View of Chateau d’If from the ferry.

After spending several days in Marseille exploring the old town and hiking through the calanques along the southern coast, I accomplished much of what I set out to do, but there was one landmark that continued to elude me - Chateau d’If. Touristy as it is, I was determined to see it as long as the forceful mistral winds took a day off. Every morning for five days straight, I walked down to the ferry dock in Vieux-Port to check if the boats were running, and five times I returned disheartened. Finally my stubbornness paid off and on the sixth day the mistral took pity on me.

While my afternoon was exceptional, I spent my morning engrossed in a logistical nightmare as I attempted to figure out transportation to Switzerland. By now you’d think I’d come to expect the usual frustrations of travel, but it still gets the best of me, especially when I procrastinate and put off planning to the day before I leave. After several hours of staring at a computer screen, the only thing I decided on was to cut Geneva from my plans, but I still had no idea how to get to the next city - Bern. Defeated, I went for a walk around town to clear my head and rationalized to myself that if the ferries to If island were running, I’d postpone the task of logistics until tomorrow and if not, I’d hunker down and just get it done. 

View from the top of Chateau d’If with Marseille in the background.

I walked down to Vieux-Port fully expecting to see the little piece of paper taped to the front of the ticket counter indicating the ferries were cancelled for the day, but it was strangely absent. I just assumed the tape finally gave out after spending the last five consecutive days adhered to the plexiglass window - surely this was too good to be true. I rubbed my eyes, approached the booth, and the vendor confirmed that my greatest desire did in fact come true, the boats were running!

I live to die another day! Procrastination for the win! 

Delighted that I’d finally get to visit If Island, I rushed to the hostel, cheerfully extended my stay, and ran back to book a ticket on the next ferry. By the time I finally made it to the front of the line the next ferry was departing and I effectively threw my money at the ticket agent, stuffed the change in my pocket, and sprinted to board the vessel. Much like my boat trip to Ibiza, the instant I took my seat in the main cabin flashbacks of the cruise in May flooded my mind like ghostly apparitions. For a moment I was lost in thought, but the repeated shouting by the crew as we cased off quickly jarred me from my daydream.

The boat slowly winded it’s way through Vieux-Port and as we entered the open water I could feel how rough the waters were even on a relatively "calm" day. The ferry bobbed up and down as it sliced through the onslaught of waves and wind. Inside there was a little girl, no more than five years old, sitting across the aisle from me with with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on a person before. It was a smile of pure exhilaration as she rocked back and forth in her chair. Based on her excited, high pitched screams she clearly never experienced a boat ride like this before. I watched in amusement as she and her brother sat literally holding on to the edge of their seat completely amazed by what was happening. I’d be lying if I said a little bit of here enthusiasm didn’t rub off on me. 

Exiting the ferry. It's amazing how even mundane photos like this look incredible.

We disembarked the ferry on the tiny speck of land known as If Island about one mile off the coast of Marseille and proceeded to make our way up the winding cobble stone path. It was a fairly steep climb flanked by tall, imposting walls that zigzagged up to the main entrance. While the island is no longer an active military base, the layout of the entrance is perfectly suited for defending the island from attackers. On the way up, I began rummaging through my pocked for the entry fee and realized that lady at the ticket counter only charged me €10 instead of €15 for the ferry. Thrilled by the delightful surprise, I approached the ticket counter to pay the €5 fee to enter Chateau d’If and they let me in for free thanks to my Bocconi student ID.

This day just keeps getting better and better.

The island of If, while minuscule, is rather entertaining as long as you don’t set your expectations too high. The entire island is heavily fortified and was once a naval outpost built to protect Marseille. The fortress ended up serving more as a deterrent than anything else and never actually saw combat, but in 1516 the structure was covered into a prison for high profile political and religious figures. Similar to Alcatraz in California, If’s location made it the ideal, escape-proof prison and quickly became one of the most infamous jails in all of France. The prison's notoriety, however, didn't become well known to the rest of the world until the publication of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo where the main protagonist of the story, Edmond Dantes, is wrongly imprisoned.   

