Climbing the rocky shores of Marseilles’ imprisoning isles
Four rocky islands sit off the coast of Marseilles’ Old Port, but two in particular have considerable historic appeal. Those familiar with the Count of Monte Cristo will recognize the first worth visiting, Isle d’If, a jutting outpost-turned-19th century prison, where author Alexandre Dumas’ father was once wrongfully imprisoned. The second, Ratonneau, is larger, longer, haunting and beautiful: a nature preserve dotted with forests, coves and wildlife overseen by an old, abandoned hospital on the top of its highest cliffs. These two comprise a memorable day-long escape amidst any tour of southern France, and I recently had the opportunity to experience them for myself.
A Dawn Departure’
Marseilles is an industrial town on the southern coast of France. Its Old Port is a longstanding and historically infamous harbor most well known for its weekly early morning fish markets. I was awake before dawn to catch the departing boats, well before the stands were set up. Just after sunrise our boat was pushing through the chilly air and fog.
Boats appeared to us through the mist, and then Isle d’If, a rocky patch of land fortified with high, tall walls around its perimeter, came into view. Then, after a couple of switchbacks along a steep, dirt path revealed the Chateau.
Exploring An Island Prison
Originally built as a fort to protect the harbor from invaders, the sparse chateau was converted into a prison in the 19th century, and famously held General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of Alexandre Dumas, who immortalized the prison in his 1844 novel of wrongful imprisonment and revenge – The Count of Monte Cristo.
The island’s qualifications as a prison are obvious. There’s barely a parade ground, little growth or shade and rough waters surging around rocky shores below. We toured the prison cells, which squirreled away men away from the sunlit courtyard in the lone building’s center, but the best sight is the view at the top of the chateau – a panorama of the stoic island, which stands in stark contrast to the pearly blue water, gliding seagulls and lone fishing boats bobbing on the waves.
The ruins of Ratonneau
After stepping off Isle d’If, it was back to the tour boats, which took us to the largest island of the four, Ratonneau. There, the boat pulled into a crowded port with vendors offering ice cream and other beach food, while Jeeps take off with tourists up the wide and rocky road. These civilized marks seem a bad sign for an austere adventure, but they only speak to the wide variety of experiences the island offers.
We followed the road southwest crossed a narrow strip of land that leads to the lush nature preserve. Northeast are calanques and secluded watery coves, as well as freestanding compounds and villas beneath a steep and rising hill, crowned with an abandoned 19th century hospital.
The building has a compelling history. Yellow fever patients were once treated there, and later the structure was bombed in WWII. A tough but short climb up a gravely path among the hundreds of seagulls that crowd the island reveals the old, ragged structure. Weaving the roofless labyrinths is an ethereal experience within the fog, and the tall timber and stone columns have created a 20th century Stonehenge off the coast, certainly a worthy addition to a tour of France.
The structure is isolated and lonely, but walking past it reveals a gorgeous deep-mouthed cove and, just beyond, a beach where all the Jeeps have gone, dispensing people for a day of relaxation on the sand and swimming in the clear blue shallows.
Collision of history and culture
Few places in Europe are quite as rich in history and culture as France, and that became readily apparent during my time off the coast of Marseilles. Not only do the islands of Ratonneau and Isle d’If offer dramatic, breathtaking views, but where else can you walk through the inspiration of one of literature’s most beloved novels? Add to that the fact I had the chance to explore the ruins of many bombed out buildings on Ratonneau, and my experience in France was certainly elevated to a new level.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons