The Château d’If and the Count of Monte Cristo

The Château d’If is located on the island of If, which is one of four islands that make up the Frioul archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea off of the coast of Marseille. The island of If is 1.5 km offshore of the Bay of Marseille, and 3.5 km from Vieux Port.

The Château d’If was built from 1524-31 under the order of Francis I. It is a square building, 3 storeys high, and features 3 towers equipped with guns. The construction of the fortress at Notre Dame de la Garde took place at the same time. The two structures were created to protect maritime access to Marseille, but the Château d’If never ended up having to fend off an attack.

Here are some picturess taken from the ferry dock, looking up at the ramparts. The island of If measures 3 hectares (0.03 km) and the fortress, a lighthouse, the ferry dock, the defensive walls, and a couple of other buildings associated with it are the only things located on it.

Views from the towers and top level of the fortress.

Looking towards the other islands of the Frioul archipelago.

Looking towards the open sea.

View of Marseille with the lighthouse in the foreground. Looks like a short, easy swim, right? Sure, it is.

Inside the fortress. Top floor.

Middle floor.

Ground floor.

The well.

The Château became a state prison in 1580. Its isolation and the strong currents around the island made it impossible to escape from. It housed many political and religious prisoners until 1913. Over 3,500 French Huguenots were sent to the Château, mostly between 1599 and 1613. Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune of 1871, was imprisoned and executed at the prison.

Below is a memorial plaque commemorating the religious Protestant prisoners from 1545-1750. Some of them were kept in this fortress, as well as Fort St. Jean and Fort St. Nicolas. The plaque reads that the prisoners “preferred the chains of imprisonment to the death of abjuration.”

Prisoners were kept in different conditions based on their economic class.  The poorest were kept in windowless dungeons that were dug out beneath the towers, at barely a man’s standing height, and with only a grate to cover them. These prisoners were kept in horrid conditions where their life expectancy was only 8 months. Wealthier prisoners were able to pay for private cells in the upper levels of the castle with windows, fireplaces, and even the ability to take walks outside on the terraces that connected the towers.

Below is a windowless cell playing a French tape of The Man in the Iron Mask for some reason. Amusingly, a hole has been dug between this cell and the next to align it with the plot line in The Count of Monte Cristo. The Château really leans into its assocation with Dumas’ famous novels. (More on that below).

The locks on these doors weren’t messing around.

Note the prisoner graffiti next to the entrance to the cell below.

This fireplace didn’t come cheap.

A cell with high ceilings would be nice, as far as prison cells go. Probably no wi-fi, though.

High ceilings and windows.

More than 90 examples of prisoner graffiti, inscriptions formed by carvings made into the prison walls, can be found around the Château. They were made by Marseille workers who were imprisoned following an uprising on June 22 and 23, 1848.


The Château is more famous, however, as being the island prison where the main character of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned. In the novel, Edmond Dantès, who has crossed paths with Napoleon, is accused of espionage by two of his rivals on the day of his engagement to his beloved Mercedes. He is imprisoned in the Château d’If for 14 years. 7 years into his term, he meets the occupant of a neighbouring cell, the priest Abbé Faria, who has dug a hole between their cells. The men become friends and together they plot an escape. Faria tells Dantès about a treasure he has hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. Unfortunately, the old priest dies before the men can escape together. Dantès hides himself in the canvas shroud meant for the priest’s body, and is then thrown into the sea. He escapes the shroud, swims to shore, and finds the priest’s hidden treasure. He now has the means to create a fake identity (or three) and goes to Paris to exact revenge on his accusers. The fictional Edmond Dantès is the first prisoner to ever escape the Chateau d’If and survive. In reality, no one is known to have actually achieved this.

Here is an appropriate time to introduce my photographic theme of imprisonment and pictures of hallways.

Marseille. So close and, yet, so far.

The sweet blue colour of longing (for freedom).

An exhibit on Alexandre Dumas’ life and literary works is featured at the Château, and contained some very interesting details.¹ Alexandre Dumas’ paternal ancestors came from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. They were part of a long line of wealthy planters known as the “La Pailletterie” family, and had settled along the coastline where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, in Monte Cristo Bay. Alexandre Dumas’ grandfather, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Palleterie, fathered four children with one of the black slaves on his property, Marie-Cessette, nicknamed “Du Mas” (“from the farmhouse”). In 1772, Alexandre Antoine was in a state of financial ruin and was forced to sell his children and their mother to fund his return voyage to France.² However, he did have a repurchase clause for his son, Thomas Alexander. Four years later, Alexandre Antoine was able to buy Thomas back and recognized him as his natural son. This boy of mixed race, Thomas Alexandre, bore his mother’s name of “Dumas” and, as a man, was a general under Napoleon. Thomas Alexandre and his wife became the parents of the writer, Alexandre Dumas, in 1802.

A fellow General of Napoleon’s, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, was assassinated in 1800. Napoleon worried that Kléber’s tomb might become a symbol of Republicanism, and so ordered that Kléber’s body be held at the Chateau d’If. Alexandre Dumas would have heard about this as a story told by his father as he was growing up. Dumas visited the island of If for the first time in 1834 while on a journey of the Mediterranean and decided to set the early part of his plot in Marseille.

When Alexandre Dumas was working as a clerk at the police archives in Paris, he stumbled across a true story about a shoemaker from Nîmes, François Picaud, who in 1807 was about to marry a beautiful woman named Marguerite. A jealous man named Louplan informed the district commissioner that he suspected Picaud of being in league with the English. Picaud was arrested and spent seven years in prison. He befriended another prisoner, a wealthy Milanese priest, who made Picaud a benefactor of his will. The priest passes away, Picaud is released from prison in 1814, and uses his newfound wealth to return to Paris with a false identity to seek revenge. The storyline of Dumas’ novel was practically given to him on a silver plate.

A young Alexandre Dumas.

An older Alexandre Dumas.

So the moral, folks, is that sometimes the menial jobs you take to help support yourself while you write, paint, and/or practice music pay off. And that truth is really stranger than fiction. Maybe this is why I’m so fascinated with learning the history of a place when we travel. I’m always looking for stories, and trying to understand how local events shape their people.

And, in some cases, learning how fiction can shape the people…

Edmond Dantès’ fictional escapade of swimming from the fortress of the Chateau d’If to the shore is the inspiration behind the annual “Monte Cristo Challenge” swimming race. Since 1999, thousands of swimmers gather at the end of June for a 5 km race stretch that begins on the northern shore of If island and ends at the Prado beach park south of Marseille, where a pop-up “Monte Cristo Village” caters to spectators witnessing the event. The first-place finisher for the men and for the women each win €3,000. A 14 kg crystal trophy was made for this race to represent the fortune that Dantès recovered after he escaped the island fortress. A small reproduction trophy is given to the race winners each year.

The Château serves as a fun half day excursion from Marseille. You can catch the passenger ferry between Vieux Port and the Chateau and the other Frioul islands for a very reasonable price. The ferry reminded me of the service that runs between Vancouver Island and the other smaller islands located off of it, like Quadra.

In 1516 a ship carrying an Asian rhinoceros was forced to anchor off of If on its way to Rome due to bad weather. Albrecht Dürer, an artist we would learn more about it Nuremberg, drew this from a sketch sent to him of the animal.

We caught the ferry from the Chateau d’If to Frioul. Here, you have the option to disembark and explore the town. We were eager to get back to Marseille, though, so perhaps another time.

We passed the Château again on our way back to Marseille.

This picture is here for no reason other than that we both liked the design the organization that manages these historic monuments uses.

¹All information gathered from the exhibit.

² This seems like a dick move. Yay, imperialism!

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