By Rick Steves
This medieval castle, set wistfully at the edge of Lake Geneva, is a joy. Remarkably well-preserved, it has never been damaged or destroyed — always inhabited, always maintained. The Savoy family (their seal is the skinny red cross on the towers) enlarged it to its current state in the 13th century, when this was a prime location — at a crossroads of a major trade route from England and France to Rome.
Château de Chillon (pron. shee-yon) was the Savoys' fortress and residence, with four big halls (a major status symbol) and impractically large lakeview windows (their powerful navy could defend against possible attack from the water). When the Bernese invaded in 1536, the castle was conquered in just two days, and the new governor made Château de Chillon his residence (and a Counter-Reformation prison). Inspired by the Revolution in Paris, the French-speaking people on Lake Geneva finally kicked out their German-speaking Bernese oppressors in 1798. The castle became — and remains — the property of the Canton of Vaud. It has been used as an armory, a warehouse, a prison, a hospital, and a tourist attraction. Rousseau's writings first drew attention to the castle, inspiring visits by Romantics such as Lord Byron and Victor Hugo, plus other notables including Dickens, Goethe, and Hemingway.
Follow the free English brochure from one fascinating room to the next. Enjoy the castle's tingly views, dank prison, battle-scarred weapons, simple Swiss-style mobile furniture, and 700-year-old toilets. Bonivard's Prison is named for a renegade Savoy who was tortured here for five years.
When the Romantic poet Lord Byron came to visit, Bonivard's story inspired him to write The Prisoner of Chillon, which vividly recounts a prisoner's dark and solitary life ("And mine has been the fate of those / To whom the goodly earth and air / Are bann'd, and barr'd — forbidden fare," full text available in the gift shop). You can still see where Byron scratched his name in a column (third from entrance, covered by glass). The chapel uses projectors to simulate the original frescoes. Models explain the construction of the castle.While the lakeside windows have grand views, the land side has small slits facing the road — more practical for defense. The 130-step climb to the top of the keep isn't worth the time or sweat. Stroll the patrol ramparts, then curl up on a windowsill to enjoy the lake.