This is the second smallest of the Frioul Islands, just off the coast of Marseille. These islands are practically right in front of the entrance to the Old Port. You can get there on the Frioul If Express (first photo).
The origin of the name Île d'If is rather mysterious. It has nothing to do with the English word if, in any case.
There is a French word if, meaning a kind of coniferous tree i.e. with needles rather than leaves. The English word for this is a yew tree, which I must admit I had never heard of.
Some people think there must have been some yew trees on this island at one time, but that does not seem plausible considering that this is a very barren and dry island that essentially is nothing more than a big rock sticking up out of the water. Maybe there were some yew bushes.
Until 1516 the Île d'If was uninhabited, but then the new French King François I paid a visit (he had just been crowned king in Reims the year before) and decided the island was of strategic importance, so he ordered a fortress to be built on it.
Over three centuries later, in 1832, Victor Hugo wrote a play about François I called Le Roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), in which the king seduces the daughter of the court jester Triboulet. This play was too much for the French censors and was immediately banned, but it later served as the basis for the opera Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The only way Verdi got it past the censors was to change the king into a duke and move the setting from Paris to Mantua.
Victor Hugo was seriously miffed about this, by the way, not only because his play had been banned but also because Verdi had neglected to ask his permission to use it for an opera. Hugo eventually forgave Verdi for this and they became friends, but it took quite a while. And in later years Hugo campaigned successfully for the establishment of the first international copyright laws.
Next Frioul tip: Château d’If
The one big building on the Island of If is this castle, the Château d’If, which was built from 1529 to 1533.
It was built ostensibly to protect the city of Marseille, but more likely to keep the city under control, like the forts at both sides of the entrance to the Old Port.
For centuries the Château d’If was used as a high-security prison, similar to Alcatraz in the United States.
Second photo: Approaching the Château d’If on foot.
Third photo: Entering the Château d’If.
Fourth photo: Looking up at one of the towers.
Fifth photo: Looking back at Marseille from the castle entrance.
Next Frioul tip: Alexandre Dumas
Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) was a military engineer during the reign of the French King Louis XIV.
Vauban was to the seventeenth century what Kilroy ("Kilroy was here") was to the twentieth. Wherever you went in Western Europe, Vauban had already been there and had designed, built, strengthened – or conquered – the fortifications.
Vauban was responsible for the fortification of over 160 places (some sources say as many as 300), mainly in France but also in places that now belong to other countries, such as Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany, and Maastricht, the Netherlands.
In Paris there is a monument to Vauban in the Invalides, in one of the side niches adjoining Napoléon’s tomb.
In 1701 Vauban went to Marseille to inspect the fortifications on the Island of If. He was not impressed.
In the castle there is now a text panel (first photo) with quotations from his report: “Everything is badly made and very negligently constructed, which makes me think in spite of myself that those who were involved in carrying out these works were either perfectly ignorant or were lazy and unwilling, if not worse.”
Fortunately these fortifications were never attacked, so their effectiveness was never tested.
Second photo: Some of the fortifications on the island of If.
Third photo: This rather undistinguished building on the island is named after Vauban.
Next Frioul tip: Views from the island of If
The most famous prisoner of the Château d’If was a fictional one, Edmond Dantès, the protagonist of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870).
In the novel, Edmond Dantès was falsely accused and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Château d’If. After years of confinement he managed to escape from the castle and the island (something no prisoner ever did in real life) and spent the following decades taking revenge on the three men who were responsible for his imprisonment.
Like Victor Hugo, who was also born in 1802, the author Alexandre Dumas was the son of a general in the French army. Hugo and Dumas were friends (and rivals) off and on for their entire lives. Both were hugely successful authors, and both went into exile when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte seized power and proclaimed himself the Emperor Napoléon III in 1851.
Second photo: The Château d’If as seen from the boat. Although he described it so graphically in his novel, the author Alexandre Dumas never actually visited the Château d’If.
Third photo: Here you can look down into one of the prison cells in the Château d’If and see yourself as a prisoner, on a video screen.
Fourth photo: In the Château d’If today there are some text panels about Alexandre Dumas and his family. Here the author of The Count of Monte Cristo is referred to as Alexandre Dumas père (father) to distinguish him from his son Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), who also became a famous novelist and playwright.
