Switzerland: Falling for a monster

 


The fairytale Castle Chillon, which is located on Lake Geneva’s eastern shore, has inspired many writers, including Byron, Shelley and Rousseau. Photo: swiss-image.ch/Ivo Scholz
The fairytale Castle Chillon, which is located on Lake Geneva’s eastern shore, has inspired many writers, including Byron, Shelley and Rousseau. Photo: swiss-image.ch/Ivo Scholz
Gemma with ‘Frankie’ in Geneva

This summer is a strange beast, and two centuries ago the same could be said, albeit with conditions the flipside of 2018’s enduring scorcher. The summer of 1816 was one of the gloomiest on record, due to the eruption of Java’s Mount Tambora a year previously. It sent a vast dust cloud into the atmosphere, which led to widespread crop failures, famine and disease in various parts of the globe. The enduring bleakness led many to fear that the uncharacteristic weather heralded the apocalypse’s advent.

In June of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her married lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord George Gordon Byron were holidaying in Geneva. Byron, having rented the Villa Diodati (God’s gift), a handsome house in Cologny, overlooking Lake Geneva, was ostensibly on a Grand Tour, but in actuality the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Romantic poet was in voluntary exile from puritanical England, having fled accusations of incest, adultery and sodomy. Mary and Percy, who were staying at nearby Maison Chapuis, were frequent visitors, and that summer’s wet, miserable conditions largely kept the writers indoors. The group read ghost stories from Fantasmagoriana, and discussed life and death, fortified by copious amounts of wine and laudanum. On Byron’s prompting, they began writing their own ghost stories, hoping to trump the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ of the time. John Polidori, Byron’s physician, penned what is considered to be the first vampire story, while 18-year-old Mary, inspired by a dream “the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow” wrote the short story that would expand to become Frankenstein, her masterpiece, considered the first science fiction novel. This year marks the 200th anniversary of its publication.

Just shy of June, I set off on the trail of Frankenstein and the literary crew of that long ago summer, and my first stop, having checked in at the centrally located Hotel Auteuil, was the aforementioned Villa Diodati. Now in private ownership, its peachy exterior – which has been kept as it was in Byron’s time – can be glimpsed from the road, and the topographical view overlooking Lake Geneva isn’t much different to what Mary and Co would have seen two centuries previously, with the exception of the lake’s iconic Jet d’Eau fountain, installed in 1886.

Modern Geneva, which is in the south-westernmost corner of Switzerland, is a mix of old and new, with the crescent-shaped lake at its heart. My morning’s journey to upscale Cologny had taken me first past the offices for public parks, previously a hotel, where Byron had stayed when Percy, Mary, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, the instigator of the meet-up, first arrived in Geneva. (Claire, lover of Byron, was pregnant with his child, but did not reveal her pregnancy to him until August; his response, by letter was “Is the brat mine?”) The lakeside jetty is then but a short hop through the park, and from one of the many ferries that traverse the vast lake, you can see both the Villa Diodati and Mole Mountain, which is referenced in Mary’s classic novel.



Gemma with 'Frankie' in GenevaGemma with 'Frankie' in Geneva

Gemma with ‘Frankie’ in Geneva

Just up the road from Villa Diodati is the Fondation Martin Bodmer, a library and museum, where I met Professor David Spurr, an expert on Frankenstein. In addition to viewing fascinating notebooks of Mary’s (in which you can see the illuminating changes Percy made to her manuscript), and various first editions, Prof Spurr was most enlightening on the subliminal themes in the book, not least that of the French Revolution; the dates in the book correspond to it, while the book’s creature, who has no name, parents, or home, ultimately rebels, and is thought to represent the homeless and illiterate of Europe.

Geneva, the second biggest city in Switzerland, is completely surrounded by French mountains, the Jura and the Alps, and every road, bar one – the Swiss Road – leads to France. For three centuries, Geneva was a republic – first proclaimed in 1541 by theologian and Reformer John Calvin; indeed, Frankenstein begins, “I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic”. The city has long been associated with banking and finance, and the contents of its subterranean vaults are famously secret. This association with secrecy is possibly one of the many reasons Mary chose Geneva as a setting for her novel, as alchemy, a practice shrouded in secrecy, allows for the creation of the monster. Lake Geneva, aka Lac Leman, the largest alpine lake in Europe, undoubtedly also inspired the author; the novel’s protagonist, scientist Victor Frankenstein speaks of “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire”; Mary and her fellow writers experienced many violent thunderstorms during their summer by the lakeside.

Dinner that evening was at the delightful Brasserie-Restaurant de L’Hotel de Ville, in the old town. Think new-season asparagus, rosti, and, of course, fondue, all washed down with chilled Chasselas – a Swiss grape variety, ideally suited to alpine slopes. Just a short distance from the restaurant, you’ll find the Marronnier Officiel, a chestnut tree that’s considered the harbinger of spring; its first bud has been recorded every year since 1818 (the year Frankenstein was first published). The tree occupies a prime spot in front of the city hall in the old town (fascinatingly, Geneva’s current mayor is communist), in front of the world’s longest bench, on which you can sit and enjoy the view of the Plainpalais neighbourhood below – scene of the monster’s first murder, and now the location of ‘Frankie’, a sculpture of you-know-who by Geneva artist collective, KLAT. In the distance is Saleve mountain, over which the creature disappeared. You can ascend 1,100m by cable car – it takes only five minutes – for a reverse view of the spectacular panorama, which I did the next day, enjoying a very pleasant lunch at the summit. See horizon-saleve.com.

