LORD BYRON & VILLA
Switzerland's Gothic Summer of 1816 on Lake Geneva
George Gordon Noel Byron, better known to the world as Lord Byron (the 6th of that title), perhaps the most famous of the English poets representing the romanticism of the 19th Century, only spent six months in Switzerland, but much of his work and legend is connected to that land of mountains and lakes, especially the area surrounding Lake Geneva. Byron had traveled much already, spinning his journeys to exotic locations into two volumes of his long narrative poem “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage” - essentially a travelogue of Byron's own journeys. After traveling from the Battlefields at Waterloo (see Waterloo Battlefield Museums) to Switzerland, his third canto of that epic work was written while taking residence at a villa overlooking the lakeshore of Geneva, (Lake Leman) the Villa Diodati, where Byron spent the spring months traveling around the lake, following the footsteps of earlier romantic period author Jacques Rousseau to Clarens, the setting of Rousseau's "New Heloise", Lausanne, Montreux, Villeneuve, and as far as Martigny in the Valais beyond the lake’s eastern end. His visit to the former Savoy castle at Chillon near Montreux, upon hearing the travails of a cleric held as a prisoner there inspired him to write “The Prisoner of Chillon”, a decidedly romanticist retelling of the actual history (see Chateau Chillon).
The Villa Diodati is perhaps most sought out by fans of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus” familiar with the preface of the 3rd published edition of the novel of the idea coming to her in a “horrible dream” after a bet among the poets while staying the summer on Lake Geneva, that they could write as good gothic fiction as the then popular and notoriously cheap “Penny Dreadfuls” of the time. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin (he wouldn’t marry her until after his wife’s suicide) had been to Switzerland before, (see Mary Shelley in London). The summer of 1816 was their second trip, traveling with Mary’s step sister, Claire Claremont, who had had an affair with Byron in London. They stayed at the house of Jacob Chapuis, the Maison Chapuis (now gone) situated below the villa Byron was renting. Some of the events of that summer are apocryphal. Mary Shelley may have been inspired as much by a book of German gothic stories as by a “nightmare” (see Frankenstein Castle Darmstadt). Byron had lost interest in Claire Claremont, Mary Godwin's younger, manic half-sister (who's real name was Jane, but thought Clara or Claire more fitting her romantic soul) who later bore his child, but Byron found a troubled soul mate in a friendship with fellow poet Percy Shelley. The weather was unpleasant early that summer with much rain, thunder and ugly skies reportedly due to the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora a year before in Indonesia. In the months before, the distant Mont Blanc in the French Alps would be reflected in the waters of the lake, but not so much later that summer, as noted by Byron in his poem “Darkness” - “The bright sun was extinguish’d and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space”.
The Villa Diodati is located in the upscale residential suburb Cologny, referred to by the tourism bureau as the Beverly Hills of Switzerland due to its European celebrity inhabitants like Isabel Adjani, on the south side of the lake from central Geneva (though actually north east by compass). The villa is currently a private residence, actually divided into multiple units and not open to the public. There is a small open park next to the property from which a view of the villa can be had, not much changed from the 19th Century. A large stone at the corner of the park commemorates Byron’s stay there. There is a commemorative plaque as well, but it is actually on the wrong building, next to the gate along a winding residential road, Chermin de Ruth. The Villa Diodati (sometimes Diodoti) is the yellow one, down the hill above the Chermin Byron which passes below. The villa can be reached by car along the Quai de Cologny to the Rampe de Cologny and wind up the hill to Chermin de Ruth, or by city bus A or N6 to the Cologny-Mairie stop on the Route de la Capite, then a short walk downhill on Chermin de Ruth.
Since you can’t go in the villa, while in the area for literature and book lovers the nearby Martin Bodmer Foundation is well worth a visit, several blocks back toward Geneva on the Route de la Capite or two bus stops on Bus line A at the Cologny-Temple stop (see Bodmer Collection Library Cologny). Bodmer gathered one of the world’s great private book collections with many magnificent examples now on display in a new collections museum, including Egyptian Papyruses and Illustrated Manuscripts.
Byron left Switzerland in October of 1816 heading on to Italy and then to Greece where we died. To follow the footsteps of Byron in Switzerland, a journey by train (about a hour and a half) to Montreux and Castle Chillon is de rigueur. In Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland one can stay at the Hotel Interlaken (see Hotel Interlaken), where the poet got the inspiration for his dramatic Faustian verse play “Manfred”. © Bargain Travel Europe
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