets, 60 fat pigs, 200 kid goats, 200 lambs, 2000 head of poultry and 6000 eggs. Added to this was game killed while hunting - deer, hares, partridges, pheasants, and other wild birds. For non-meat-eaters, there was a variety of fish including dolphins, salmon, trout and carp.

Chillon, built on a rocky outcrop surrounded by water, is the absolute epitome of a fairy-tale castle with a moat, drawbridge, turrets, ramparts with arrow slits, vaults, courtyards, spiral stone staircases, chambers and great halls.

I lost track of time as I explored the entire castle, starting in the basement which resembled a Gothic cathedral with its magnificent stone arches.

The earliest official mention of Chillon was in 1150 when the Counts of Savoy controlled the region. The Bernese took over the castle in 1536 when they conquered the Vaud region, and for the next 260 years, Chillon served as a fortress, arsenal and prison.

In 1803, the castle became the property of the Canton of Vaud. A major restoration campaign was launched at the end of the 19th century and is ongoing today.

Lord Byron, during his visit to the castle in 1816, was inspired to write The Prisoner of Chillon, a poem about François Bonivard, who was arrested in 1530 by the Savoyard Army and imprisoned in the basement. Byron inscribed his name in stone near where Bonivard was chained to a pillar for six years.

Upstairs, I delved into the private chambers of the nobles.

The Camera Domini was reserved for the Duke of Savoy. Remnants of murals on the walls showed animals and lush vegetation while lilies and crosses decorated the ceiling.

When the duke wanted a bath, a wooden tub was placed in his chamber lined with a sheet to protect his regal rear end from splinters. A huge fireplace kept the room warm in winter.

A spiral staircase, built around 1336, allowed the duke access to the ramparts above and his private chapel below. The 14th century paintings there were among few religious artworks to escape the Reformation.

Another bedroom used by the Bernese rulers had running water and a stone stove fed with wood from an antechamber.

The castle had a number of communal latrines which seemed to be a popular spot for selfies!

The keep, the inner stronghold of the castle, dates back to the 11th century. Near the centre of the fortress, it was symbol of power and the place of last refuge when defending the castle. The keep was also used as an observation post, residence, storehouse, prison and powder-house. For safety, the door of the keep was high up and could only be reached by a ladder or drawbridge.

To further disadvantage and slow down invaders, the keep was accessed by a right-turning, clockwise spiral staircase making it easier for right-handed defenders of the castle to wield their swords while descending and difficult for attackers approaching from below. Clever!

The castle’s impressive weapons’ collection of swords, crossbows, muskets and pikes was on display in the keep.

During restoration of the keep in the 20th century, stairs were added to provide access to the top of the tower where the 360-degree panorama on this pristine autumn day was breath-taking. The paddle steamer that had dropped me off at the castle jetty earlier in the day was churning across the satin lake against a backdrop of snow-capped alps.

I drifted back in time to an era when sentries were stationed in the tower to guard the castle. The view of the lake and the alps would have been as magnificent then as it is now.

Eventually, a staff member tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to leave. The castle was about to close for the day. As the sun began to set, I crossed the drawbridge and set off to walk along the lake-edge pathway back to Montreux. Little did I know what lay in store for me on the waterfront...

See also Justine’s earlier stories in her series about Switzerland: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Justine Tyerman was a guest of Switzerland Tourism and travelled courtesy of Swiss Travel Pass.