5 Real-World Places Similar to Minas Tirith – #2: Sion, Switzerland

Aha! (Image:  perlmic)

Aha! (Image by perlmic)

J. R. R. Tolkien did a walking tour through Switzerland at the age of 19.

Walled castles are not unknown there, and with the idea that one of them may have inspired Tolkien, I have spent the afternoon on the Internet, looking for likely prospects along the path he and his company followed through Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Wengen, Grindelwald, Meiringen, Grimselpass and the Rhône Valley.

The aha! moment came at Sion, the capital of Valais Canton in the Rhône Valley.

Afterwards I learned that Tolkien had indeed been to Sion…maybe. Michael Drout says he did, but the only reference I can find in the letters, in 308, is “…we went on into Valais, and my memories are less clear….”

Subconscious impressions are never clear, but I’m not saying that Valère and Tourbillon castles in Sion did give the young writer an idea for Minas Tirith, only that they certainly remind me of that city.

Valère Castle (Image:  clare and ben)

Valère Castle (Image: clare and ben)

The two castles

Châteaux Valère and Tourbillon actually sit on two separate hills, overlooking the fertile valley where the Sionne River flows into the mighty Rhône.

People have lived here for over 8000 years. Neolithic farmers, Bronze Age people, Celtic tribes and the Romans all called it home.

Christianity arrived in the 4th century, and things really started to pick up when Catholic bishops settled there from the 8th century onward.

According to Wikipedia, Valère – a fortified church – was built in the 12th-13th century and attained the rank of a minor basilica when Pope John Paul II visited it in 1984. This Google-translated website on Swiss castles has more information and some stunning pictures of the place.

Tourbillon Castle was built in the 14th century as the bishop’s residence, destroyed during a revolution in the 15 century, rebuilt, and then in 1788 ruined by a huge fire that began in the town of Sion below.

Sion in 1572 (Wikipedia)

Sion in 1572, with Tourbillon on the left, Valère on the right. (Wikipedia)

Sion and Minas Tirith

You have to look at it from different angles, as perhaps Tolkien did in 1911, to see how closely Sion resembles Minas Tirith.

Only four sets of walls, not seven, are seen in an image from 1572. Still, beyond the city’s walls you have fertile farmlands and outlying towns, just like the Pelennor of Minas Tirith, and a mighty river flows nearby. Many roads also converge in front of Sion’s main gate, too.

This place – the first site in our series that likely was visited by J. R. R. Tolkien – certainly meets the criteria set up in the first post:

  • It’s vertical, with walls, and a place people call home.
  • The Catholic Church brought the elite to Sion. As well, it provided a symbol of something intangible and good to all people.
  • The castles blend with their respective hills while town and farms make use of the Sionne River’s alluvial plain – truly there is balance here between the works of man and nature.

Previous sites listed in this series have been: #5, Mount Hua in China; #4, Macchu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in South America; and #3, Florence, Italy.

Next week’s #1 is a beautiful place that practically screams “Minas Tirith!” at you the first time you see it – perhaps you can already guess its name? Well, see you then. Au revoir, and thank you very much for your interest.

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Categories: Tolkien Tuesday

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2 replies

  1. Love your interest in real life places for middle earth. I too, do the same. (Which is how I stumbled onto your site.) I always fancied that Sion was what inspired Meduseld in Edoras, as it is a Great Hall among men, which sits atop a lone hill in the midst of a bay of mountains: “like a lone sentinel,” I believe Tolkien called the hill. This looks just like Meduseld in my mind. A great Hall, atop a lone hill, in the middle of a bay of mountains, surrounded by a town of modest fashion, and green fields. I’ve always thought Sion was Edoras and Meduseld.

    The Blue Mosque in Istanbul reminds me of Minas Tirith. Istanbul has always been in my mind as the inspiration of Tolkien’s Gondor, as Istanbul aka Constantine, is the real world’s “City of Kings,” and the city where many battles have been fought for control of “the world at large,” in its younger day, some of which changed the face of civilization, and began a new age. Even today, it remains a hub which holds the world in balance. Like M.T., Istanbul is a city without whose ally, the West would be in ruin.

    Istanbul looks like I think M.T. would look from the port, and is so “placed” on the map as to look like Gondor. Like M.T., Istanbul is a major city that connects Europe (Middle Earth), to “the South” (which on Tolkien’s map always reminded me of Africa), and the East. It also sits on a port bay leading to the sea. I’ve always thought Minas Tirith was Istanbul, and the Blue Mosque looks like the citadel.

    But…Mont Saint Michel looks exactly like M.T., so who knows?

    Mohanjo Daro also is resemblant, and was such an advanced society, they even had plumbing thousands of years ago.

    A town, built around a central tower was commonplace years ago, so Tolkien wouldn’t have to search long to find inspiration. Perhaps his inspiration was all of the above. I know from years of Tolkien study, that he was nearly obsessed with Atlantis, and his circular structure of M.T., surrounding and leading to a central hallowed citadel, is how all the scholars draw Atlantis. Perhaps, if Atlantis did, in fact, exist, perhaps Istanbul is the civilization the surviving Atlantians built when they landed…perhaps. As a Tolkien fan, and student, we can all fantasize, and theorize, all we wish, as Tolkien would have wanted, and the nice thing is, we will all be correct. The greatest reward from all my worldly searches for Tolkien landmarks, is that I am becomming a greater student of all the vast places and cultures of this planet. It’s nice to be a fan, yes?

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