The island of IF (that’s really what it’s called) is the second smallest of the Frioul Islands, located four kilometers from the entrance to Marseille harbor. It is best known for the formidable castle where Edmond Dantès was imprisoned in the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
My lead photo shows Marseille as seen from the doorway of the Château d’If, where the fictional Dantès spent fourteen long years before he finally escaped — something no prisoner ever accomplished in real life.
Frioul If Express
From the Old Port in the center of Marseille there are boats called the Frioul If Express that run several times a day to the Frioul Islands. Most of the boats go from Marseille by way of the Île d’If to Port Frioul and then back to Marseille. The journey typically takes 25 minutes from Marseille to If, then 15 minutes from If to Port Frioul and then another 35 minutes from Port Frioul to Marseille, making a total of one hour and fifteen minutes for the round trip. But most people get off at the island of If and return to Marseille on a later boat, as I did.
The boat I took was called the Edmond Dantès, named after the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Île d’If is the second smallest of the Frioul Islands. The origin of the name 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, though all my British friends know it.
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.
The one big building on the island 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. Among the many real (non-fictional) prisoners was the Count of Mirabeau, who was also imprisoned in the castles of Joux and Vincennes at various times of his turbulent life. He later became a politician and fiery orator during the French Revolution, as I have described in my post Mitterrand and the Panthéon.
Here (above) 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.
The words engraved above the door read: Hôtel du peuple souverain, meaning “Mansion of the sovereign people”. This does not sound like something King François I would have written, and in fact it was chiseled into the stone archway by some of the 120 anti-government protesters who were imprisoned in the Château d’If after the Marseille riots of 1848.
Although he described it so graphically in The Count of Monte Cristo, the author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) never actually visited the Château d’If.
In his novel the protagonist Edmond Dantès was falsely accused and sentenced to life imprisonment. After years of confinement he managed to escape from the castle and the island, and spent the following decades taking revenge on the three men who were responsible for his trial and conviction.
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.
The author of The Count of Monte Cristo is referred to in the text panels as Alexandre Dumas père (father) to distinguish him from his son Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895), who also became a famous novelist and playwright.
The younger Alexandre Dumas is best known today for his novel (and stage play) La Dame aux camélias, which became the basis for another opera by Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata.
Vauban was here
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Sebastian le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707) was a military engineer during the reign of the French King Louis XIV.
In a way, Vauban was to the 17th century what Kilroy was to the 20th. 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 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.
This rather undistinguished building on the Île d’If is named after Vauban. It was built on his orders in 1702 as a caserne for the troops stationed on the island.
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.
After leaving the Île d’If, the Frioul If Express makes a stop at the village of Port Frioul, on Ratonneau Island, before returning to the Old Port of Marseille.
Since 1822 the two largest islands of the Frioul archipelago, Pomègues and Ratonneau, have been connected by a causeway.
This village of Port Frioul wasn’t established until 1974. It now has restaurants and about seven hundred mooring points for boats.
In earlier centuries the Frioul Islands were a compulsory quarantine stop for ships arriving from other parts of the world, to make sure they had no contagious diseases on board before they were allowed to land in Marseille. This seems to have worked fairly well most of the time, but in 1720 a ship called the Grand Saint-Antoine somehow managed to circumvent the quarantine and introduce the plague to Marseille, killing half the population. The ship’s captain, Jean-Baptiste Chataud, was later imprisoned in the Château d’If for nearly three years.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Château d’If on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
This is my 100th blog post here on operasandcycling.com.