One thing Europe offers in spades that the United States does not are castles of all shapes and sizes, and no trip there would be complete without visiting one or two. The Château de Chillon on the shore of Lake Léman is an especially good example of the genre, offering romantic aesthetics, a famous dungeon, and plenty of history.
Please click on photos to see full-size versions.
You can arrive at Chillon via boat, as we did (with Devon, our friend Amie O’Shaughnessy’s son, along for some fun). This is a fun way to get some great views of it. The castle actually takes up the entire island upon which it is built. The lake forms a natural moat around the castle, giving it the impression of floating on the water.
Built in the 12th century, the castle was important for the same reason Switzerland has always been prosperous: Its centralized location, easily accessible from both northern and southern Europe. It is large and has a complex history, and for this reason I recommend paying for the audio guide, as there isn’t much text to explain what the rooms are without it. We shared two audio guides among five of us; in English, there is no special guide aimed just at children, although our kids had no trouble following along with the adult commentary.
The castle was both a fortress, with a large keep and battlements facing the shore (there are towers and arrow slits enough to satisfy any knight aficionado) and a royal residence, with graceful light-filled rooms facing the lake.
The tour begins in the basement room where stores and prisoners were both kept at various times in the castle’s history.
Chillon is famous because it has fascinated writers and painters for centuries, in particular Lord Byron. He visited there and wrote a poem about François Bonivard, a political prisoner who was imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy and chained to a stone column for six years. You can still see the place where Byron scratched his name into what he thought was the very column.
Also of interest in a far corner of the basement are some wooden beams that offer an unusual demonstration of the castle was constructed. The beams would be assembled as a kind of scaffold for the stone masons and then removed or left to rot once the stone walls and ceiling were built; this one was left in place and the cool, dark conditions have preserved it – the audio guide said it may be the only place in Europe where this is the case.
Before we left, we asked the boys to show us how they would feel if they were chained to a column for years at a time. Do you think they are sad enough?
I didn’t take many photos inside the rest of Chillon, because the rooms are mostly interesting when accompanied by the audio commentary in the guide, which is excellent. The tour explains the functions of the castle, including the keep and the original chapel, moving into the four great halls, a lavishly decorated bedroom that even in the 16th century had running water, and ultimately the duke’s chamber, which is decorated with a faded mural that at one time splendidly displayed animals ranging from camels to unicorns, the outlines of which are still visible.
Murals and great hall aside, one of the boys’ favorite locations was the latrine. That may be because we didn’t spend much time in the weapons room, as the kids were ready to hit the road by the time we reached it at the end of the tour.
The castle is beautifully maintained, and many of the rooms are full of antique furniture that will primarily interest kids for the explanations in the audio guide. And of course, the lake is all around, offering tantalizing views out the magnificent windows.
- You might want to bring a picnic with you, or if you choose to arrive via boat, eat something more substantial on your ride. We had a light lunch on boat thinking we’d grab something by the castle, but the snack bar there really only had drinks and ice cream. There is a picnic area close by.
- We were handed special maps for the kids when we arrived, but our children were much more interested in the audio guide; they didn’t really use the maps to explore the castle at all.
- The castle offers an app that you can download to your iPhone or iPad for slightly less than it costs to rent an audio guide. There are also audiovisual terminals and iTables set up at various points throughout the castle that show videos about the castle’s history and architecture. I didn’t have a chance to listen to any of them because there was always a line of kids waiting (including my own) so I think that they are engaging!
- If you want some exercise before or after your tour you can easily walk between the train station in nearby Montreux and the castle, following a lovely lakeside path. The walk will take you about an hour and offers fantastic views. We chose to arrive by boat and leave on foot, taking the train from Montreux to where we were staying; you could just as easily do the opposite.