St. Peter’s Island – Erlach, Switzerland - Atlas Obscura

Erlach, Switzerland

St. Peter’s Island

The idyllic island where the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent “the happiest time of his life.” 

In 1765, the Swiss political philosopher and revolutionary intellectual Jean-Jacques Rousseau was expelled from France where he had spent several years. He resettled in his country of birth and found refuge in the monastery of St. Peter’s Island in the middle of Switzerland’s Lake Biel.

After years of publishing (more or less legally) angry political pamphlets and having heated debates in the crowded city of Paris, his philosophical approach shifted radically in this remote piece of earth.

The lovely landscape, incredible mountain views, long lonely walks, boating and taking “baths” in flower meadows gave Rousseau a yet-unknown peace of mind. In his famous 1778 book, Reveries of a Solitude Walker, he dedicated a whole chapter (chapter 5) to the island, writing that he had spent the six happiest weeks of his entire life there.

The book is considered as a key work in the literary paradigms of subjectivism, pre-romanticism, and romantic sensitivity, where the experience of natural beauty became the leading theme and moral dispositive. But after only six weeks, Rousseau was expelled from the island because Bernese aristocrats we worried about their controversial revolutionary guest.

The monastery that had hosted Rousseau still exists and hosts a seminary hotel. Rousseau himself lived in the janitor’s house on the monastery grounds. Today, a monument reminds of the island’s most famous visitor and the Erlach municipality offers Rousseau-themed guided tours across the island. St. Peter’s is covered with vineyards and tiny villages built in Swiss chalet style, and the mountain views from the island are indeed extremely beautiful. 

Know Before You Go

St. Peter’s Island (Sankt Petersinsel in German) is actually now a peninsula and can be easily accessed by bike, ship, of public transport.

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