The sum­mer of love

Switzer­land’s Lake Geneva and its By­ronesque con­nec­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - TONY PER­ROT­TET

WITH its high-fly­ing bankers and glossy ski re­sorts, Switzer­land is rarely thought of as a cen­tre of bo­hemian cre­ativ­ity, but in the early 1800s Europe’s most flam­boy­ant artists were drawn to Lake Geneva, where an un­der­ground party scene flour­ished.

The most scan­dalous group de­scended from Eng­land in the sum­mer of 1816, in the wake of the Ado­nis-like, 28-year-old poet Lord By­ron. For four months, By­ron rented a lux­ury villa by Lake Geneva, where he hosted a string of erotic soirees. He was joined by the in­tense, 23-year-old poet Percy Shel­ley; his soul­ful 18-year-old mis­tress Mary Woll­stonecraft God­win; and Mary’s al­lur­ing step-sis­ter Claire Clair­mont. This was to be per­haps the most ar­tis­ti­cally pro­duc­tive va­ca­tion of the cen­tury.

The sum­mer of 1816 was also note­wor­thy in that the erup­tion of Mount Tamb­ora in In­done­sia sent a cloud of vol­canic ash across the north­ern hemi­sphere. Trapped in­doors for weeks by wild light­ning storms, By­ron pro­posed that each house­guest com­pose a horror story. The teenage Mary came up with the fever­ish idea for Frankenstein and By­ron’s men­tally dis­turbed physi­cian John Poli­dori con­cocted The Vampyre, the first vam­pire story in English, which 80 years later would in­flu­ence Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula.

To­day, the prof­li­gate nat­u­ral beauty of this part of Switzer­land is in­tact, so, like any 19th-cen­tury literary groupie, I plan to track down the sites visi- ted by the Ro­man­tic po­ets in Lake Geneva. For­tu­nately, this en­tails vis­it­ing one rav­ish­ing lake­side vil­lage af­ter another us­ing the net­work of el­e­gant an­tique fer­ries. From the wa­ter, it’s easy to see why the bo­hemi­ans of 1816 were so be­witched. Mary Shel­ley raved in let­ters about the star­tling colour of the lake (‘‘blue as the heav­ens which it re­flects’’) and in­cluded its sites in Frankenstein .

Dur­ing a break in the weather, By­ron and Shel­ley went by boat to the Chateau de Chillon, a me­dieval cas­tle still perched over crys­talline waters. The cas­tle was dreaded in the 16th cen­tury as a po­lit­i­cal prison, in­spir­ing By­ron to write The Pris­oner of Chillon.

The dun­geon is still open to the pub­lic, with waves lap­ping up to its barred win­dows, and you can see where By­ron etched his name on a pil­lar, a graf­fito now pro­tected un­der glass. In the nearby port of Ouchy, the inn where the pair stayed, Ho­tel d’An­gleterre, is marked by a plaque. The most al­lur­ing literary shrines of the ‘‘Frankenstein sum­mer’’ lie in the vil­lage of Cologny, where By­ron rented the grandiose Villa Dio­dati with lake views, and the Shel­leys lived in the more mod­est Mai­son Cha­puis nes­tled be­low.

I ar­rive in Cologny by ferry and sweat up steep al­ley­ways to Chemin de Ruth 9, where Dio­dati is carved into the stone gatepost of a rose-coloured man­sion, now di­vided into apart­ments; its fa­cade has changed lit­tle from 1816 en­grav­ings, in­clud­ing the pleas­ant bal­cony where By­ron penned the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pil­grim­age.

The villa’s iron gate has been left open, so I stroll into the es­tate. As I peer through win­dows at chan­de­liers and or­nate fit­tings, I vi­su­alise the hol­i­day-mak­ers of 1816 gath­er­ing by can­dle­light to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture and love. It was a busy sum­mer. By­ron had be­gun an af­fair with Claire Clair­mont in Eng­land, and suc­cumbed again to her charms. ‘‘If a girl of 18 comes pranc­ing to you at all hours, there is but one way,’’ he protested.

In mid-June be­gan ‘‘an al­most per­pet­ual rain’’, Mary re­called, with thun­der­storms sweep­ing from the moun­tains. The group read Ger­man horror sto­ries while sam­pling liq­ue­fied opium. Mary dreamed the plot of Frankenstein and By­ron en­cour­aged her to turn it into a novel.

On my il­licit stick­y­beaking, I have a vi­sion of to­day’s less bo­hemian Swiss res­i­dents de­nounc­ing this in­truder to the po­lice. I scram­ble out through the se­cu­rity gate just be­fore it clangs shut. mon­treux-palace.com an­gleterre-res­i­dence.ch myswitzer­land.com

Erotic soirees en­livened By­ron’s so­journ at Lake Geneva; Chateau de Chillon, left

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.