This time, I wake before my alarm. No need for coffee, so I settle into the padded chair. The hard thing about writing about Cambodian temples is remembering which is which. After seeing five or six, they sort of all blend together. Which one was the “pink temple” and which was the “brick temple”? I search back through my photos, matching them with some basic googling, and then write about why each is worth a visit. When I next look up, it is already after 10. I remember that I have a date with an island prison, so Cambodia will have to wait. Apologies to all the readers of Nathan’s Notes, but sometimes life gets in the way of writing. I’ll make it up to you.
A quick shower, a check on my facial growth that reveals I do not need to shave today, and an ever-present protein bar are next on the list, then packing up my backpack, waving to the front desk staff, and a short walk down to the Vieux-Port. I approach the ticket office for the ferry company that provides transportation to the Chateau d’If and nearby Frioul Islands, and find out that my luck has held today. Apparently with nearly any wind the ferries cannot dock at the Chateau, but today seems largely wind-free and lovely. Southern France in spring, right?
The ride is about twenty minutes, maybe a touch more, and I find a seat in the back (stern – I am so nautical) of the boat so that I can take some pictures of the Marseille skyline as we sail away from the city. The spires of Notre Dame de la Garde and the La Major Cathedral flank the Vieux-Port and its twin forts that guarded the entry (now museums), modern construction spread out from there. Marseille is a truly beautiful city from almost any angle, and this view is certainly no exception.
I turn to see what’s happening at the front (bow) of the boat, and the walls of the Chateau d’If are nearly upon us. It’s easy to see why this was first a fortress and then a political prison; the cliffs rise steeply on all sides, massive walls of the building itself towering over them with fortifications all around. We dock at a small concrete pier. From there, a pathway winds around a bend, and goes through a sturdy-looking iron gate to the interior of the small island. Even here, the Chateau is intimidating. Large fortified walls rise over a barren courtyard, with a drawbridge being the only way in. As for the way out? A sign tells me that bodies of dead prisoners were simply chained to heavy stones and tossed into the sea.
While it was built in 1524, the Chateau d’If wasn’t used as a prison until the 18th century, although its most famous prisoners were both fictional. After visiting the prison, Alexandre Dumas set parts of two of his books there. The Count of Monte Cristo, published in 1844, tells of the escape of Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If, and parts of the prison have been adapted to replicate scenes from the book for the sake of tourists. The Man in the Iron Mask, likewise, was also fictitious, but a cell here has been remodeled to resemble the book.
The prison itself is actually quite small. Signage is good, and tells me much of the history of the place. Cells were assigned based on wealth, as more well-to-do prisoners could purchase larger cells with tiny windows, while those destitute were kept in the basement levels in simply dreadful conditions. I can only imagine how painful it was for so many of these inmates, whose only crime was supporting a way of government or regime not currently in power, being able to see the bustling city but knowing they’d never again reach the shore.
Inside the Chateau, many of the stones are carved or chiseled. Prisoners had little to do, so many added personal “graffiti” to their cells – and to the common spaces – carving in their names and dates, words of encouragement, and even pictures. I explore the top floor, marveling at the space, at the exhibit dedicated to Dumas and his works, and at the carvings, but while many notable prisoners are featured in the signage, like Jean-Baptiste Chataud, who was accused of bringing the plague to Marseille, nothing tells the story of a soap merchant.
Despondent, I lean against one of the massive walls of the building, watching seabirds dive into the blue water, feeding on the bountiful fish that still nourish the city. I am already here, I tell myself, so I might as well check the dungeon, just in case. Most of the dungeon is closed off, with just a single room open. Alas, no carvings or signage gives me a hint. I turn to leave, but notice a small door in the back of the cell. It appears ajar, so I turn on my phone flashlight to check. The portal is made of wood and iron, and stands just off its hinges. I glance over my shoulder, see that the room is empty, and quickly push my way through.
I find myself inside a tiny chamber, no more than six feet to a side. I shine my flashlight around, but the walls of the room are nothing but smooth stone… except for a single panel, carved with a now-familiar boat topped by an eagle and the date: 1815. The molding around that single stone seems just a bit different, a bit newer, than that of those around it. I touch the stone, but it is firmly in place. Nothing in my backpack would serve as a tool to pry it loose, and even so, the excuse of being an American blogger, while it might help explain why I am in an off-limits room, wouldn’t quite cover partially disassembling a French landmark should I be caught. I take a few photos of the stone, pale white in the light of my flash, and silently exit the tiny room to rejoin the exhibit.
The ferry back seems to take longer than it did coming, and I am lost in thought. How do I get the stone out? Is the ring behind it? It feels so close, and yet so far out of my reach. Can I even get back to the Chateau without so many people around? For that matter, would the ring even be there or am I just imagining things? We dock back at the Vieux-Port, and I am so distraught that not even food can distract me on my walk back toward the hotel. I pass Chez Marmar, closed now. Maurice is in his usual place, sweeping, hair tucked under the familiar gray cap. On a whim, I head over to the old man.
Our eyes meet and he beckons me to a shadowy alcove, the entrance to the now-shuttered restaurant. Excitedly, I tell him of my discovery at the Chateau d’If, leaving out a few key details like exactly where in the dungeon the stone is – after all, one can never be too careful – but that sadly, my journey seems to end here unless I can figure out the answers to my earlier questions. Maurice looks down at his shoes, then up at me, a sparkle in the aged eyes.
“Do you see that dock over there? The one with the small blue flag?” He points to a quay about thirty yards down the harbor front. “Come there tonight at midnight.”
Continue to chapter six by clicking here.
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The Ring of Marseille
A short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France