A Place : Château d’If
by Angela de Plano
Audio version : www.lesun.fr/AUDIO/if.mp3
What do a rhinoceros, Jean-Baptiste Kléber and the Count of Monte Cristo all have in common? They have all spent time on the small island called the Château d’If - a 15 minutes ferry ride from the Vieux Port in Marseille.
The fortress perched on an outcrop of rock at the entrance of the port of Marseille, constructed under the reign of François I in 1524, was originally built as a defence against possible attacks from the sea but was also used to police the various activities of tradesmen and pirates that roamed the coast. Its isolated location and dangerous sea currents later made it the ideal location for a prison and it soon became one of the most feared places in France where political and religious detainees were imprisoned and left to die – it is estimated that more than 3500 Huguenots were condemned to the guillotine here.
Amongst the better known prisoners at Château d’If are Alexandre Dumas’s character Edmond Dumas in even made the journey to see the animal in person. The pope, however, would get to see the rhinoceros in a different way. Leaving If, the ship carrying the rhinoceros sank and, in a desperate plight to deliver this precious gift, the dead animal was ﬁshed out, dried off, stuffed and sent on to Rome!
Today, the island is mostly visited by tourists coming to experience stunning views across the sparkling sea to the coast and to see the place where Dumas’s novel is set. The island is a short, picturesque ferry ride from the Vieux Port in Marseille and differentiates itself from its neighbours not only by its impressive fortress but also by its harsh geography and nature the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond makes a spectacular escape from the island yet, in reality, not one prisoner ever actually escaped. Most suffered and died here although one famous visitor arrived already dead! General Jean-Baptiste Kléber had been assassinated in Egypt and his body on returning to France was housed at the Château d’If where it stayed for eighteen years until ﬁnally being allowed to return to his birthplace in the north.
A more unusual guest also spent time at the Château d’If. In 1516 the King of Portugal, Manuel I decided to give Pope Leon XI the unusual gift of a rhinoceros and on its way to Rome, a stop over was scheduled at the Château d’If. The event caused a stir as no such animal had ever been seen in Europe and King François I – the island has just one tree. Rare sea birds nest here and nature walks and workshops are organised to make visitors aware of the uniqueness of this tiny island. The ferry that takes you there continues onto the island of Frioul where there is a beach and some cafés. In all it makes for a very pleasant day out.
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The sun is out, bank holidays are in, we all want to go and explore, although this can sometimes be ruined by the dreaded mistral (p14). But let’s not spoil things. How about a visit to St Jean du Fos (p20) or if you’re feeling more urban, a nice shopping day in Avignon with a healthy tea break (p23) or a visit to an art gallery in Nîmes? (p17) If you’re feeling extra energetic like me, how about entering the Pont du Gard race on 30 June to raise money for a fantastic local charity? Also in this issue, the remarkable story of a simulated space mission by Claire (p18) and a very funny article by Bernice on her pathological inability (or so she says) to learn languages (p22).