A Day At Chateau d'If And The Frioul Archipelago In The French Mediterranean

Chateau d'IfFrioul from the trail

Chateau d'If was an imposing prison, now a French national monument. You see many calanques from the trail on the Islands of Frioul.

Editor's note: Contributing writer Danny Bernstein recently had the opportunity to visit France. During her trip, she wandered down to Parc National des Calanques and toured the Chateau d'If, a French national monument that lives immortally in the literary works of Alexandre Dumas. Here's what she encountered.

At the end of a long hike in France, I visited a national park and monument in Marseille on the Mediterranean. Marseille, the second largest city in France, has been chosen as this year's European Capital of Culture. New museums have sprouted and there are plenty of concerts and art exhibitions to put Marseille on the tourist circuit.

However, from the bustling Vieux Port, you can take a boat to Chateau d'If, a national monument, and the Frioul Archipelago in a national park and discover a quiet part of the city. The boat drops you off first at Chateau d'If, then Frioul. Most people visit both sites on a relaxing day trip.

Chateau d'If

Chateau d'If has a long and bloody history. In 1529, King Francois I built the Chateau to protect the port of Marseille from sea-based attacks. Chateau d'If became a state prison in 1580, housing political prisoners and prisoners of war. Inmates had no chance of escaping. Think of Alcatraz.

The conditions were so cramped and unsanitary that prisoners had almost no chance of surviving their stay, either. However, money has always made things better, even in prison. Some prisoners paid to get a private room. Between 3,500 Protestants were imprisoned here, after their right to worship was revoked. Political prisoners from the 1848 French Revolution left over 90 inscriptions and sculpted figures in the rock walls. Plaques over the doorway of various cells mention prisoners who were shot by a firing squad or burned alive. German World War I prisoners were the last to inhabit the Chateau.

When you get off the boat and pay your entrance fee, you're asked for your country of origin. Then you have a choice of information pamphlets in one of nine different languages, including Armenian and Russian. I wonder if Yosemite and Yellowstone have pamphlets in languages other than English?

The imposing Chateau almost looks too big for the small island. A lonely fig tree stands in a corner as you enter the building. The drawbridge over a moat was the only way in and out of the Chateau. A well, which captured rainwater, sits in the middle of the inner courtyard. The kitchen and grain store are long gone.

You walk in and out of many cold stone cells, imagining being thrown in here for a political crime, real or trumped up. The most renowned prisoner was the fictional Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte-Cristo, written by Alexandre Dumas. The displays admit that the imaginary prisoner is much more famous than the real ones. In Dumas' story, Edmond Dantès is unjustly accused of treason on the eve of his wedding and imprisoned for 14 years before becoming the only inmate to escape by swimming across to Marseille.

Many movies of the novel were shot on site; the most popular in France was a French TV miniseries with Gerard Depardieu. Several cells have TV screens showing various versions of the narrative. There's even a Japanese anime of the story. Our fictional hero, Edmond Dantes, has his own cell.

Climbing up to the terrace and the top level via a circular staircase, you'll see your next destination, L'archipel du Frioul and you can look back toward Marseille. Western yellow-legged gulls (Larus Michelellis) squawk or laugh throughout the island. You'll see them on Frioul as well.

The boat trip to Chateau d'If is 20 minutes. Visitors usually take 90 minutes to stroll through the cells and the short trail around the island and watch bits of the videos before the 15-minute boat ride to Frioul.

The Frioul Archipelago

L'archipel du Frioul, consisting of four islands, sits in the heart of Parc National des Calanques. The boat takes you to two islands (Ile de Ratonneau and Ile de Pomegues), so close together that they've built a pedestrian walkway between them. Once off the boat, you can head for the village, a series of restaurants and cafes, for a mid-morning coffee. Some visitors have come with their newspapers and novels and look like they're going to sit nursing their cup until lunchtime. Others, with beach bags and small coolers, walk directly to one of several beaches.

Parc National des Calanques, the tenth French national park, was created in 2012. About 100 people live on the islands; most either own small businesses or are retired. Since it's only a 20-minute boat ride to the center of Marseille, there are almost no services for residents. No doctor or pharmacy and children take the boat every day to go to school. Like most national parks in Europe, the government would never think of asking people to move when it creates a park. They work around the residents and may put restrictions on new construction.

Both islands have short walking trails. I chose the trail on Ile de Pomegues, just because it has the longer hiking trail (three miles round trip) without bicycle traffic. The wide trail is treeless, open to the sun and views of the sea. Calanques are steep-walled limestone coves with narrow openings to the sea. Small boats take advantage of the enclosure to dock there for the day. Rough, rocky paths lead down to the calanques. From the trail, the village looks artificial, as if the outline of the buildings has been sketched in front of the calanques.

On first impression, you may think that the islands are just white rocks in a blue sea with no other life but that would be incorrect. Almost 350 species of plants have been catalogued here, mostly low-lying bushes which manage to dig their roots in the limestone cracks. The location and dry microclimate have encouraged endemic plants that can handle the salty atmosphere.

On the way, you get a good feel for the military past of the islands. For centuries, le Frioul was used to either defend or intimidate Marseille. A side trail goes to the Fort de Pomegues. The trail ends at the Batterie de Cavaux, a set of ruins that date back from the 19th century. In World War II, the German occupiers in France fortified the Batterie. It was bombed heavily when Marseille was liberated in August 1944. The French military still utilizes parts of the islands.

Getting There

Like many French attractions, Chateau d'If is closed on Mondays.

To go to Chateau d'If and Frioul, take a boat from the Vieux Port (old port) in Marseille. A combined ticket costs 15.20 Euros ($20.61). It costs another 5.50 Euros ($7.46) to get into Chateau d'If. You can't count on buying any food or water at the Chateau, though the brochure shows a cafe, so bring your own. In Frioul, there are numerous cafes and restaurants or you can bring a picnic lunch and have it on the trail.