Mis à jour : mars 2
Sit by the calming waters of Lac Léman and you’ll be instantly transported back in time.
You can marvel at the eternally-enduring Château de Chillon, painted so many times over its lifetime that even I have a painting, from 1921, depicting its grandeur, hanging in my soon-to-be kitchen.
You can recite Lord Byron’s poem about the doomed Francois Bonivard, The Prisoner of Chillon, with an emotional depth Baron George Gordon himself would approve of, or gaze out across the deep waters, reminding yourself that the man who condemned the Stuart King Charles I to a quick and pain-free beheading in 1649 lived out his life over there in Vevey.
You’d know, of course, that the essence of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was given life on the lake when Mary Wollstonecraft won the contest to write the scariest story, against Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron, during the endless stormy middle months of 1816, the Year Without a Summer.
You might stand exactly where Empress Elizabeth of Austria was dispatched in 1898, knock on the door of Vladimir Lenin’s summer chalet, visit Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin’s home, or take a stroll where Belgian-born actor Audrey Hepburn showed off the fashion sense that got her inducted into the International Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame, and where English-born playwright and composer Sir Noël Peirce Coward stretched his legs with that unique “combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise"
Alternatively, you can climb aboard a boat.
Not just any boat, but an historic paddle steamer.
You could pretend to ‘mark twain’, the riverboatman’s cry when a two-fathom depth was measured on the sounding line, on the oldest boat the Montreux, built in 1904, the newest, the Rhône III, launched in 1927, or the La Suisse II, Savoie, or Simplon, which took to the water between those years.
But if you wanted to pretend to be Mark Twain rather than just check the draft, you’d need to go a little further back.
As far back as the Spring of 1857, when the A. B. Chambers, a beautifully-crafted and expertly-decorated stern-wheeled paddle steamer, proudly flying the Stars and Stripes from its funnels and along its whitewashed decks, is edging its way through the waters of the mighty Mississippi, navigating “every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river”, to reach Natchez, its next stop on its very American journey.
On board, as the boat steams along at a wonderfully-sedate and comparatively-un-American five miles-an-hour, is an apprentice steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens, not yet Mark Twain, whose career as a riverboatman is just getting underway.
While it’s the beginning for Clemens it’s not for the paddle steamer, which had been conceived long before the pioneering French physicist Denis Papin built one in 1704. The Mississippi River got its first around 1812, the same year the United States declared war on Great Britain over British violations of US maritime rights. A few years later, the Enterprise, the first stern-wheeler, steamed down the two-hundred-and-ten kilometer Monongahela River in Pennsylvania toward New Orleans, ready to steady the ride of the less-stable side-wheelers that lurched with the moving crowd, due to the huge wheel’s weight and placement.
Twain reminisced about his life on the Mississippi often, describing in detail his journeys along the thirty-seven-hundred-and-thirty kilometer river, and how, in becoming a riverboat pilot, he had fulfilled a childhood-long dream. It was, he recalled, as an American growing up in the midwestern town of Florida, Missouri, the “one permanent ambition", and one which paid a “princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay."
Riverboat journeys are a long way from the kind of travel we’ve now become used to.
In the name of progress, the world became smaller, and faster, and we've inevitably had to match that pace, and be everywhere we could as quickly as possible. We accepted that we’d be jet-packed tightly on planes, and focused only on getting where we were going, flying between cities that called to us with dollar-sirens sat atop gilded statues of long-dead narcissists, who championed the railways above the out-of-date steamers.
But these days, given our current state of affairs, you might just enjoy boarding a glorious stern-wheeler, about to sail gently down Ol’ Man River, its huge hull pushing off from the bank, creating a wake of hope on a bright sunny afternoon, the band playing you away with Stephen Foster’s Old Folks At Home. Dinner, dancing, and even a little light gambling might lie ahead for the journey, and certainly there'd be some meeting and mingling, at social distance, of course, in the vast halls and private cabins. The days will pass serenely and with much decorum, the length of the journey dependent on the weather, the speed of the boat, the amount of cargo taken on and off along the way, and, of course, the pilot’s experience and skill.
It took Twain two full years of training to learn the river’s secrets, and avoid the obstacles that would "tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated", and he never ceased being that pilot in his mind. He rued the days that the American Civil War, blockades, and hostilities, and then the fire-breathing dragons of the rails, put an end to a way of life he had lived and loved.
The steamboats of Lac Léman don’t travel that far, of course, and I’ve not yet seen a band playing them off on their journey to and from France, but you can certainly feel they come from an age of gentility that we may have thought we’d lost.
Even though America threw yet another precious experience away in its incessant push for greatness, other more thoughtful communities have not, and you can still board a steamboat and glide away to a gentler and more peaceful time.
Photo by Yomira Studio