Lake Geneva: The Château de Chillon, a Medieval Jewel Built on Water
Updated: Feb 7
The Château de Chillon is a stunning example of medieval architecture, combining defensive and residential features. Its unique position on the water gives it a special appeal and testifies to its historical significance in the region. It is one of the jewels of Lake Geneva and is particularly attractive to photographers of minimalist landscapes.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Although viewpoints are somewhat limited due to its position on a rocky islet connected to the shore, it is possible to photograph the Château de Chillon in various ways. The seasons, lights, and unique skies of the Lake Geneva basin delight long exposure landscape photographers.
During my years spent on the shores of Lake Geneva (since 1995), I have repeatedly photographed this architectural masterpiece without ever tiring of it. Winter is obviously the time when the conditions required for my photography are met. The skies, visual clearance, low morning lights, and mists harmonize to offer photographers magical moments.
However, the immediate proximity of the railway is particularly disturbing. The large number of tourists is just as disruptive. Therefore, the location is not the most conducive to calm or meditation through imagery in all seasons. Nevertheless, Château de Chillon undoubtedly remains a reference to be included in one's portfolio.
Although winter is, as always, the most suitable season, spring and autumn are also noteworthy. The lights that take over Lake Geneva during these seasons are very different from winter. The sometimes stormy skies bring their share of dark clouds, characteristic of the region.
Spring and autumn are also seasons when pleasure boating on the lake resumes its activity. And it can be really disruptive. Not only because of the presence of boats but also due to the wakes they leave behind, which persist for very long periods. And the changes in the density of water surface colors are particularly unsightly.
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The summer period, on the other hand, is definitely not suitable for photography, and I strongly advise avoiding it if possible. Indeed, tourists arrive in masses from the morning to visit the castle and spend a lot of time contemplating the lake from the drawbridge. They will inevitably be in your field of view. I'm not even mentioning the climatic conditions at this time of year, during which the sun dominates the lake almost every day. The lights and tones are then quite unsightly for black and white photography.
Whether through the lens or for simple pleasure, visiting the Château de Chillon is an immersion in a space where history and nature meet harmoniously. It offers an inspiring escape for those looking to capture the essence, beauty, and history of Lake Geneva.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
The Château de Chillon, located on the outskirts of Montreux, has a rich and fascinating history that spans several centuries. It remains an exceptional example of medieval architecture in Europe and an important witness to the region's cross-border history.
Here are some key points of its evolution:
1. Medieval Origins
The first constructions on the site of Château de Chillon date back to the 9th century. At that time, the castle primarily served as a defensive fortress, a residence, and a toll station for merchants crossing the lake.
2. Savoy and Bernese Rule
In the 13th century, the castle became a significant possession of the House of Savoy, a powerful European noble family. They significantly expanded and reinforced the castle, giving it its current structure. In 1536, it was conquered by the Bernese during the Wars of Religion.
After the Bernese conquest, the castle lost its strategic importance and was used as an arsenal, warehouse, and even as a prison again.
Château de Chillon also served as a prison. Its most famous prisoner was François Bonivard, a Genevan monk and politician, imprisoned from 1530 to 1536 for opposing Savoy's domination. His imprisonment was immortalized by Lord Byron in his poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" in 1816.
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3. Restoration and Tourism
In the 19th century, the castle underwent restoration and became a popular tourist attraction. Visitors are drawn to its medieval architecture, picturesque views of the lake and mountains, and its rich history.
Today, Château de Chillon is one of the most visited historical sites in Switzerland. It offers guided tours, exhibitions, and cultural events, allowing visitors to explore its history and collections of period objects.
Château de Chillon features several remarkable architectural characteristics, reflecting its evolution over the centuries. Here are some significant details:
The castle is a typical example of medieval architecture. It includes Gothic and Romanesque elements, reflecting the different periods of construction and renovation. Chillon notably has imposing walls and several defensive towers. These towers vary in shape, some being circular and others square, naturally corresponding to the different stages of their construction.
The interior of the castle consists of several levels, with rooms, corridors, and chambers extending over a large area. At the center of the castle is a magnificent inner courtyard, with the main buildings arranged around it. They include the great hall, the chapel, and the residential quarters. This hall is one of the most impressive in the castle. Richly decorated, it reflects the power and wealth of the Counts of Savoy. The chapel, meanwhile, is adorned with wall paintings dating from the 14th century.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
The exact dimensions of the castle are not well-documented. However, Chillon stretches over a rocky island measuring about 100 meters long and 50 meters wide.
The castle's position on this rocky islet at the edge of Lake Geneva was strategically advantageous for defense. The water provided natural protection against invasions and attacks. The location of the castle allowed it to control passage along the lake, which was crucial for the collection of taxes and control of trade in the region.
How to Photograph Château de Chillon
The beauty of the site is revealed not only in the imposing structure of the castle itself but also in its picturesque surroundings. The reflections of the castle on the waters of the lake, the Alps rising majestically in the background, and the changing hues of the sky offer endless opportunities to capture expressive and timeless images.
As previously indicated, there are not many places to photograph the castle. Therefore, it is essential to go to the lakeside. Indeed, the railway line located immediately near the site prevents viewing the castle from the main road and enjoying the overhead view.
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Therefore, it is advisable to park along the main road (which is very busy), where several free parking spaces are available. Then, you need to take a discreet staircase located at the end of this parking lot (on the left when looking at the lake). You then pass under the railway tracks to reach the shore.
Two or three lookouts allow you to advance a bit over the lake and move away from the trees that are very present on the shore. A few years ago, a dock was constructed a few dozen meters from the castle. It is the favored spot for fishermen in the early morning and is situated right in the ideal axis for the best framing. So, it's a matter of luck. However, know that in winter, fishermen are rarely present, and you have the entire site to yourself.
Do not hesitate to move into the direct perimeter of the castle, where it is also possible to descend a few steps towards a very interesting wooden pontoon facing the opposite direction. The frequent mists in the distance allow for very beautiful shots.
Getting to Château de Chillon
1. From Geneva or Lausanne: Take a train to Montreux station. The journey from Geneva takes about 1 hour, and from Lausanne about 30 minutes.
2. From Montreux to Chillon: Once in Montreux, you can take a local train or a bus for a short ride to the castle, or you can enjoy a pleasant walk along the lake, which takes about 45 minutes.
Local buses regularly depart from Montreux station and stop near Château de Chillon. The bus journey takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
If you are traveling by car, the castle is easily accessible from the A9 motorway. There is parking available nearby.
During the summer months, boats depart from various cities around Lake Geneva, such as Geneva and Lausanne, and stop near the castle. This is a scenic and relaxing way to get to Château de Chillon.
As mentioned, a walk along the lake from Montreux is a popular and picturesque option, especially during the warmer months.
My book: "Miroirs d'eau: du Léman au Biwa," published by Glénat. Available here.
The Château de Chillon, with its rich past and typical architecture, stands as a timeless jewel on the shores of Lake Geneva. Each stone and tower evokes tales of the past, capturing the essence of the medieval era in a spectacular natural setting.
For photography enthusiasts, the castle offers an unrivaled backdrop, where the interplay of light and shadow highlights the Gothic and Romanesque architectural details, creating images that are both mysterious and majestic.
Each photography session reveals a new perspective, a new story, making Château de Chillon a paradise for photographers in search of tranquility and minimalism.
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