In the rakish footsteps of Lord Byron

A statue of Lord Byron stands near the heart of Athens
A statue of Lord Byron stands near the heart of Athens - Getty

It looks a little incongruous, the moment you set eyes upon it.

There, at the south-west corner of the National Garden, on the east side of central Athens, stands a statue of Lord Byron – just minutes from the Arch of Hadrian, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Acropolis.

There is this most British of poets, among gently swaying trees and fragrant foliage; carefully crafted by the hands of French sculptors Henri-Michel Chapu and Alexandre Falguiere – and placed in the city in 1895, just prior to the first revived Olympic Games.

A portrait of Lord Byron from the early 1800s
A portrait of Lord Byron from the early 1800s - Getty

A graceful work in white marble, it shows Byron in the arms of a semi-naked female figure. Yet this is not one of the many women who passed through the life of this man of notoriously bacchanalian disposition. Gazing down at the poet, she is a feminine incarnation of Greece, and a visual metaphor for Byron’s brief but – in the Hellenic world, at least – celebrated role in the same country’s independence struggle against the Ottoman Empire. It was an escapade that would cost him his life – 200 years ago today.

This is a tale which bears retelling – not least because, here in his native Britain, this aristocratic wordsmith is better known as a lover than a fighter. Born in London on January 22 1788, George Gordon Byron would grow up to be one of the most feted poets of the Romantic era. He would have companions, allies, rivals and superiors during this surge of early-19th-century creativity, among them William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Shelley and William Blake; but none who would prove as accomplished in the bedroom as at the writing desk.

Byron's palace plaque at the Grand Canal, Venice
Byron's palace plaque at the Grand Canal, Venice - Alamy Stock Photo

Byron would become best known for Don Juan – his masterpiece, written in several stages between 1819 and 1824. Here was an epic poem, its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, which satirised the Spanish libertine of 17th-century fiction, portraying him not as the womaniser of legend, but as a victim of circumstance, easily seduced. There was a fair element of personal experience to this; a nod and wink to the libidinous lifestyle that would force Byron to flee not just his homeland, but various other salubrious addresses.

London – where scandal erupted (1812-1816)

Only vaguely raised by a largely absent father and a mother who loved to indulge him, he grew into a young man of few personal boundaries. At the age of 10, he became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale, inheriting both the title and the ancestral home (Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire) on the death of his great-uncle. By the time he reached his 20s, he was a peacock, unashamed about using his power and position to inveigle his way into the hearts and boudoirs of some of London’s most eligible – but, more frequently, ineligible – women.

Teresa Gamba Guiccioli was the last true love of Byron's life
Teresa Gamba Guiccioli was the last true love of Byron's life - Alamy Stock Photo

Between 1809 and 1811, the poet did as many young men of means did at the time, setting off on the “Grand Tour” of Europe – albeit by an unconventional route. With the Napoleonic Wars raging across the centre of the continent, Byron spurned the standard trail across France and down through Italy – and, instead, aimed for Portugal, ambling through Lisbon and Sintra, before heading east into Spain, to Seville and Jerez. In Gibraltar, he boarded a boat for Sardinia and Malta, returned to the mainland in Albania, and reached Athens in 1810. He returned to Britain in July 1811 aboard HMS Volage, and, within a year, published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a four-part narrative poem that made him a literary hero of Regency London. Stardom, success – and scandal – ensued.

In 1812, he embarked upon an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. Two years his senior (26 to his 24), she was, appropriately, a fellow writer. Inappropriately, she was married. Their tryst became the talk of society – especially when Byron tired of the relationship, but his infatuated lover did not. She would take clear aim at him in her 1816 novel Glenarvon; a book in which the real identity of the titular lord – a cad and a rake – needed little decoding. But she would also bestow upon Byron a rather pithier character assassination; one that endures into the present – describing him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

On January 2 1815, he was married to Annabella Milbanke – who left him a year later, taking their daughter, the future mathematician Ada Lovelace, with her.

Lake Geneva – for things that go bump in the night (1816)

The disintegration of his marriage would send Byron into something of a spiral. He fled Britain in April 1816, vowing never to return. With this, the second chapter of his life began; a period of great travels and wanderings. Between June and November 1816, he rented Villa Diodati, a splendid hideaway in Cologny, at the south-west tip of Lake Geneva. Here, he and his travel companion John Polidori were joined by Percy Shelley and his lover Mary Godwin; the future Mary Shelley.

Their companionship would have a dramatic impact on literature. It was Mary who, in 1831, wrote of the “incessant rain [which] often confined us for days to the house”. Three particular days in June proved especially fruitful, prompting a storytelling session where the friends recited and created macabre tales for the others’ entertainment. These conversations would give birth to two major works of Gothic fiction: Polidori’s The Vampyre, in 1819, and Mary Shelley’s own incomparable mould-breaker Frankenstein – published a year earlier.

