Not far from the Montreux train station in the center of town. We are looking for a side-street down to the water.
Not much planning had gone on during the week, but the possibility of a trip was certainly simmering. Up to this point we hadn't escaped too far from Geneva, always keeping it (at least potentially) in sight. It is nice to at least have one day of total relaxation left over at the end of the week, so I proposed we focus on a simple day trip. The train was the obvious medium and there was no need to go far, everything here is new to me. So, I suggested we take a quick ride down the lake to Lausanne. (I think this partially motivated by a discussion with James the day before.) Lausanne is quite a large city, though not quite as big as Geneva. Reza thought it was a fine idea and he would certainly come along.
Actually, it was a toss up between Lausanne and Montreux. I knew little more than their locations. As the group began to disperse from our usual week-ending phone meeting with our coworkers back at the University of Michigan, I requested suggestions from the group. I mentioned Lausanne and Helmult quickly lept in with his oft heard “big cities are all the same” sentiment; which I must admit has a little sway with me. Montreux was proposed as an alternative and immediately Steve mentioned the castle. It was in way as if that is of course why I would visit. Well, as I said, I knew almost nothing about either town, so the castle was new to me. But, a castle, sweet! It had good reviews from all who had visited and Helmut spoke of a walk along the lake which sounded very nice. (Steve thought it might be a bit far, but that certainly didn't scare me, being a fan of good old fashioned foot travel.) I was sold. The plan was now Montreux, an hour away by train, on the opposite end of Lake Geneva.
A view back toward Montreux from near the castle. On the left you can see more distant lakeshore towns including Vevey.
There was researching online to be done, and after some cursory searches Montreux looked exteremly promising. At least it looked incredibly beautiful in summertime. Steve had mentioned a boat which would take you directly to the castle (again, to avoid the long walk), so we considered that a strong option. A boat trip would almost certainly offer better views, if there were any to be had, than a trip on the train. Also, as we set off on our research we gained a new traveller; Helmut would tag along. Almong other things, he spoke of aquiring a paper model kit of the castle as a gift. Very interesting! As I always say, paper or not, the best castles are the ones you build yourself. A plan was formulated and things would end up working out nicer than we could have hoped. No biking or bussing would be necessary, we would get picked up at the hostel and dropped off at the train station by a coworker. (Embarassingly, I have forgotten who. Was it Curtis?) It would be a day trip, primarly to take the lakeshore walk and see the castle. And if possible we would go one-way by boat.
The lakeshore walk heading towad the castle. This is the hill that pinches off the way around the lake and rises above the castle. The trainline and a road skirt the hill running right past the castle, but the superhighway instead burrows underneath.
Arriving at the train station Reza and I first signed up for half price cards. Pleasantly, the card is exactly what it says, you recieve half off all train trips (except maybe a few very special ones) in Switzerland. The cost is 150 SF for a year, and considering the length of my stay it was clearly a good deal. In fact, I later found out it entitles us to discounts on the Geneva busses, which is a very nice thing. I think the only requirement is that you can't be a Swiss citizen to buy one.
At the same time I enquired about taking the boat for one half of the round-trip. This induced a flurry of intense consultation of computers, thick timetables, and fellow ticket agents. The verdict: in the winter it is only possibly on Sundays, and probably not the whole way. It was a Saturday; we all bought round-trip train tickets to Montreux.
The train trip is beautiful, even in this transition season when the snow is gone but spring is still a long way off. There are views of the lake and the mountains beyond. The vast majority of the land is devoted to vinyards, especially as you appraoch Montreux. At this point in the year the vines are nothing more than heavy stumps jutting and curling out of the ground. But, they do go on, row upon row, forever. And not the tinniest bit of land is wasted. Squeezed between the tracks and a high retaining wall, we passed thin patches of land made up of only three rows of those narly stumps. Then, as the train zoomed along the three rows become two, and then the two became one and that single row almost followed us through a tunnel.
One of the many elaborate buildings and gardens along the lakeshore. Notice the vine is already sprouting leaves.
There were many other beautiful scenes as the train glidded along toward Montreux. The lake keeps it's distance until past Lausanne, which is about 45 mintues out. Large homes perch on the prominent bits of hill off to the left. There were glimpses of Lausanne as we passed through. It has a very similar look to that of Geneva. I would definitely like to visit sometime, if at least to compare. Somewhere past Lausanne the track moves closer to the lake. The shore suggests a relatively fast drop off, and large, smooth rocks poke out into the water at regular intervals. (The shoreline's topography is a good foreshadowing of the castle's positioning.) A surprising number of the rocks hosted a fisherman or two. On the spot, I developed a fond notion of myself spending a Saturday afternoon lingering on a rock along the shore of Lac Leman with nothing to do but cast my lure, yell at the birds, and dream of tasty fishes. Oh, and Ikea wizzed by, a bit surprising considering the rural surroundings. Those design-with-two-planks-and-a-screw much-assembly-required mega-corporate Swedes seem to be hidding all their meatballs out in the middle of nowhere.
