Chillon Castle in its current form is the result of several centuries of construction and redevelopment.
The excavations carried out from the end of the 19th century, particularly those led by archaeologist Albert Naef (1862-1936), indicate that the site has been occupied since the Bronze Age.
The rocky island on which the castle sits constituted both a form of natural protection and a strategic positioning to control passage from the north to the south of Europe. The fortress took on the oval shape of the genuine island upon which it was built. It is approximately 100m long and 50m wide. It also took its name from the rock; the word ‘Chillon’ meant ‘rocky platform’ in an ancient language.
The history of the castle is marked by three great periods: those of the Savoy family, the Bernese bailiffs and the Canton of Vaud.
While the so-called ‘Savoyard’-style castles were generally built on a square plot, flanked by cylindrical towers on each corner, what makes Chillon Castle special is the way it moulded with the oval shape of the rocky island on which it was built.
Surrounded by a natural moat, the castle can be accessed via the lake from all sides. It is considered a ‘waterside castle’. Chillon is connected to the land by a bridge (formerly a drawbridge, the remains of whose pulley system can still be seen). Chillon is a dual-purpose castle: the northern facade – pierced with arrowslits and later loopholes, and topped with machicolations – constituted the fortress, which protected the Via Francigena road. On the south side, facing the lake, magnificent Gothic windows adorn the facade of the princely residence, looking out over the typical landscape of the Vaud Riviera, Lake Geneva and the mountains. In the centre, the keep and the treasure room are connected to the corps de logis by sentry walks. Just picture yourself living here… the internal space is split into three main courtyards, each corresponding to the use of the buildings surrounding them: the castellan’s and the lord’s residences, which date back to the feudal system.
Visiting Chillon Castle is like going back in time! Each room uncovers another layer of the history of this fortress on Lake Geneva.
As an exceptional heritage monument, Chillon Castle has around 300 items on display throughout. With the exception of the furniture, weapons and armour, all of the items exhibited here were found during the archaeological digs carried out at the castle from 1896 to 1903. The collections belong to the Cantonal Museum of Archaeology & History of Lausanne under the name ‘fonds Chillon’ (Chillon Collection).
In 1842, the Society for the History of Francophone Switzerland (SHSR) suggested setting up an antique museum in one of the castle halls. The Assocation for the Restoration of Chillon Castle was eventually founded in 1887. It put the society’s ideas into writing, building both the creation of a museum exhibiting the diverse periods of Vaudois history and the restoration of the fortress into its statute. The state released funds for the purchase of various items for the collection. Ten years later, Chillon was literally stripped bare and archaeological excavations revealed hundreds of everyday objects dating from the Middle Ages to the 17th century.
These collections remained at the castle until 2007. A substantial inventory was then taken and a new visitor itinerary created. The Chillon Castle Foundation – to which the Association passed the baton in 2002 – made the decision to place the focus on the castle’s architecture. Most of the objects were repatriated into storage at the Cantonal Museum, but a small selection was kept on display as part of the visitor itinerary, with the aim of illustrating the castle’s history.
When it comes to conservation and restoration, Chillon is a prime example. Since 1892 work has been overseen by a Technical Commission of architects, historians and heritage specialists.
Work on the buildings can vary greatly in terms of nature and importance, from minor repairs to major restoration projects.
Any work carried out must respect the ethical standards in place for built heritage. New additions are in keeping with contemporary fashion, while conservation and restoration work are discreetly woven into the fabric of the buildings.
The particular challenge with this work is that the castle is open all year round, hence we must balance project requirements with the public’s enjoyment and expectations.