Byron rented Villa Diodati while in Geneva
Byron rented Villa Diodati while in Geneva - Alamy Stock Photo

Pisa – for revolutionary rumblings (1821)

After two years in Venice – during which he was seduced both by Italy, and (briefly) by the young, tempestuous (and married) Margarita Cogni – Byron eloped across the Italian torso, to Pisa, in 1821. The first stirrings of the plotting that would kill him had seen him outstay his welcome on the eastern coast; his wild dreams of an Italy removed from foreign control had led to indiscreet conversations with local hotheads, and the unappreciative gaze of the Austrian powers-that-be. Teresa Gamba Guiccioli – the last true love of his life, whom he had also met in Venice – went with him to Tuscany, as did Shelley, who wrote of the dinner parties at the 16th-century Palazzo Toscanelli (now the city archives), where Byron played host.

Livorno – for death in the water (1822)

Perhaps this spiritedness was too infectious. Enthralled by their new location near the Ligurian Sea, the two poets commissioned boats – Byron the Bolivar; Shelley the aptly named Don Juan. It was in the latter that, on July 8 1822, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams cast off from Livorno, intending to sail up to Lerici. When they encountered a heavy storm on the voyage north, the Don Juan foundered, taking all on board with it. Shelley’s badly decomposed corpse washed up at Viareggio 10 days later.

Genoa – for a final heartbreak (1822-1823)

A fracas that attracted the attention of the Pisa police had already sent Byron to the Villa Dupouy, in Montenero, outside Livorno. A subsequent falling out with Teresa’s brothers pushed him on again, to Albaro, on the outskirts of Genoa. The Villa Saluzzo, where he settled, is still there (in private hands) – a gorgeous hilltop property which witnessed the ugly end to his affair with Teresa.

By now, Byron had been contacted by leading members of the Greek independence movement, and was increasingly enamoured with the idea of liberating an ancient European civilisation from Ottoman occupation. He sailed from Genoa to Kefalonia on July 16 1823 – leaving a heartbroken Teresa to weep in the city.

Lord Byron's room in the Palazzo Moncenigo, Venice
Lord Byron's room in the Palazzo Moncenigo, Venice - Getty

Greece – for an adventure too far (1823-1824)

A vague notion soon became a firm conviction. Byron landed on the “Greek” mainland, at Missolonghi, on January 5 1824, and quickly became a popular part of the struggle; a famous figure with the profile – and, significantly, the cash – to make a difference.

In spite of a total lack of military experience, he agreed to lead an assault on the Ottoman-held Lepanto fortress, which guarded the Gulf of Corinth at (modern-day) Nafpaktos. A display of strength, or stupidity? Who knows? The man of words never had the chance to become a man of war. On February 15 1824, Byron came down with a fever that would not release him from its hold – in spite of, or, rather more likely, because of, the regular blood-letting performed by his doctors. He died in his bed at Missolonghi, on April 19 1824. He was 36 years old.

Nottinghamshire – for an unwanted grave

Against his wishes, his body was repatriated. Vast crowds viewed his coffin in London, but Westminster Abbey refused him a tomb, on grounds of “questionable morality”. So he lies in the Church of St Mary Magdalene, in the village of Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, five miles from the old family pile at Newstead Abbey. His daughter Ada is next to him.

Three holidays on the Byron trail


La Serenissima is the most obvious location in which to seek Byron’s ghost. The Palazzo Mocenigo, his former home, is open to the public as a museum (of textiles, costume and perfume;, and you can wander in the halls where the poet strolled. You can also still take a seat at Caffe Florian, the venerable coffee shop on the south side of St Mark’s Square which was already part of the Venetian furniture in Byron’s day – it first opened its doors in 1720 ( A three-night stay at the Hotel Londra Palace – a historic property five minutes’ walk to the east – costs from £1,098 a head, including flights and transfers, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2288;

The Palazzo Mocenigo is Byron's former home
The Palazzo Mocenigo is Byron's former home - Alamy Stock Photo


Emilia-Romagna also remembers its bohemian guest of two centuries ago. The Palazzo Guiccioli, at Via Cavour 54, is open to visitors, and now contains a pair of museums – one of them honouring Byron’s stay in the city. At time of writing, it is closed for refurbishment, but is scheduled to reopen later this year (more information at Much as it was in 1820, Ravenna is a glorious near-seaside city, and a short stay means a chance to doze on Adriatic beaches. A three-night mini-break to the three-star Hotel Centrale Byron, flying direct from Heathrow to Bologna (50 miles away) on June 6, costs from £431 per person, through Expedia (020 3024 8211;

(Lake) Geneva

Villa Diodati, where Frankenstein and his monster came into being, still haunts the waterside in Cologny – but, privately owned, is off-limits to tourists. However, the town and the property are but a three-mile walk along the shore from Geneva, and the lake looks spectacular wherever and whenever you view it. A three-night getaway to the four-star Warwick Geneva, flying from Heathrow on May 23, starts at £478 per person, via British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; Spooky stories optional.