Along the lakeshore walk looking back toward Montreux. The center of Montreux is just around the distant point of land near the tall building.
Finally, we arrive at Montreux. The trip takes exactly one hour and one minute (OK, I didn't time it, but that's what the schedule says). Climbing out onto the street we don't spend much effort wandering, instead we made like water and splashed down the hill toward the lake. The weather was exteremly nice compared to the February days I've been experiencing in recent years. It straddled the line between very pleasant and nippy, a gust of wind making all the difference. Pleasantly, those gusts were few. (Haha! I laugh in the general direction of you Michigan based suckers... er, I mean... friends of mine.)
A few people were about, but things were certainly not hopping. In July, when the famous Jazz festival rolls into town, I can imagine things get very crowded. There was a goodly collection of birds on the lake, but mostly of the outstaying-their-welcome variety such as seagulls. Obviously some people enjoy them, including the Montreux web site creator (By the way, beware the "QT Slideshow", some of the pictures are nice but the I can't stand the music, but maybe I was just in a bad mood the day I tried it). A man was standing on a circular dock feed a swarm of the birds, something I was a little disgusted by for a variety of reasons. That demeaning, bread induced dance the birds go through just reaffirms their status as flying rats. (Maybe another bad mood?)
The lakeshore walk as seen looking back from the castle. Montreux proper is around the point off the frame to the left.
Turning left at the water, the way to the castle is easy. A wide, paved route follows the lakeshore the entire way. Not a bit of wayfinding was necessary since Helmut had walked the same route to the castle many years ago. Along the way you pass a huge variety of plants. Some are quite tropical. And many, though not yet fully recovered from the winter, look quite ready for spring. Many of the plants are labeled, forming a long botanical garden of sorts. There were a few boats in the water, but the boating season had clearly not begun yet. We passed hotels, apartment complexes, and elaborate houses. At a couple places someone was at work in a garden which invariably is a worthy match to the public plantings. Interestingly, the garages of some of the smaller homes feed into the lakeshore walk. Apparantly, at least in parts, it is not just for pedestrians.
Early on, close to downtown, we passed a few restaurants which look quite nice, and also a bit pricey, even compared to Geneva. Further along we passed a few snack stands, but all were closed except one. I had brought enough food for lunch and a snack not knowing when and where hunger may strike, but Helmut had planned to aquire food on the go. So, we stopped at the stand and had our lunch. Helmut got the item of the day, something which turned out to be a grilled cheese sandwitch, and I couldn't help but purchase some paprika flavored chips. I love the paprika chips! (I also hear the sandwitch was quite good.)
A look at the moat and one of the front towers (13th - 15th century) from the entry bridge (18th century). The moat is natural: the castle covers a small island of rock very close to shore.
If you head down to the water straight from the Montreux train station the castle is not immediately visible. It is not long, though, until it comes into view, and since we had rounded the first point of land the view had become steadily better. In fact the view would improve over the course of the day even if you sat in one place simply because the castle sits in the shadow of the hills rising quickly to the east. It is only properly lit toward late afternoon and evening.
The first courtyard and arched entryway as seen from high above in the sentry's gallery.
The castle wasn't quite what I had imagined. I think I was imagining something a little more vertical and a little more coherent in form. The face toward the water is broad and blocky with steep roofs. The landward side features rounded towers puntuating the outerwall. In the center a square tower rises higher than everything else. It is a mess of facets, both roof and wall, that cause the eye a bit of confusing at first glance. It is a mess, though, only in the numerous and varied sense, it didn't take me long to really like the “design”. Complexity has always had great sway in my aesthetic, and complexity is what you get when you spend a few centuries building and rebuilding within the constraints of the terrain.
The first couryard from the reverse direction of the other photograph. Under the covering bottom center is the strairs leading to the crypt, vaults, and prison. Through the archway to the right are further courtyards.
The walk from Montreux to the castle passes quickly, especially with a gentle day and the company of friends. Looking back from the castle the distance looked so much farther than it felt. There is a local train station and a ferry dock very close to the castle which might cut down on travel time, but the walk was as good as any part of the trip. I would not choose to skip it for any reason, except maybe the additional views a boat trip should provide.
This is the "Underground Vaults" which to the rear lead on to the prison and the pillar where Bonivard was famously chained..
By the way, what I have up until now refered to only as "the castle" is called Château de Chillon (at least in French, this is still the French part of Switzerland). I mention this only now because the reality of the situation is that it took me a long while for the name to actually start settling in to my memory. I have a bad habit of not paying attention to names. Chillon dates from the 9th century, with the present form mostly complete by the 15th century. It is built on an island of rock just a few meters off shore. Thus, yes, it does have a moat, one that is entirely natural. It is positioned at a point where the way between the lake and the hills has narrowed to it's greatest extent. All the better for the lords of the castle to enforce a toll on travellers around the lake.
The view out of the "postern for escape by the lake in case of emergency" from the prison and gallows room adjacent to Bonivard's Prison.
Entrance to the castle costs 10 SF. Pamphlets in a variety of languages describe an efficient tour. Of course you can wander as you see fit, but I soon learned that it was a whole lot easier to make use of the pamphlet descriptions if you stuck to the prescribed route. Mostly I found the descriptions very interesting. They may have been a bit heavy on the dates: this wall dates from the 11th century, that stair dates from the 15th century, etc. It took me a while to begin to apprecieate these temporal minutia. At first the detailed seemed to be too much for me to absorb; but, after a while I began to imagine the construction piece by piece, the castle rendered in time as well as space. I assume that is the point. In any case, it grew on me.
The tour first takes you down to the lowest parts of the castle. There is a series of large, rough rooms with splaying pillars running down the center. The first couple are “vaults”, the further rooms were used as a prison. Light dribbles in through a few windows facing the lake and mountains. It's not a bad view for a prison. The opposite wall exposes bits of the bedrock on which the castle is built. Walls drop down to a jumble of rock which, slanting down toward the water, disappears into the floor.
One of the two ways in or out of the crypt, a dark and creepy place just as I expect of a crypt.
The final room in the sequence is the longest one. Old graffitti covers many of the pillars and some of the walls. One in particular name has been picked out and protected with a small frame, that of the poet Byron. Byron visited and wrote a few well known poems about the castle and a famous prisoner. Quoting the pamphlet, “It was here that Bonivard, Prior of St. Victor's, Geneva, remained chained for four years to the fifth pillar from the entrance because he was in favour of the independence of Geneva.”
Retracing your steps you can circle through the crypt and come out on the other side of the first courtyard. Other than being the darkest and creepiest part of the castle there didn't seem to be a whole lot to see in the crypt. The pamphlet says that we should notice the remains of a Carolingian altar in an underground chapel but I'm not sure if I did.
In the Aula Nova or old festive hall items from weapons to kitchen wears were on display.
Next we moved into the second courtyard with a small planting of pansies and then into the Constable's Grand Hall. These rooms are spare, some decorated with original tapestries and stained glass windows. The fireplaces are big impressive affairs which I wouldn't have minded seeing lit, mostly to fight off the otherwise preservative tempatures. Speaking of preservation, two things. First, I was amazed that they could have tapestries from way back in the 13th century so well preserved and just hanging right there. Second, I was surprised to read that one room, the “Chapel of the Counts and Dukes of Savoy”, has a heated floor to preserve wall paintings. I would simple mindedly assume that you would want to keep things as cold as possible for preservation (but now that I think about it, maybe a consistent temperature is more important).
Speaking of the chapel, it is one of the more impressive rooms and yet the small room contains very little. To demontrate what things would have looked like originally they have mounted an array of projectors around the entire room. A few projectors also “paint” the ceiling. I found the effect very impressive. The pamphlet says, “The decorations and ornaments, probably of the early 14th century, cover a wide iconographic range, with strong Italian influence, and of a quality and value that remain unequalled north of the Alps!”
Some elaborately painted walls in, if I recall correctly, the "Duke's Chamber", the master bedroom.
Oh, and then there were the latrines. Here the “plumbing” is a massive drop, maybe 20 meters or more, onto rocks which are probably washed by the lake during stormy times. In addition to the dizzying view you can get from peering down into the seats (just a raised wooden platform with holes in it). Visitors have been provided a clear viewport through the floor of the room. It was a fun moment watching kids and adults alike approach the clear piece of floor with incredible care. I can understand, sometimes you just don't want to be reminded that the old wooden floor you are walking on is the only thing between you and a long drop to a rocky (and formerly shat upon) doom.
Helmut looks into the "bear chest" adorned with a sliding lever in the form of a bear. A good place to secure your honey?
