Oddly, most Marseillais never venture out by boat to visit this infamous offshore island. They see it everyday and will readily tell you that "there's nothing there except an empty castle on a rock." Well, that's precisely the reason to go as a tourist. Finished in 1529, the fortress, whose first stone was laid down by King Francois I in 1516, consists of the chateau, church and a guardhouse.
From 1634 the chateau was used as a detention center for political prisoners. Its most famous and romantic prisoner is the fictional inmate Edmond Dantès, the hero of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Montecristo. Imaginary or not, you can visit his cell as well as the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask who, contrary to legend, is as likely to have stayed there as the marquis de Sade. Among the certifiable prisoners one finds Joseph Custoldi de Faria, hypnotizer and spiritualist as well as a sailor who seems to have inspired the writer with his character of Edmond Dantès. Throughout the centuries the island has received several guests, such as a rhinoceros in 1516, a gift from the king of Portugal in transit to the Vatican. During World War II the Germans used it for its strategic position. While the guide may choose to live on the grounds for period of time, for the most part the island remains uninhabited and is only visited by the tour boats.
When you arrive, the starkness of the building will surprise you. After a brief introduction from a guide (one of the rare Marseillais to set foot on the island), you are free to explore the grounds on your own. In one of the rooms a TV monitor shows the black and white film version of the Count of Monte Cristo. You can wander around and pretend to be an escaped inmate, as exploring the sparse and grim setting lends itself perfectly. The view from the Chateau D'if of the city of Marseille is stunning and must have driven the prisoners insane. There is a gift shop, but it was closed during our visit. Alas, we have no Count of Monte Cristo mugs or towels to show off.
You can purchase round trip ferryboat tickets for the 15 minute ride at the Quai des Belges (on the Vieux-Port) for about 8 euros. Entering the castle will set you back an additional 4 euros. You may stay as long as you wish, provided you leave by 5 p.m.