The former prison "Château d'If" on one of the Frioul Islands off the coast of Marseille is known worldwide through the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo" and is thus a popular destination for tourists.
Of the Frioul Islands off the coast of Marseille, If is probably the most famous. The inconspicuous rock in the Mediterranean owes this fact to its proud fortress. The former state prison "Château d'If" has been known worldwide at least since "The Count of Monte Cristo" and attracts numerous tourists every year. We have included it on our list of the top 10 sights of Marseille.
The entire archipelago forms a perfect photo motif with its chalky white cliffs in the glittering blue of the Mediterranean. The best view of the Frioul Islands is from the Old Port or even the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde from its hill above the city.
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PICTURES: Château d'If outside Marseille
Construction of Château d'If
The fortress on the island of If wasbuilt between 1524 and 1531 under King Francis I, as the port of Marseille had no protection before then. It was not until 1481 that Marseille was placed under the rule of Paris and the construction of Château d'If led to a lot of resentment among the people as a paternalism in terms of local defence.
As much as the citizens grumbled, the fortress on the approximately 3-hectare rocky island served its purpose. Due to its deterrent effect, it was attacked unsuccessfully by the Spanish king only once five years after its completion and was then used as a port of call by fishermen, pirates and smugglers for a long time.
Château d'If became a French state prison from 1580. Because of its mighty walls and exposed location, it seemed impossible to break out.
Notorious prison and novel
With his novel, "The Count of Monte-Cristo", Alexandre Dumas helped the centuries-old fortress island off Marseille to worldwide fame. The author had chosen the bulwark as the place where his main character, Edmond Dantés, had to spend an unjustified 13 years before he could escape and take cruel revenge on his conspirators. Incidentally, his escape across the sea inspired the annual swimming competition "Monte Cristo Challenge".
Several thousand unfortunates, mainly demonstrators, Protestants and political opponents, were imprisoned in the Château d'If, most of them without a judicial sentence but by royal order. A certain Monsieur de Niozelles is said to have been imprisoned for 6 years for failing to doff his hat in the presence of King Louis XIV.
One of the most famous inmates of the Château d'If is Mirabeau, a hero of the French Revolution, who was thrown into prison by his own father in 1774. At least he had his own spacious room with a view and a fireplace, unlike other prisoners who had to endure in naked, windowless cells. Allegedly, he even seduced the cook.
Visit to Château d'If
The notorious prison of If was abandoned in 1890 and opened to visitors. Today, the 28m square fortress is a tourist attraction, which has also been a listed building since 1926, and is not only of interest to avid novel readers.
The Château d'If can be reached in just a few minutes by boat from the Old Port of Marseille. The limestone island can be visited free of charge, but anyone who also wants to enter the three-storey fortress must pay an entrance fee.
The tour of the interior takes in the former prison cells, where a souvenir shop and exhibitions on the history of Château d'If, Dumas' novel and Europe's first rhinoceros have been set up.
Tip: Watch out! Especially between March and April, the gulls on the island of If behave very aggressively as they defend their nests.
The first rhinoceros in Europe
It was also during the reign of Francis I that the first rhinoceros ever seen in Europe stopped off at Château d'If. The King of Portugal received it as a gift from an Indian king, who wanted to give it to the Pope in Rome. From Lisbon there, the island of If was scheduled as a stopover in 1516. Both the king and the French people were keen to see the strange creature. On the onward journey to Rome, however, the freighter was shipwrecked and the rhinoceros only arrived at Pope Leo X in stuffed form.
Other places of interest in the Frioul Islands
In addition to If, the limestone islands of Pomèques, Ratonneau and Tiboulen are also part of the Frioul Islands, on some of which a very unique flora and fauna has developed. From the highest of the three round towers, the 22m high "Saint Christophe", there is a fantastic view of the other Frioul islands and the coast of Marseille.
In addition to the fortress on If, the Frioul Islands also have the sea bass breeding station on Pomègues, the world's first organic breeding station, the former quarantine station Hôpital Caroline on Ratonneau and a marina at Port Frioul. A small tourist train runs between the harbour and the hospital on Ratonneau, and there are also a few eateries here for the small appetite in between.