In 600 B.C., three centuries before an obscure Iron-age Celtic tribe began scattering huts along the bank of the Seine near what would eventually become Paris, 750 kilometers (500 miles) to the south on the Mediterranean shore, the Phoenician shipping settlement of Massalia was already thriving.

The entrance to the Old Port is guarded by two medieval forts.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and it had become Marseille, one of France’s major trade centers, with two large forts guarding the entrance to the Old Port. However, to further protect this strategic port city, and the fleet of royal galleys that were anchored there, in 1529, King Francois I ordered a royal fortress to be constructed farther out in the Bay of Marseille, on the island of If. And set the stage for what would become the most famous legend in French literature.

A Notorious Penitentiary

The ramparts  are flanked by foreboding towers.

The entire 3-hectare  (7.5-acre) island, a rocky promontory rising from the ocean some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) west of the Old Port of Marseille, was quickly fortified. High ramparts with canon platforms now surrounded a colossal square three-story fortress flanked by three foreboding towers. The castle was intended as a deterrent, a job it performed remarkably well since thought out its history, the Château d’If was never attacked. But with its isolated location and dangerous offshore currents, it also had all the makings of an escape-proof prison. It soon was turned into a dumping ground for political and religious prisoners that the authorities wanted consigned to oblivion. Over the next two centuries it became known as a destination from which there was no return, in the popular imagination as in reality.

The Road to International Fame

A single well provided water for the prison.

By the 19th century, the Château d’If was notorious for its sordid conditions of detention. But it didn’t reach international fame until Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. Dumas, who had heard of it as a child, took the opportunity of a trip in to the Mediterranean coast to visit the fortress for the first time in 1834. An aspiring writer, he was still a few years away from asserting his voice in the historical novels would make him one of the most successful authors of his time. But he was already gathering inspiration from his many travels, actual events and the historical records of the Paris Police Archives. The latter being where he unearthed the plot for the Count of Monte Cristo.

Centuries of graffiti were left by prisoners.

In 1807 in Paris a shoemaker about to marry his beautiful fiancee had been wrongly reported to the authorities by a jealous rival for being a British informant. He was arrested and, without so much as an explanation, left to languish in prison for seven years. While incarcerated, he had befriended a fellow prisoner, a Milanese priest opposed to the Bonapartist cause, but nevertheless a wealthy heir. Before dying, the abbot had made a will in favor of the shoemaker, who had subsequently recovered the fortune of his benefactor upon his release in 1814. After returning to Paris under a false identity, he had set out to understand why he has been deprived of seven years of his life, and to concentrate on taking revanche. The most famous avenger in French literature was born.

The Birth of a Legend

The unescapable Château d’If rises out of the sea.

Under the pen of Alexandre Dumas, the wronged shoemaker became Edmond Dantès, a young Marseille seaman with a promising career ahead of him. On the day of his engagement to the lovely Mercedes, he was unjustly accused by his rivals in love and business ( Mondego and Danglars) of being a bonapartist and committing treason. Summarily arrested and imprisoned in the Château d’If, he survived several years of solitary confinement before coming in contact with the occupant of the neighboring cell (Abbé Faria), who had been tunneling for years between the two dungeons.

Entrance to the the dungeon attributed to Abbé Faria.

Over the next seven years, the wise old abbot befriended Dantès, revealed to him the location of an immense treasure he once hid on a tiny Mediterranean Island, and the two planned to escape together. However, when Faria died before the plan could come to fruition, Dantès contrived to substitute himself for the body in Faria’s canvas shroud, just before it was hurled into the sea, becoming the only prisoner ever to escape the Chateau d’If and survive. Dantès then retrieved Faria’s treasure from a remote island of the Tuscan archipelago (the Island of Montecristo). He now had the means to orchestrate his revenge.

When Legend Becomes Reality

The visit includes a look at the cell of the legendary Edmond Dantès.

Published in 1844, Le Comte de Monte Cristo was a resounding success. The novel was serialized in Le Journal des Débats, one of the earliest mass circulation newspapers, from August 1844 to January 1846. At a time when books were expensive and reserved to the affluent levels of society, the reading of novels was popularized through their publication in newspapers passed freely from one person to another. The novel was soon translated in multiple languages and the Chateau d’If became famous around the world, despite the fact that most readers were unaware of its exact location.

A plaque marks the entrance of Dantès’ dungeon for posterity.

When Alexandre Dumas revisited the fortress in 1858, he realized how famous he had made it when his guide, unaware of his visitor’s identity, told him of Dantès’ imprisonment without omitting a single detail, not the death of Faria, nor the prisoner’s escape, nor even the tunnel dug from between the two dungeons. An opening had even been created on the ground floor to lend a touch of reality to the tale. The legend prevailed over history and today’s visitors are treated to the very same sights and narrative as they explore the fortress from ramparts to dungeons and discover the cells of the imaginary prisoners – in addition to the superb views of the Marseille coastline,

The Château d’If offers and the Marseille coastline.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Chateau d’If is accessible via the Frioul-If Express Shuttle, a ferry departing hourly from the Old Port, the central waterfront of Marseille. It’s a 20-minute ride the from the port to the fortress.
  • Visiting – The Chateau d’If is open year-round (weather permitting) Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 am to 5:15 pm. Closed on Monday. 
  • Catching up with The Count – There is much more to Dumas’ hero than his ordeals at the Chateau d’If. If you want to read, re-read or simply refer to the famous novel, it is available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château d'If