Explore France’s Most Inspiring Prison
After centuries, “The Count of Monte Cristo” still remains a classic tale of adventure and intrigue. While the people who have inspired the characters have long since passed, the famed settings may still be experienced firsthand.
Nowhere is that more true than Isle d’If, the rocky island outpost just beyond Marseilles, and home to a sparse and foreboding prison.
Marseilles is an old port city located on the southern coast of France. Sitting at the mouth of its harbor – only a couple of miles from the port itself – is a small archipelago consisting of four small islands: Pomègues, Tiboulain, Ratonneau and If. While the outcroppings are rocky, they do boast a plethora of beaches, coves and plant life. Pomègues and Ratonneau are especially popular for their hiking, wildlife and beaches. Meanwhile, If has become a famous French destination for the decidedly less idyllic architectural stamp found there.
The château on the small island was once a fortress, constructed by King François I in the 16th century, according to France’s Center of National Monuments . It was designed as a sentry for the city, meant to provide cover for the royal fleet and the city of Marseilles, and protect the coast from invading forces. Its positioning at the mouth of the port made it ideal for this function. However, it wasn’t long after its commissioning that the fortress was used as a state prison, with government dissenters being housed there from 1580 to 1871.
Alexandre Dumas immortalized the fortress in his novel of wrongful imprisonment and revenge. It was in the the château D’If that the protagonist Edmond Dantès was held for more than five years for a crime he didn’t commit. Supposedly he himself was based on real-life prisoner and famed If resident José Custodio Faria, according to France’s official tourism website, though Dumas may have also drawn on his own father’s plight as a wronged man.
A stark sight
The prison is no longer active, but there is still a sense of adventure that comes with a trip to the isle. Ferries run daily to the archipelago, and in the morning the boats will cut through choppy waters and a thick fog to get there. As the boat approaches, the steep rock cliffs of If emerge through a mist. The dock is little more than a concrete platform, with buckets and ropes draped over fortified walls to aid in the hauling of goods to the top. To get to the actual château, travelers must walk up a small, gravelly switch-backed path.
On top of the isle is little more than a visitor’s house and the prison itself. It’s a relatively small structure, though a few stories tall. Inside is a centralized courtyard, around which the prison cells are organized. Travelers are welcomed to explore the rooms, read up on the history of the inmates and learn more about the man behind “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The small, shadowy rooms are fascinating, especially for fans of the book. Yet, the best sight is probably the one atop the building itself. From there, travelers can see the entirety of the miniature isle, its rocky shores and the rough waters that would make escape all but impossible.