Undoubtedly many of you have heard of Alexandre Dumas, or at least some of his famous novels like the Three Musketeers series. "The Count of Monte Cristo" was probably his best known. It told a story of a Marseille man wrongly imprisoned due to the treachery of his supposed "friends." He was isolated on an island penitentiary where escape was theoretically impossible (like Alcatraz used to be). That island prison was Le Château d'If, the main fortress on the Îsle d'If, just a short 20-minute boat ride from Marseille. In the story, the man manages to escape the island by digging his way out over the course of years, claims a fortune bequeathed him by a fellow prisoner, and returns to Marseille a remade man with vengeance on his mind. I read that book for high school English class and enjoyed it very much. I've also noted that several movie adaptation have been made over time, some better than others.
Although the book was fiction, the Île and Le Château d'If were real places off the coast of Marseille. The Château was originally a fortress from which the City of Marseille helped defend itself against 16th and 17th century invaders. The Île was essentially the last line of defense, lying very close to the shore -- certainly in modern times, we would not want enemy ships to get so close to our cities. The Château completely covered the island, and its three round towers St. Jaume, St. Christopher, and Maugovert, shown from left to right in the first photo, was a great vantage point in all directions.
As it has long since outlived its usefulness as a defensive position, the Château was converted to a museum and the Île a major tourist destination, encouraged by their role in Dumas' famous work. "Monte Cristo" tours depart Marseille's old port continuous through the day, bringing people to see the island and its superbly preserved, though now emptied, fortress. The second photograph probably gives a better idea of how large this fortress was. It covered virtually the entire island. The photograph shows the walkway leading from the ferry dock up to the castle entrance. There was a lot of climbing involved.
The museum tour was terrific, pretty much showing the full interior of the castle, which actually wasn't all that big. The tour included viewing some of the dungeon chambers, which were stark indeed. It also included some of the warden's living quarters and other operational rooms. Most of these were emptied out and not reconstructed or restored to their original decor, like the room shown in the third photograph. However, other rooms held exhibits showing the treatment of prisoners on If in the 17th and 18th centuries, and stories of the many unsuccessful sieges on Marseille (thanks to this fortress). Of course, also included were special exhibits focusing on Dumas' famous work.
As far as the rest of the island went, its primary benefit is the many views of the shore and other islands such as the Isles du Frioul. It was fun to climb around the tower ruins and enjoy the distant scenery. But covering the whole island didn't take long as the island was rather small. There were only four major sights -- the Château, the lighthouse shown in the fourth photograph, and the Porte Florentine (the columned structure also shown in the fourth photograph, and a Casernement (military barracks). As the photo shows, the Porte hosted the island's café (it just wouldn't be French if there was no café).
The island can readily be covered in about an hour making it a decent excursion from the city. The museum could be skipped if one wanted, in favor of spending more time climbing the various tower ruins and grabbing a cup of coffee at the Porte Florentine. However, not doing the museum meant not getting the chance to appreciate the pain and patience it would have taken for someone to dig their way through the dungeon floor and out to the sea. It took a genius like Dumas to make such a crazy story compelling, and to write a novel whose impact has lasted so many years.Trip taken 28 July 2001 -- Page Last Updated 26 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin