The Strange Past of Nyon Castle

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Nyon Castle, Château de Nyon, Nyon, Switzerland

On a dark and stormy afternoon, on the banks of Lake Geneva, the castle perched on the hill in Nyon looked imposing and cold.  The white walls and pointy turrets looked promising, and the thunderbolts that were shooting down all around us made it necessary that we take shelter there regardless.

The castle’s origins were as a fortified house, built by the Cossonay-Prangins in the 12th century.  Like so many castles around Lake Geneva, it was seized by the counts of Savoy in 1293.   In the 1360s they began to enlarge and transform it.  The Savoyards were chased out by the Bernese in the spirit of the Reformation in 1536, which led to further works being undertaken, and the castle gradually took its current form.

In 1804 the castle was bought by the City of Nyon, in the newly created canton of Vaud.  The building served a strange combination of purposes: it was a courthouse, a place for holding local council meetings, a prison and in 1888, it housed a museum.

The museum came about from the efforts of local amateurs who in 1860 created a society to “collect and preserve antiques, inscriptions, historical documents, medals, coinages, objects of natural history, books, plans, drawings, etc.”  The objects are all related to Nyon and its immediate surroundings, and as such form a truly local collection.  Originally the hoard was displayed in the College of Nyon, but the museum was eventually given part of the ground floor of the castle.

In 1947 it hosted a major exhibition on Nyon porcelain, and from that point the museum has been actively involved in expanding its collection of locally produced porcelain.  In 2006, after six years of restoration, the museum took its current form and now covers the whole building.

Nyon Porcelain

It is a quirk of Nyon that it was chosen as the spot for establishing a porcelain factory in 1781.  Not only were its fortunes not linked with a royal court, like other European factories, but it also doesn’t lie in an area that is rich in the essential raw materials needed for the manufacture of porcelain – the kaolin, for example, had to be imported from a place near Limoges in France, quite some way away, while the minerals used for creating colours came from Basel or Germany.

Although the factory was set up by Ferdinand Müller and Jacques Dortu, it was the latter who really ran the place.  Dortu, who had experience in painting and manufacturing porcelain in Germany, France, Sweden and Russia, remained in Nyon until the end, whereas Müller went off to seek his fortune elsewhere after five years. Anyway, their timing was good: the Swiss upper classes had entered into a period of wanting luxurious daily items and porcelain was both useful and elegant – especially for drinking those exotic beverages of tea, coffee and chocolate.

The plan paid off, with the factory producing good quality porcelain that could rival more established centres.  The products were elegant and practical, nicely balancing original and derivative motifs.  Unfortunately, problems started to emerge at the end of the 18th century with the change of the political situation and the appearance of Napoleon.  In the end, the doors of the factory closed in 1813, although faience manufacturing continued in Nyon until 1979.

For me the most interesting objects were a set of china cups and saucers which had the personalised silhouettes of the Bonnard family.  Moïse Bonnard was involved in the porcelain industry in Nyon, and the images of him, his wife and four sons are very sweet.

The porcelain collection forms the main body of the museum displays.  There is then a stark change in mood when you visit some little rooms which are entirely covered in occasionally strange graffiti, from an unspecified period, although one date I saw was from 1819.

Moving on, there are some enlarged reproductions of photographs taken by local photographers Louis Kunz and his son Auguste during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1991, over 10,000 negatives were found at their studio and these were given to the museum.  They show the lives and faces of Nyon past, and are therefore rather lovely.  One of the rooms where their work is displayed is still used for weddings.

The third floor of the castle has been given over to prison cells since 1593, though interestingly they were only in the turrets.  In the 1830 and 1880s further cells were built on the lake side (to give those pesky criminals a nice view) and, most bizarrely of all, the prison was in use until 1979.  Yes, 1979.

Still, that explains the very groovy, hippy-culture graffiti, which was fun to look at.

The final part of museum is under the roof.  There’s an odd display of items that you can view from a distance, showing the sort of objects the museum has in storage.

So In Summary

To be honest, I found the castle to be quite uninspiring.  There wasn’t an awful lot to see, unless you’re particularly interested in porcelain… and even so.  The prison cells were the most interesting part, because they were so weird, but otherwise I couldn’t help feeling detached.  The museum would have been more engaging, I think, if the displays had really concentrated on the history of Nyon, through a wider variety of objects and displays.

Further Information

The museum has an entry fee.

There is a website from which you can get all necessary information for planning a visit, but it is only in French:

How to Get There

To get to Nyon by train, check out:

While the castle is an easy walk downhill from the train station, and a little harder work uphill from the ferry stop, there is a local bus company, so you can get info on their services here:

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