The first of the grand hotels on Lake Geneva to exploit Lord Byron’s visit in 1816 opened its doors in 1839. The Hotel Byron was built in Villeneuve, a mile down the road from the Château de Chillon. It commanded a view west along the lake and south to the Dents du Midi. For a century the Byron welcomed guests following in the footsteps of the Romantic poets, of Gibbon and Rousseau.
Byron visited the castle at Chillon twice during that prolific summer of 1816. The first time was with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the second time with his old university chum, John Cam Hobhouse. After that first visit, both poets booked into Hotel de l’Ancre in Ouchy to dry out and escape the rain. They had had a stormy day boating on the lake. Byron wrote the thirteen verses of “The Prisoner of Chillon” in a couple of nights, and sent it off to his publisher John Murray in London. It became a best-seller immediately, partly because of its sentimentality but also because of the whiff of scandal attaching to Byron, the “Napoleon of rhyme”.
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old.
The romantic shenanigans of Byron, Shelley and Mary Godwin, Shelley’s lover and author of Frankenstein, around the lake that summer, fueled an interest in all things Swiss. The poetry and the mountains did the rest.
The Hotel Byron was the largest hotel on the Swiss Riviera, mentioned in the first edition of Baedeker. Before the railway, “Going over the Simplon” often involved a pit-stop at Le Byron. Its guest list was an artistic Who’s Who of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Victor Hugo, Stefan Zweig and Rabindranath Tagore are among the scribbling luminaries who got a night’s kip within sight of the dungeon that Byron had made immortal in verse.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, staying there in 1859, had this to say:
We found the Hotel Byron very grand indeed, and a good one too. There was a beautiful moonlight on the lake and hills, but we contented ourselves with looking out of our lofty window, whence, likewise, we had a sidelong glance at the battlements of Chillon, not more than a mile off, on the water’s edge… the hotel is on a magnificent scale of height and breadth, its staircases and corridors being the most spacious I have seen; but there is a kind of meagerness in the life there, and a certain lack of heartiness, that prevented us from feeling at home.
The shabby-chic was more to Henry James’s taste:
There is a charming Hôtel Byron at Villeneuve, the eastern end of the lake, of which I have retained a kindlier memory than of any of my Swiss resting-places. It has about it a kind of mellow gentility which is equally rare and delightful … It has none of that look of heated prosperity which has come of late years to intermingle so sordid an element with the pure grandeur of Swiss scenery.
Henry goes on to whine a bit about the decline of the Grand Tour and the rise of bling. “Mr. Cook, the great entrepreneur of travel, with his coupons and his caravans of ‘personally-conducted’ sightseers … a hackneyed and cocknefied Europe.” He has a great way with a phrase though. It’s like a piece of Toblerone moving around in the mouth: “hackneyed and cocknefied Europe”. It could be a stag party coming out of the Gare du Nord.
In 1929, the Byron establishment, always financially precarious, fell on hard times. The ambiguously named Chillon College, a private boarding school catering to the sons of British colonialism, took over the premises. Chillon College was precursor to the many international schools around the lake today, serving the sons and daughters of the international rich, whose bank account are nearby. The Lausanne Gazette described the students as “a batallion of little Anglo-Saxons animating the corridors of the hotel”. The Straits Times went so far as to describe it as the “Eton of Switzerland”.
On the night of 23 January 1933, fifteen minutes past midnight, the Hotel Byron burned down, fortunately with no casualties among the boarders. Today there is an old people’s home on the site, still called Le Byron.