View of the fortress island from a distance. There's really not much to it.

If is basically one giant fortress with the infamous Château poking out from behind the stone walls that run along the perimeter of the island. It is worth mentioning that it takes less than 15 minutes to walk around the entire island and there isn’t a great deal of things to see outside of the Château, a cafe, and gift shop. There is little vegetation on this dry, barren chunk of land and only the most durable plants survive. Much like in Sagres, the torrential wind that bears down on the tiny island prevents anything from growing more than a few inches off the ground.

While there isn’t much on If island, the views surrounding it are spectacular. With nothing to block the wind, the beautiful blue-green water churns and splashes under the unrelenting Mistral. From this distance there is a completely unobstructed view of Marseille with the glimmering Notre-Dame de la Garde crowing the top of the city. Off to the south the enormous mountains around the calanques dominate the landscape and appear to tower over Marseille. It’s moment’s like this that remind me how small humanity is and no matter how advanced we get, even large cities like Marseille are still easily dwarfed by the natural world.

The entrance to Chateau d’If. Pretty, ain't it?

Both the interior and exterior of Château d’If can be summed up in one word - simple. This humble fortress is not adorned with any beautiful sculptures or architectural designs. Instead, the structure follows a basic square layout with three distinct watchtowers positioned at the corners. Built using stones quarried locally on the island, the Château looks right at home and appears like a natural extension of the island. The front of Château d’If is quite imposing, albeit rather plain, but then again, this is a military-base-turned-prison, so you can’t expect much. Inside, the central courtyard is surrounded by two stories of doors which lead to the various prison cells and contains a small well in the middle. Even through I saw every single one of the cells, watched a video of the Château’s history, and took a ton of pictures, I was finished with everything in less than an hour. 

Personally, I loved my visit to Château d’If and even bought a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo on my way out, but unless you are a fan of the book, or have an itching desire to unnecessarily spend money, it’s best you bypass If Island. Instead, I’d recommend you save your money and head to the nearby islands of Pomègues and Ratonneau. Even though the islands are technically part of the Frioul Archipelago, Pomègues and Ratonneau are frequently referred to simply as “Frioul Island” for the sake of simplicity since they are connected by a bridge. Conveniently, the ferry company sells a combined If-Frioul ticket for both, so if you’re like me, you can see it all. 

I made it to the edge of Pomègues. Finally got to put my mini camera tripod to use.

Frioul Island, while being fairly empty like If, offers hours of great hiking and wonderful vistas. I only had enough time to visit Pomègues to the south, but I was determined to reach end of the island before the sun set. The further I walked the more and more empty the landscape became until I finally reached an abandoned military base. After walking for over an hour, I was surprised to find such place just sitting on the edge of the island. It was fantastic, yet surprisingly creepy, to walk around what appeared to be old bunkers and I was all the more excited when I saw a huge "DANGER" sign warning tourists to beware. I wandered through the facility for some time and eventually made my way to a small alcove on the edge of the island where I spent the next few hours just watching the waves.

There wasn’t another living soul around and I had the entire alcove to myself. While not as impressive as the incredible beach I found in Lagos, it was still altogether beautiful. The small inlet of water was shielded from the winds by Pointe de Marlet, but the waves still pummeled the rocky coastline. The ferocity of the waves was impressive and every time one hit the cliff I could feel the force resonate through the rock. The smell of the salty air was refreshing and every now and then I was sprayed by a light mist thrown off by one of the sapphire blue waves. I was entranced by the rhythm of the water, and was perfectly content to sit there the rest of the afternoon watching the waves crash into the coastline.

My own little slice of paradise on the edge of Pomègues.

My last day in Marseille turned out to be an incredibly wonderful “bonus” day that a mere six hours ago I never expected. The unknown surprises that each day holds is without a doubt the best part of traveling! I eventually made my way back to the hostel and resumed banging my head against the common room table as I figured out transportation to Bern. Just when I thought this wonderful day was over, I found out there was a spectacular firework show over Vieux-Port celebrating Bastille Day! I love this city so much!

Marseille will forever go down as the city of surprises!