The Marseille’s answer to Alcatraz

Marseille is one of the most interesting cities in France and you could try to escape from the Marseille’s answer to Alcatraz, the Château d’If is the island-fortress-prison that it has hosted victims of religious persecution, roués, anti-royalists, revolutionaries and (and fictionally) Alexandre Dumas’ romantic hero, the Count of Monte Cristo. The Château started life as a fortress. It was built in 1524-31 on the orders of King François I as a defence against attacks from the sea, and was instantly controversial. Marseille had been annexed to France in 1481, but the city retained in theory the right to provide her own defence. The new Château was to many people an unwelcome reminder of royal, Parisian authority. And, in the long term, although it successfully repelled an attack on the port by Charles V of Spain in 1536, the cannons gradually proved inadequate to reach invading ships.
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alcatraz in marseille

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So the Château became a prison in the mid-16th century. Among its first guests were a couple of fishermen and one Anselme, a knight accused of plotting against the monarchy who died, strangled, in his cell. Subsequent inhabitants over the next 200 years included 3.500 Huguenots (French Protestants) who earned their keep as galley slaves and a Monsieur de Niozelles who was given six years for failing to take his hat off in the presence of King Louis XIV. Others were imprisoned without trial under so-called lettres de cachet, supposedly signed by the King, for minor misdemeanours (a popular ploy used by moneyed families to get rid of unruly offspring without causing a public scandal).
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alcatraz in marseille

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The writer and revolutionary Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, a legendary ladies’ man despite his startlingly ugly looks, did time there in 1774 and promptly seduced the woman who ran the canteen (his stint inside was to do him no harm: the main boulevard in Aix en Provence was later named after him). Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune was shot there in 1871. But the Count of Monte Cristo remains the Château d’If’s star prisoner, and the key reason for its continuing mystique and fascination. Dumas set his thrilling revenge adventure during the early decades of the 19th century and published it in 18 instalments between 1844 and 1846.
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alcatraz in marseille

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Very often adapted for film and television, it tells of Edmond Dantès, a sailor unjustly accused of treason on the eve of his wedding and holed up for 14 years before becoming the only inmate to escape by swimming across to the city. Today, his exploit inspires an annual swimming race, the Monte Cristo Challenge. One of the island‘s most oddball denizens arrived years before the Château was commissioned. A rhinoceros had been presented by the King of Gujarat in India to the King of Portugal who, in turn, decided to pass it on to Pope Leo X.
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alcatraz in marseille

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The ship from Lisbon to Rome, bearing the beast splendidly kitted out in a “gilt-iron chain and a green velvet collar decorated with gilt roses and carnations”, had to make a stop-over at If. Here the rhino remained as an attraction for several weeks, inspiring the German artist Albrecht Dürer to produce a famous woodcut in 1515, (Dürer never actually saw the animal but worked from various second-hand descriptions). Alas, the ship bearing the rhino onward to Rome was wrecked en route and the animal was presented to the Pope as a stuffed trophy.
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alcatraz in marseille

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If is one of four Frioul Islands: the others are Ratonneau, Tiboulen and Pomègues. They are entirely pedestrianised except for a little tourist train which, in summer, offers a half-hour circuit around Ratonneau. A sea wall, the Digue Berry, links Ratonneau and Pomègues. The islands represent extreme examples of a Mediterranean habitat. Their fierce little micro-climate has been chiselled by the Mistral wind and blazing sun and they are one of the driest sites in France. Consequently, the Frioul islands have developed some 350 rare species of plants, including varieties of samphire, sea lilies and sea lavender and are home to birds such as the bluebird, kestrel, peregrine falcon, little owl and yellow-legged gull, known locally as le gabian.

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