Standing on the edge of Lac Leman I stare skeptically at the clear water before me. I can see smooth brown rocks fading into the lake’s green depths, and nothing more. No fish, no alligators, no lake zombies. Still, the idea of getting in gives me the heebie-jeebies.
I grew up in Colorado, where the lakes and streams are fed by snowmelt, and swimming in them is an unappealing pastime. My friends and I mostly stuck to swimming pools. Since I started traveling ten years ago I’ve swam in a lot of natural waters, everything from underground rivers in New Zealand to freshwater pools in Guatemala, but rallying the nerve to get in is still a challenge for me. Then again, at age 29 the deep end of a swimming pool still creeps me out, so take that as you will.
Anyways, getting into Lac Leman should be a piece of cake. It’s so appealing. Here in Montreux the shores are lined with tropical flowers in vibrant shades of red and yellow, while across the lake jagged peaks, the pre-Alps, rise straight out of the water. I feel like I’m standing in Hawaii while looking at New Zealand. Except for one thing—a giant castle perches quietly on the shores of the lake 100 meters to my left.
Chillon Castle is the whole reason I’m here. Well, it was the whole reason Richard came here in 1921, which is pretty much the same thing. Richard Halliburton was en route from Zermatt (post-Matterhorn ascent) to Lausanne when he became fed up with whizzing through such beautiful country in a train. Much to his friend’s surprise, Richard jumped off the train with his knapsack and shouted that they would meet in Paris. Happily, Richard pulled this stunt a mere handful of kilometers from Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in Switzerland:
“That was joyful news, for Lake Geneva meant Montreux, and Montreux meant Chillon, and Chillon had always been to me a Castle of Romance.”
Looking into that a little more, I found that Lord Byron, the famous poet with whom Richard was enthralled, visited Chillon in 1816 and was so moved by the dungeons and the story of religious prisoner Bonivard that he wrote the poem “The Prisoner of Chillon”. Montreux, which was already a hot tourist destination in the 1800’s, became infinitely more popular after Byron published the poem, and tourism hasn’t let up to this day. In fact, Chillon is the most-visited site in Switzerland.
I really encourage you to read the poem here for free. It’s about a 20-minute read, and it’s famous for a reason. The plot is thus: the narrator and two of his younger brothers are imprisoned for their religious beliefs. They’re chained to pillars in the dungeons of Chillon, unable to reach or even see each other. The narrator suffers through the deaths of both brothers, then is left alone to battle his despair and imprisonment.
On my first day in Montreux I copied “The Prisoner of Chillon” onto my Kindle and read it while sunbathing on the shores of the lake. I was entranced. Neither the group of smoking Parisians to my left nor the naked old lady with rawhide skin to my right could distract me from the poem. To my surprise I started crying halfway through and didn’t stop sniffling until the very end.
That evening I mimicked Richard by reading “The Prisoner” again while watching the sun set across the lake. The sunset seemed to remember its lines, for it was perfect in every way, just as Richard described it: ”The fiery ball hung suspended in the horizon clouds” while I read atop a white rock smacked by gentle waves in the “glittering path of the red sunset.” Again my tears fell heavily. I kept glancing over at the castle itself, peach-colored in the evening light, imagining the atrocities that occurred in that horrid dungeon.
The next day I visited the castle proper. The dungeon was my main destination, and I arrived there early on in my exploration. There were the “seven pillars of Gothic mould, in Chillon’s dungeons deep and old”. I could hear the rippling water slosh against the walls. In his poem Byron makes it sound as though the dungeon is below the water’s surface, and indeed Richard says the same in his notes, though neither author is correct. The prison was built on a small rocky island, and the entire edifice is above the water, though the dungeon, with all its dripping echoes, feels very submarine.
Blocking out the babble of other tourists passing through (ah, Richard, how I envy your solitude here!), I sat on the hard rock floor with my back against the fifth pillar, the iron ring jabbing me in the back, and read “The Prisoner” for the third time. It was just as haunting as the first time, more so, even, because the story surrounded me in three dimensions, and the cool dungeon air sent goosebumps down my arms.
Before leaving I looked at Byron’s name carved into the fifth pillar. It’s protected by glass and surrounded by the scratched-out names of thousands of others. Richard never said anything about carving his name here, but I looked anyways, and was amused to find a choppy “ALI U T N” below Byron. Who knows…
I climbed the steps back into daylight, and spent the next four hours visiting every single one of the 45 rooms open to the public, from the privies to the keep. Chillon is really well managed, with excellent education displays and beautiful reconstruction work. In one room I marveled at the “tunnel vaulted” ceiling paneled with squares of oak. It was reconstructed in 1925, four years after Richard’s visit—I was sorry he hadn’t gotten to see it himself.
And now here I stand, at the edge of Lac Leman, ready for my final task at Chillon—to swim in the lake below the castle. Richard never seemed to fear anything, least of all a refreshing swim in a gorgeous lake. Why can’t I do the same?
Lake zombies, that’s why. Go ahead, read “World War Z” and tell me what you think about the next time you go swimming.
The sun is shining, the lake is calm, there’s no one around…the time is now. With three swift steps I’m in, gasping a little at the coolness of the water. But then the gasps turn to laughter, and I’m swimming up to the creamy white walls of Chillon. They tower above me, ominous yet beautiful. Floating on my back I stare up at the dungeon windows, past the blocky battlements, and beyond, where pearly clouds skid across the blue sky.
For the umpteenth time since I started this trip I whisper ‘thanks Richard’, then I roll over and swim out into the lake.