All througout the castle the views out the windows are incredible. At one point, shortly before the chapel, you can climb a rickity stair/ladder to a watchtower on the northern corner of the castle. The view is quite nice. You can look back toward Montreux and also toward the mainland, train tracks, highway, and all. I appreciated it greately, much as you would the small waterfall that otherwise would be overlooked on the way back down the trail to a huge one. At this point I didn't know we would eventually climb the high keep in the center of the castle which towers over everthing (and so is also easily forgotton).
A view of the underside of the lid of the "bear chest". It looked as if moving the bear would activate pins surrounding the entire periphery of the lid.
The room above the grand hall is a museum of sorts showing off armor, weapons, locks, and containers of various sorts. It is hard to imagine wielding those two-handed swords with any effectiveness. But, if you can, I assure you that I would be employing the best two-handed sprint in the opposite direction that I can muster. I being the type that can't help but disassemble anything that isn't encased in a solid brick of epoxy, really I loved the views of the inner workings of locks and other such mechanisms. They are heavy, patinaed, and seemingly crude, but nevertheless I often could figure out how they worked. 'times.
Later, you got a view of an old clock mechanism that seems to be only partially intact. I was quite happy to discover that I could descipher some of it's strange bits, but I still couldn't fully understand the entire mechanism. Even later you pass the mechanism for the modern clock which you can see on the face of the castle above the entrance. It was installed in 1897. It of course is delightfully shiny and intricate.
On the right is the newer outer wall and sentry's gallery. Below is the slanting glacis that formed the original 11th century face of the castle.
Speaking of mechanisms, in one of the rooms there was a heavy chest I'm calling the “bear chest”. The top was propped open and on its underside you could see an elaborate lattice of levers and pins that I would assume engage with the perimeter of the chest to keep it tightly shut. It seemed this mechanism was actuated by sliding a bear statuette on the top of the lid. I'm not entirely certain what advantage this provided since the lid was locked by two large locks which seemed to be entirely independent of this mechanism. It was certainly cool, though. Even five centuries ago people loved gadgets.
Another really interesting display had a series of models showing the construction of the castle over the years. There may have been dwellings on this rock as far back as Roman times but construction started with some seriousness as early as the 9th century. Starting in the 13th century a new wave of construction produced most of the castle you can see today. One prominent feature of some of the models is not the castle but the rock on which it stands. The underwater portion is shown dropping dramatically to a deep lake floor. This is what struck me the most, a jump off the castle wall puts you immediately in water 70 meters deep. The size of the castle, impressive as it is, is dwarfed by its natural surroundings.
From the keep, the high, 14th century tower in the center of the castle we look back down the lakeshore toward Montreux.
After crossing through the third courtyard a couple times and exploring the northern end of the castle, the tour takes you into the fourth courtyard on the eastern side facing land. This obviously is where the major defenses are located. Here part of the courtyard floor has been removed to reveal the old 12th century outer wall. The wall slopes down from what is now closer to the center of the castle to the moat. In the 13th century a new outer wall was built and the old sloping wall was covered. In classic castle fashion the new wall sports rounded towers with a variety of loopholes from which one can safely rain bad stuff down on would-be attackers.
A view south and east from the high tower of the castle. You can see a highway skirting the hills. The train runs below near the water heading out toward Martigny and around to Sion, Visp, Zermatt or even Milan.
One bit about these towers that I found really interesting is how one was used as a vertical prison. A hole in the floor reveals a series of ladders leading down to plaforms below. I found the view down a bit dizzying and the ladders awfully precarious looking. The pamplet says that in the 17th century this tower was converted to a prison by sealing many of the loopholes. Access to the lower levels was only possible via the ladders, which could be easily removed. Effectively, the prisoner lived at the bottom of a deep narrow hole. Too me it seemed quite a bit worse than nearly all the dungeons and prisons I've seen on TV and in the movies.
This is the third courtyard looking toward the end of castle farthest from the entrance, to the left are two large halls and to the right is a chapel and the fourth courtyard.
After passing the tower prison we passed another tower showing off a “Burgundian culverin fieldgun”. Those first two words definitely require looking up. (Note the reference to my namesake, the Alans, in the Burgundian entry referenced above.) And from here the fun climbing beings. The route climbs to a walk high along the southern perimeter of the castle. You get a view down over lower roofs and into the first courtyard and also out toward the lake and mountains. You pass a room, high up, close to the rafters. Then you cross between the first and second courtyard high up in the air on a bridging walk. This takes you along the old (12th century) outer wall and to the climax of the tour, the keep.
