Twenty minutes by sea off the coast of Marseille, on the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago, the island of If displays its three hectares of limestone rock…
Until the 16th Century, If was a wild islet, an occasional refuge for pirates and smugglers, or fishermen caught out by storms. In 1516, François 1st became aware of the place’s strategic importance and decided to build a fortress there as an outpost of the town, designed to control entry into the Phocean port. Work began in 1524 and was completed in 1531. The fortifications consisted of ramparts erected on the white rocks, and a keep flanked by three round towers, linked by high walls and equipped to house a defensive system composed of heavy artillery.
The structure still retains the oppressive appearance of a feudal chateau of pre-bastion craftsmanship, but it is definitely a fortress, most notably because of its corner towers, which are more compact than medieval towers. Housing canons whose range was no more than 150 metres, the château d’If could not fulfil its defensive duty during the siege of Marseille in 1536 by Charles Quint’s troops. Having never experienced war, the fortress was converted into a state prison at the end of the 17th century. From 1689 onwards, many protestants died within the damp walls of its terrible dungeons, whilst more favourable conditions of imprisonment were offered to eminent prisoners, wayward women or the bad boys of the family, such as the young Mirabeau.
The insurgents of 1848, the communards: the château d’If held political prisoners before losing its prison status in 1890, when it was opened to the public. Today, within the compound’s walls, commemorative plaques still evoke the memory of the thousands of protestants and political internees of 1848.
Contrary to the legend, the Iron Mask and the Marquis de Sade were never incarcerated at the château d’If. Between myth and reality, the château d’If also conjures up images of Alexandre Dumas’ “Count of Monte-Cristo”, although José Custodio Faria and Edmond Dantès probably never stayed there.
During the First World War, Germans and then French draft dodgers were detained there. Classified as a historic monument in 1926, the château was taken over by German troops during the Second World War.
To see more about the Château d’If, check this video.
Cédric – Citibreak