Then it was off to Lausanne, which is situated further up the lake – Lake Geneva is 73km long – and directly across from the famous spa town of Evian-les-Bains. Ouchy, now part of Lausanne, was a tiny fishing village in Byron’s time, and he and Percy came, by boat, on an excursion, which almost proved their downfall when a storm sank their vessel. Shelley never learned to swim and drowned a few years later, when his boat went down in the Gulf of Spezia.

In Ouchy, Byron stayed at the now hotel Angleterre & Residence, today a minimalist gem, where he wrote one of his most famous works, The Prisoner of Chillon.

Lausanne itself was an important trading town back in the day, as it sits at a crossroads between Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. It was also an important pilgrimage route and has a huge cathedral, the largest in Switzerland, dedicated in 1275 to the Virgin Mary (but Protestant since the Reformation). The city is set on three hills, and it’s worth making the trek up to the cathedral just for the fabulous view (look out for the first Swiss skyscraper). Inside, there’s a stained-glass rose window to rival that of Notre Dame. Quirkily, on the hour, every hour from 10pm until 2am, a watchman announces the time and that “all’s well”, a tradition that dates back to 1405.

All in all, Lausanne is a delightful spot, enhanced by the city policy of letting flowers grow wild in its parks and encouraging those with flat-roofed houses to grow vegetation. I caught a steamship, Belle Epoque La Suisse, from the jetty to visit Castle Chillon also located on the old pilgrim way from Canterbury to Rome. After a sumptuous lunch on board, the steamship docked near the picture-postcard medieval castle, which seems to float on the dark-blue waters of the lake. It was built by the bishops of Sion, then owned by the Savoy family from about 1150, and was a summer residence for them for two centuries, until in latter times it became a military prison.

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Byron came here to follow in the footsteps of Rousseau, who had set part of one of his novels, La Nouvelle Heloise, in the castle. While it is undeniably lovely on the outside, the inside is forbidding, dank and dark. Byron’s Prisoner poem was inspired by the story of Francois Bonivard, a political agitator, who was imprisoned in Chillon’s bowels, around 1530, for about four years. Inside, you can see ‘Byron’ scratched into one of the dungeon’s pillars; it’s not known if the graffiti is genuine.

Byron is often portrayed as a dark-eyed dish; in fact, he was overweight in his younger years, but had shed five stone by 1811 and kept the pounds off by adhering to a strange diet of soda water and potatoes soaked in vinegar. His life was blighted by his club foot – a deformity he attributed to his mother’s corset-wearing tendencies – although it did not stop him being very physically active.

Despite Byron’s obsession with his weight, he spent a lifetime indulging in the finest wines and Champagne.

Fittingly, my final day in Switzerland was spent touring the vineyards of the Vaud region, set on the slopes above Lake Geneva. It was a caves ouvert event, during which, for 20 francs, you can purchase a wine passport, which entitles you to taste wines in any of the cellars displaying the relevant sign, not to mention a free souvenir glass, which I managed to get home in one piece! There is possibly no nicer way to while away a day than spend it strolling from one vineyard to another, sipping delicate Swiss wine, with the sun on your back, the mountains all around and the glistening lake below.

As I sat on a bench, glass in hand, contemplating the idyllic vista, it struck me that except for Claire Clairmont, who lived to be 80, all the others who gathered together that strange Swiss summer, died before their time – Mary, who, in 1816, had already lost one child, would lose two more, and she endured a life of hardship before succumbing to a brain tumour at 56. Yet, it is perhaps the dream of any writer to commit to print a work that endures, but it is an aspiration few achieve, and fewer still manage to fashion something timeless, with themes and characters that resonate equally well in the modern world as they did in times past. With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – who was only 18, remember – did just that.

Two hundred years on, the ghosts of literary genius remain suspended in that Swiss summer; you can catch glimpses of them drifting over the lake, hear echoes of them drinking wine and conversing late into the night at Cologny; living, laughing, loving and creating. Always creating. Go seek them out.

Take Two: Top attractions

Chateau de Coppet

Byron travelled several times to the fairytale 13th-Century Chateau de Coppet, near Nyon, to meet its chatelaine, the great intellectual Madame de Stael (pictured), and attend her literary salons. He was in awe of her writing and said she’d have made “a great man”.

L’Accademia, Lausanne

L’Accademia restaurant is located in Lausanne’s hotel Angleterre & Residence where Byron stayed. Eat on the terrace, which has a fabulous view of the lake, and people-watch as you enjoy the fine fare. Dessert is a must; try the ‘dai dai’ praline — sublime.

Getting there

For more information on Switzerland, see MySwitzerland.com or email [email protected]

myswitzerland.com; for packages, trains and air tickets sales, see stc.co.uk. Hotel Auteuil, Geneva, from €123 per night; Hotel Mirabeau, Lausanne, from €166 per night.

SWISS operates weekly flights to Switzerland from Dublin. All-inclusive fares start from £74 one-way, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and hand luggage, plus meal and drink. For reservations, see swiss.com.

The Swiss Travel System provides a dedicated range of travel passes and tickets exclusively for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round trip between the airport/Swiss border and destination.

Prices: €135 second class; €217 first class. The Swiss Travel Pass is the all-in-one ticket to travel by train, bus and boat on an all-inclusive basis from 3-15 days. Prices from €198 in second class. Each ticket offers free admission to over 500 museums, including Chateau Chillon and Fondation Martin Bodmer. For the ultimate Swiss rail specialist, see Switzerland Travel Centre, swisstravelsystem.co.uk.

Sunday Indo Living

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