The temperature had dropped, the tops of the mountains were wreathed in cloud and it had clearly snowed overnight on the higher slopes. Weather was on the way. A dark mass of cloud had gathered at the far end of Lake Geneva, gradually coming closer. But you can’t change the weather – just adapt to suit. Part of touring in Europe involves visiting castles and I’m sure everyone gets to the point where it’s ‘seen one, seen ’em all’. So I’ll admit to some eye-rolling at the prospect of visiting a castle today. However, getting there involved a short journey by boat on the lake, which should be fun. Besides, it was going to rain, so we might as well be indoors.
We caught a local ferry – a paddle steamer – for the short ride to Chillon – the castle on the rock. It sits on a rocky island just off the lake’s shore, a genuine, no nonsense castle, with no flowery turrets and unnecessary frills. A working castle.
The young woman who escorted our group knew her stuff, and loved it. She explained to us straight away that the intention of the tour was to give us a glimpse of Medieval life, how this castle actually worked. Chillon was owned at the time by the Duke of Savoy, a major power in the area. This was just one of his many castles and he came here for only a few weeks a year in the summer. For the rest of the time an official lived here with a garrison and they collected tolls from travellers.
We started in the main hall, where our guide explained the duke would host feasts which would extend over days, eating, drinking and sleeping. The whole idea of his visit to the castle was to display his wealth and power to the locals, so everything was intended to impress. The class system was rigidly adhered to. Nobles and peasants didn’t mix. While peasants ate vegetables and animals like rabbits – lower to the earth, you see – nobles would eat the higher animals like beef, or lamb, or birds like swans. Animals were roasted whole on spits.
From the dining hall we went up to a bedroom. The castle’s living apartments are on the lake side of the castle, less open to attack. Our guide stressed the point that privacy was a non-existent notion in those times. Sleeping many to a bed was the norm. I was fascinated to learn that people slept sitting up, which is why the beds were so short. The reason? When you’re lying down asleep you look like you’re dead, and death was always there, just on the other side of the veil. No need to encourage it.
I guess everyone is aware that sanitation wasn’t a huge consideration back in the olden days. But I think these things can be over-dramatised. Most castles had rudimentary toilet facilities of the sort you’ll still see in outback Australia; a recess in the outer wall, which was fitted with a plank with a hole sited above a long drop. In this case, the drop went into the lake. This fun site tells a little more about garde robes, with pictures.
The duke bathed, too. And like everything else, bathing was a social occasion. It was a great honour to be invited to watch the duke bathe – not many people could afford such luxury. There would probably be musicians in attendance to provide entertainment.
And from here we wended our way down the steep spiral staircases to the dungeon. Most of the space would have been used for storing wine and goods, but it was also a prison. We were told up to three hundred people – men and women – would have been crowded into this space. There is no sanitation and no light. Although the guards would sometimes wash the effluent into the lake via a narrow slit at the base of a wall.
Which brings us to Lord Byron’s poem, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon‘. (It’s okay – I’d never heard of it either.) The inspiration for the poem came from the ordeals of François Bonivard, son of a noble family who sided with Geneva against the Duke of Savoy. The story goes that he was imprisoned in Chillon’s dungeon, chained to a stone pillar, for six years until he was freed by Bernese troops who took over the castle.
Or so the story goes.
Our guide assured us we could believe the tale if we wished. But she pointed out that Bonivard was a nobleman, and reminded us of the rigid social class distinction. She had no doubt that Bonivard was imprisoned – but possibly in one of the more comfortable rooms upstairs. When I read his life story it occurred to me he hadn’t suffered at all from his incarceration. There’s also a suggestion that Byron’s name scratched into the stone in the dungeon was placed there by some other hand. That would never happen, would it? /sarcasm
I really enjoyed this fascinating glimpse into lives long past and so different from our own. Five stars to our lovely guide.
Oh, and if you were wondering, yes, it’s the same family who owns the Savoy chain of hotels.