Chillon – the castle of the Savoyards, Bernese and Vaudois

This picturesque castle, the Chateau de Chillon, is at the eastern end of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) and was built to control the road around the lake as well as that part of the lake itself. From the castle you can see Montreux, the Alps and, on the other side of the lake, France. A visit to this castle could take most of the day but if you press on you can squeeze it into half a day. The audio guides are good. You can get there by coach, car or train and admission in reasonable – a ticket for a family of six for example costs CHF 25.

The castle is on a natural island just a few metres from the shore so that a natural moat adds to its high walls to make it almost impregnable. The steep slopes of the mountains behind would in former times have made it impossible to pass without going directly underneath the battlements of the castle (although today a hair-raising concrete motorway is perched high above and around the North of the lake).

For hundreds of years Chillon served as a centre of power, a base for control of trade and a symbol of the ruling elite. It was also important as a secure prison and its dungeon has earned it notoriety and contributed to its tourist status. In 1530 a prisoner called Francois de Bonivard was kept there chained to a pillar and kept in the dungeon for 6 years. Almost 300 years later when Lord Byron visited Chillon in 1816 he was inspired by Bonivard’s experience to write the “Prisoner of Chillon”. Bonivard’s imprisonment also inspired many painters including De La Croix.

A great building phase of the castle was under the Duke Pierre, one of the counts of Savoy (1203 –1268), who developed the nearby Villeneuve into a major trading centre, and added three big towers and central keep.

The great turning point in the history of the castle came in 1536 when the long rule of the Savoyards came to and end and the army of Berne captured the castle. Apart from freeing Bonivard they also provoked the then leader of the Savoyards, Antoine do Beaufort, to escape by boat from the Chillon across the lake. It remained the headquarters for the Bernese bailiffs controlling this region until 1798 when the leaders of Vaud princes gained control.

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