A Brief History of Château d’If, France's Island Prison

The imposing fortress of Château dIf sits just off the coast of Marseille
The imposing fortress of Château d'If sits just off the coast of Marseille | © Darius Huntly/Flickr
Alex Ledsom

Château d’If is an old island prison off the coast of Marseille. It was made legendary by Alexandre Dumas in his classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s where his hero was wrongly imprisoned for years. Here’s our guide to the history behind this amazing monument, how to get there and what to do.


The island of If is a very small island – only three hectares in size. It’s part of a small archipelago that includes the larger island of Frioul, which is a wonderful nature reserve and home to a little fishing community.

Château d’If seen from the island of Frioul with Marseille in the background

The fortress is the only thing that has ever been built on the island of If. King Francis visited the island in 1516 and realised that it was an ideal place to build a fort to protect Marseille from an attack.

Construction began in 1524 and finished in 1531. It has three storeys, built in the shape of a square (28 metres long) protected by towers, with cover for archers and guns.

It looks imposing and acted as a deterrent, but it never actually had to play a part in defending Marseille against a military attack – which is probably a good thing. The fort wasn’t well-designed; it was built with a lot of mistakes and might have been easy to capture and/or destroy.

https://instagram.com/p/BSyFH8GBvIl/

By the 1800s, it was clear that there wasn’t a military role for the fortress to play in defending France. It was an ideal place to use as a prison though, primarily because of the fact it was an island and difficult to escape from. There are fast currents that run through the surrounding waters, which acted as a deterrent, very similar to the island prison of Alcatraz, in San Francisco.

https://instagram.com/p/BSq7EoVlmZd/

Throughout the 1800s, until the prison’s closure in 1890, thousands of political prisoners were housed here. In keeping with the time, poorer prisoners were kept in the worst conditions – in dungeons on the lower floor, full of people, hunger and disease – whilst the richer prisoners were allowed to pay for better cells on the upper floors, complete with fireplaces and proper beds. 3,500 French Protestants were put in prison here, as well as several political prisoners. Their etchings on the bricks can still be seen today.

Napoleon also kept the body of Republican Jean-Baptiste Kléber at the Château for many years, after his assassination in Cairo, because he was afraid that giving Kléber a martyr’s funeral would undermine his own power.

https://instagram.com/p/BS3kqvNFa9e/

But perhaps the castle is most well-known for its literary role in Dumas’ classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. It was published in the 1840s and was an instant bestseller. It tells the story of young Frenchman, Edmond Dantès, who is on course to marry his true love and live happily ever after. But he’s betrayed by two men and imprisoned on If for 14 years, before he makes a daring escape. He goes in search of some treasure he has heard about, and gets his revenge on the two men.

It’s still a hugely popular book, discussing how life can change for the worse at a moment’s notice: “On what slender threads do life and fortune hang!”In real life, no one is ever known to have successfully escaped from the prison.

https://instagram.com/p/BS3NO9PBLoX/

Take the time to visit both Château d’If and the neighbouring island of Frioul in the same day. Either take a picnic or eat at one of the harbour restaurants in Frioul. The paths and stone can be hard-going on the feet, so take practical footwear and lots of water in summer. You can swim on the island of Frioul, so don’t forget your towels, swimwear and suncream.

How to get there: Ferries leave from the Old Port in Marseille to the island of Frioul, stopping at Château d’If on the way. Not all the ferries stop at the fortress so make sure you check beforehand.

Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm (6pm from April to October). Closed Mondays.

Château d’If, Marseille

culture trip left arrow
 culture trip brand logo

Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip

meet our Local Insider

Hanna

women sitting on iceberg

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?

2 years.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?

It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.

WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?

I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!

culture trip logo letter c
group posing for picture on iceberg
group posing for picture on iceberg

Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.

map of volcanic iceland trip destination points
culture trip brand logo
culture trip right arrow
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

X

Keen to explore the world?

Our passionately curated premium small-group trips are an invitation to connect with like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.