Fifth photo: The younger Alexandre Dumas is best known today for his novel (and stage play) La Dame aux camélias, which became the basis for the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).
Next Frioul tip: Vauban was here
From various vantage points on the island of If – whether at ground level, on the ramparts or up on top of the castle – there are spectacular views of Marseille and the harbor, with the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde at the top of the highest hill above the city.
Next Frioul tip: Port Frioul
Nothing special in the castle and probably you won't find what you want. You don't miss anything if you don't see the castle and the cells. If you want a fantastic view of the city from the ferry and castle you can go. And of course you might enjoy the ferry journey itself. That's all...At the end, I can say it is a ripping of the tourists.
A tip: Return boat trip 10,10 Euro. Entrance fee is 5,50 Euro. Free for the Marseille City Pass owners.
Once being dropped off at If Island, we made our way to where we paid our admission fee to visit the Chateau.
The Chateau started life as a fortress, built in 1524-31 on the orders of King Francois I, to be used as a defence against attacks from the sea, this it did against Charles V of Spain in 1536.
The Chateau became a prison in the mid-16th century. We were able to walk inside and see the small Museum which has items belonging to the Count of Monte Cristo.
It was interesting walking through the Prison, seeing how it was back then when so many lost their lives here whilst living in terrible conditions. Many went insane before reaching the end of their sentences. Only the nobles living in the upper-storey cells had much chance of survival.
Also, the crimes they were imprisoned for were terrible, like a person being imprisoned for 6 years for failing to take his hat off in the presence of King Louis XIV.
The Count of Monte Cristo is still surrounded by mystique and fascination and is probably why most people come here. His adventure has been written about, seen on film and television.
Who was he......Edmond Dantes, a sailor unjustly accused of treason on the eve of his wedding, who spent 14 years here before becoming the only inmate to escape by swimming across to the city.
He described Chateau d'If Island as.....
"Blacker than the sea, blacker than the sky, rose like a phantom the giant of granite, whose projecting crags seemed like arms extended to seize their prey".
The Chateau is very well preserved and interesting to wander around.
Today, an annual swimming race, the Monte Cristo Challenge is held.
Jan–March & Oct–Dec 9.30am–5.30pm
ADMISSION ...Adults 5 euros
Chateau d'if and the Count of Monte Cristo..........
Without doubt, José Custodio Faria, whom Alexandre Dumas immortalized in the Count of Monte Cristo, would be the most famous prisoner held here.
If Island was uninhabitated until the 16th century, when a Fortress was built and used as a prison. Many prisoners came and died here.
It is very easy to visit the Island and Chateau.
This website has the time-tables. Boats leave from the old port and the journey takes approx 20mins.
THE CHATEAU IS OPEN FROM......
16 May to 16 September, daily 9:30 to 6:10 p.m.
September 17 to March 31, every day except Mondays, 9:30 to 4:45 p.m.
1 April to 15 May, daily 9:30 to 4:45 p.m.
ADMISSION TO THE CHATEAU IS....Adults € 5.50
This is not included in the Ferry price.
After reading "The Count of Monte Cristo" I had to schedule a visit to the Chateau d'If once I knew that we would be stopping by Marseille. Since the former prison is located on an island, you have to take a ferry, the journey is 10.10€ round trip or 15.20€ if you also want to stop at the Frioul Islands after your visit. We were there on a sunny hot Saturday morning and the ferries were packed, they must have added an extra ferry at the one we got on wasn't posted.
Once you get to the island, there is an additional charge of 5.50€ to visit the Chateau. After paying the fee, you can wander to the fortress which was built by Francois I in the 16th century. It was converted to a prison, it's most famous "guest" was the fictional Count de Monte Cristo. Two of the cells are named after the characters from the book, Edmund Dantes, the Count; and Abbe Feria who's death allowed the Count to escape and exact his revenge. The real life Man in the Iron Mask was not held here although there is also a cell named for him as well.
Keep an eye on the time, the ferries sometimes only run every couple of hours, after visiting the prison, there's not a lot to do out there! The visit here should take about an hour.
Francois I created the Chateau d'If in 1524 as part of the defenses of Marseille, but the Ile was never used for this purpose. It quickly became a prison, significantly to house the Protestants who especially those who were destined for use in galley service. Many prisoners were kept here in conditions that quickly lead to death while some were given large cells with seaward views (eg. Man in the Iron Mask).
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