The keep is a rectangular tower in the center of the castle. The climbing seems to go on forever. It has a whole series of floors connected by steep stairs. There is little regularity in the spacing of the floors. Some floors have high ceilings, one requires you to stoop. I assume this is because new levels were added over time with no overall plan. (It was started in the 11th century but didn't reach its current height until the 14th century.) There is very little to see in any of these floors. You just climb up and up. (The stairs are 20th century, I assume the floors were originally accessed with ladders.)
Here you can see the entire front of the castle including the boat docks on the left, the 13th century outer wall and towers and the high tower raised over the centurys split by poor panorama stiching.
The view from the top is certainly worth the climb. You have to look through relatively narrow slotted windows so you don't have vast panoramic views avialable to you. But, by poking your head out a window on each of the sides you can take in a view of the castle's entire surroundings. Also much of the castle, or at least it's roofs, is visible below you. I've included two panoramas from here, one looking north and other looking south.
It seemed to me that things suddenly started to get crowded about this time, as I was climbing up and down the tower. Maybe this was just the bottleneck produced by the series of steep stairs. Or maybe a crowd just happened to show up at that time. But, I wonder if maybe it is because some people don't want to waste time dating each of the walls and pondering the tapestries, and instead they go straight for the tower and the views. It might be because this was my first visit to a castle, but I found the whole thing very interesting. In fact there were a lot of bits that I might consider more interesting then the nice view at the top of the keep.
The postcard picture of Château de Chillon. The "toothy" peaks on the background are Les Dents du Midi, behind which hides Mont Blanc.
It was finally time to leave. But, we must not forget the gift shop! We have to support those high profit margins. Just as Helmut had described, they had paper cutout models of the castle. There were three or four sizes available. I couldn't help but buy the largest. I feared that my urges would get the better of me and I would run home and build the model the very next day. I think it is glued together so this would not be the best idea, it would henceforth be very hard to transport. So, as a compromise, it was proposed that I wait a year and build it on the anniversary of this trip. It sounded like a good plan, and if I can keep it stored away out of sight I might be able to control my constructive urges for a year.
More panorama than you could possibly need, these are the mountains rising up from Lake Geneva's southern shore.
A variety of boats were moored along the shore, here we look generally west catching a bit of Montreux and the opposite lakeshore.
It was time to walk back to Montreux and maybe acquire some food before catching the train home. Returning, the views along the shore were even better than before. This was both because of the soft light of evening (...can you say "magic hour"? I knew you could...) and also because the castle had now moved out of the shadow of the hills. Just like any trip I have ever taken, the return trip seemed to go by quicker than the outward journey.
Along the way to the castle you can see things are quite green even in late February.
There had been heavy use of pine trimmings in the gardens along the walk. No, sir, they aren't just for holiday wreathes. Firstly, much of the bare ground has been mulched with pine branches. I'm assuming this was somewhat recent. (And won't that tend to make the soil a bit acidic? Maybe that isn't a problem, if it has any affect at all. I know I saw a few rhododendrons somewhere along the way, and supposedly they like acidic soil.) More dramatically were the pine branch sculptures, one for each sign of the zodiac. For example, they had a big, scary looking crab and a sign which contained the title “Cancer” followed by some mysterious incantations in French. I guess the medium is appropriate for a garden; being vegetal and all; but, I wasn't terribly impressed. I thought the sculptures bordered on tacky. (They're certainly no Andy Goldsworthy.)
Even a beautiful town like Montreux has an evening rushhour traffic jam. The lakeshore is of to the right.
When we finally arrived back in Montreux proper there was some debate whether we would eat at all and, if so, where. There didn't seem to be a great many options if we wanted to keep it relatively cheap. We ended up at a pizzaria right near the water. It might be important to note at this point that there seems to be one pizzaria for every other restaurant you see. Almost universaly they are far better than any “pizzaria” you might find in the US. I had pasta with a saffron cream sauce that was so tasty and simple that I was inspired me to buy saffron and cream the next time I went shopping. I've tried to recreate the cream sauce a couple times since then with moderate success.
Satiated, we were left to saunter up the hill to the train station. The horrors, our train was late! To the Swiss rail system's credit it was only 10 minutes, we were updated regularly, and it might have been coming from Italy. Contrary to what you might have heard about Swiss trains, you can't quite set your watch by them.
It was a great trip and I think it highly likely that I will return. One of the major reasons might be The Montreux Jazz Festival which happens in July. They have had a lot of great bands passing through Montreux over the years. Last year the festival included Radiohead, among others. There is also a famous story about Frank Zappa, Deep Purple, and a flaming casino.
Until next week, 'times.