Unlike the protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’ classic adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo, I escaped to – not from – the Chateau d’If in Marseilles, France.
If you’re not familiar with the famous 1844 novel or its numerous cinematic adaptations (I’m a big fan of the 2002 movie starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce), it’s basically the story of one man’s quest for revenge against the people who framed him for a crime he did not commit.
In the story, honest sailor Edmond Dantès spends 14 years imprisoned in the dungeons of the notorious Chateau d’If – an island fortress from which no prisoner has ever escaped…
**SPOILER ALERT: he escapes!
That’s me (pictured) on a boat ride to the real life Chateau d’If, which is roughly 1.6km (one mile) offshore in the Bay of Marseille in southern France.
The island is heavily fortified, with steep cliffs that rise up from the ocean, huge walls and platforms that used to house guns. It kind of reminds you of Alcatraz, which shouldn’t be surprising because this famous literary prison was also literally a prison in real life – more on that in a moment.
Constructed in the years from 1524 to 1531, the Chateau d’If was originally designed for defending Marseilles from potential naval attacks.
However, for a long time the most military action the little island ever saw was when in 1800 Napoleon ordered the embalmed body of French general Jean Baptiste Kleber to remain at the Chateau d’If for fear of it becoming a symbol of Republicanism. The body stayed there for 18 years until it was finally given a proper burial on the mainland.
It was during the 1800s that the Chateau d’If became one of the most notorious prisons in France as well as a dumping ground for detainees who threatened religious and political upheaval. For instance, more than 3,500 French Protestants were sent to the Chateau d’If when Catholicism was the state religion of France.
Prisoners incarcerated in the Chateau d’If were treated differently according to their wealth and class within society. The poorest prisoners were kept near the bottom, in windowless dungeons, with 20 or more to a cell. At the other end of the scale, the wealthiest and most important inmates were housed in private cells near the top of the chateau, with windows and, often, their own fireplace.
Edmond Dantès may have escaped from the Chateau d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo, becoming the first to ever do so, but in reality no-one is known to have ever escaped the prison and then made it back to shore.
The island was demilitarised and opened to the public in 1890, when it became too expensive to house prisoners there.
The Chateu d’If’s interesting background in history and literature makes it a top tourist destination in Marseilles. Seemingly hundreds of tourists visit the island every day – and even legendary American author Mark Twain wrote about visiting it as a tourist in 1867, when it was still in operation as a prison.
I highly recommend that you check it out when you’re in Marseilles. The prison itself is very cool, and the view of Marseilles from the Chateau d’If is amazing. Seriously, go and do it!
How do I get there and how much will it cost?
You can find boat tours to the Chateau d’If in Marseilles’ old port, which at the time of writing cost roughly €10.50 for a return ticket to the island – plus you’ll need to pay €5.50 at the island if you want to walk around the former prison.
The boat ride only takes between 15-20 minutes, and they run relatively frequently (though not nearly as often as the Alcatraz tour boats run in San Francisco, but that’s a blog post for another time).