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In the footsteps of giants

It was a dark and stormy night – yes, really – one of many that European summer. Five English travellers had gathered in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. They drank, flirted, and passed the time by reading and telling ghost stories. The group included the poets Byron and Shelley, and a teenage girl who would become Shelley’s second wife. Someone suggested a competition to write the most frightening supernatural tale. This now legendary evening in 1816 was the genesis of Mary Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

On a mellow, golden afternoon last October, my friends and I took the bus to Cologny, an exclusive suburb of Geneva (think Beverly Hills in Los Angeles crossed with Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay). We walked up the steep hill from the bus stop to the imposing Villa Diodati. The house is privately owned and can’t be entered, but a sign in the park next to it welcomes visitors from all over the world to enjoy the superb view of the lake and to ponder the origins of one of the world’s most famous horreur stories. We stood on a bench to catch glimpses of the villa beyond its beautifully planted garden, and wished we’d brought a bottle of wine to share as we watched the sun set over the city.

A necessary place of pilgrimage for any Frankenstein enthusiast, the Villa Diodati is just one of the sights to draw readers and romantics to this part of the world, for Lake Geneva’s 167km shoreline is packed with literary associations. From the 18th-century French philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau to latter-day poets David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, writers have visited, stayed and been inspired by the ultra-picturesque combinations of water, mountains, vineyards and castles that can be enjoyed from its shores. And for as long as literature has been made here, literary tourism has also been practised – often by the authors themselves.

 


Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein

 

week after the famous night at the Villa Diodati, Byron and Shelley were on a boating holiday. (Mary stayed in Geneva, working on the first draft of Frankenstein.) The poets wanted to commune with the spirit of their literary idol, Rousseau, by visiting all the lakeside locations featured in his novel Julie. Their itinerary included Lausanne, Vevey, Clarens (now a Montreux suburb) and one of the most spectacular landmarks of the Lake Geneva shoreline, the more than 900-year-old Château de Chillon

Our visit to Chillon was a double pilgrimage, befitting the multilayered nature of literary tourism at Lake Geneva. Byron’s visit in 1816 produced a haunting poem, The Prisoner of Chillon, about the 16th-century political activist cleric François Bonivard, imprisoned in the castle for six years by the Duke of Savoy. Some 60 years after Byron (1878), American novelist Henry James found inspiration in the act of literary tourism itself, making a Byron-themed visit to Chillon a pivotal episode in his best-selling novel Daisy Miller. Whereas in Byron’s poem, Bonivard is literally a captive in a dungeon, in James’s story Daisy is a free spirit imprisoned by social convention. I wanted to see the castle that had inspired both these visions.

In the novel, Daisy and her companion, Winterbourne, travel to Chillon by steamer from Vevey, at the eastern end of the lake. Thanks to the continued operation of historic paddleboats by the Compagnie Générale de Navigation (CGN), we were able to follow exactly in their footsteps. Our paddle-steamer for the 50-minute cruise was a Belle Époque beauty, sleek and white on the outside, gleamingly maintained with wood, brass and potted plants within.

 

American novelist Henry James penned Daisy Miller after a visit to Château de Chillon

 

The scenery was spectacular, but never better than as we approached the château sitting on its island like a fairytale castle. Its turrets, swans, clouds and mountains all reflected in the blue lake, gave an ideal beauty to the scene, in contrast to the power struggles and conflict that mark Chillon’s history. A self-guided tour of the castle (with excellent audio commentary) took about two hours. Afterwards, we walked the lakeshore path the few kilometres to ritzy Montreux, and took the steamer back to Vevey. The perfect end to the day was then ready to hand – tea or drinks on the terrace of the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes, watching dusk descend over the lake from the very spot where Daisy Miller begins. 

“At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel,” begins Daisy Miller. How many works of literature begin with a recommendation for a real hotel? The whole first paragraph of the novel is about the Trois Couronnes, its “air both of luxury and of maturity”, its international clientele, its views of lake and mountains. This unusual opening is not just a reminder that James started his career as a travel writer. It also shows that a hotel, no less than a castle or a cottage, can inspire a storyteller, because it’s a place where paths cross, strangers meet, and relationships and adventures can begin.

We sat on the terrace, the fountain splashed and an impeccable afternoon tea was served. People walked their dogs along the lakeshore promenade and sailboats glided serenely by while, across the lake, the peaks of the French Alps loomed. They reminded me that here, within sight of this civilised hotel within this charming town, was the majestic and “terrifically desolate” landscape that inspired Mary Shelley’s great horror story.

To complete the literary tour of Lake Geneva and its environs, you need to see the awe-inspiring environment of mountain and glacier that provides the backdrop to some of the most dramatic scenes in Frankenstein. Luckily, from Vevey that’s easily done. A 40-minute train ride takes you to Martigny, from where you can either ride the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix (the actual location of the confrontation between Dr Frankenstein and his monster), or make the slightly longer trip to Zermatt, from where the Gornergrat cogwheel railway provides unrivalled views of the equally stupendous Matterhorn.

Mary Shelley was inspired by the beauty and terror of its landscape, Byron by its turbulent political history. Henry James took his inspiration from its culture of international luxury travel. In the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland, each of these writers found something that fed their imagination and allowed them to create unique works of literature. What will you find when you follow in the footsteps of these great literary travellers?

 

Lord Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon was inspired by Lake Geneva’s political history

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