Byron has carved his signature into stone, each letter distinct on the lightly colored surface, elegantly delineated. I can imagine him leaning close to the stone pillar and carving out each letter of his name patiently, knowing that generations to come would look upon it and try to divine his presence.
This Byronic graffiti is in of the first floor rooms at the Chateau Chillon, about an hour and a half drive from Geneva. Situated on the banks of the lake, it is part a fortification (and toll booth for lake-faring merchants of yore) and part a stately royal residence.
From the cold stone of the underground dungeons and other rooms to the giant fireplaces and beautifully detailed furniture of the rooms on the top floors, this 900 year old castle appears strangely insubstantial when you view it through the shreds of mist around the lake. But it is real and it has survived for almost a 1000 years mostly intact.
While other tourists wandered around the courtyards and admired the views from the many windows or exclaimed over the painted ceilings and ornate furniture I found myself shuddering in the heat as ghostly fingers crept up my spine.
I had walked into the crypt, a place that others seemed to avoid. In the 15 or so minutes I spent in the crypt there no one else entered. I could hear the sounds of conversation, the laughter (and cries) of children above me, but no one else was around.
It was damp and occasional shafts cut into the ceiling let in light while slits on the side of the stone walls gave me glimpses of the lake. If I listened carefully I could even hear the swishing of the water against the outer walls of the castle.
But more than that, despite not seeing anyone there I did not feel alone. There was someone. Many someones here. The temperature had dipped as soon as I walked down the rough-hewn stairs. As I stumbled I steadied myself against a wall and felt the moisture chill my skin. I wondered if there were bodies entombed in the walls.
Was that strange smell just from centuries of being next to a body of water? Was it just mustiness or was it really the smell of buried bodies? It didn't smell like any other subterranean place I've ever been to. This was the smell of death.
More than a smell, this was a place where live could not thrive. From the smell to the feeling of being buried even as life continued above me. The tantalizing glimpses of sky and water just made it more surreal.
Rooms led to passages and steps and more rooms. Who were the nameless dead? At least Byron had left his mark in a place frequented by the living on a stone pillar that was warmed by the sun that streamed in from a nearby window. But these people had no names, they are anonymous and I am not sure if they were totally at peace.
I wondered if I could find my way back through the maze, wondering if I was doomed to be trapped forever, bad B-movie scripts playing in my head. Then I saw an old wooden ladder. I climbed up gingerly and emerged into the blazing sunlight, slightly disoriented.
It was strange to be back among the living. Perhaps I had brought something dead up with me into the land of the living.