Visiting Chateau d’If, the beautiful Count of Monte Cristo Prison
Updated: Jul 18
Of all the literary sites to visit in France, the Chateau d'If, aka the "Count of Monte Cristo prison," has been high on my literary travel bucket list for a while. Now that I've finally gotten to visit it, I'm sharing everything you need to know to visit the Chateau d'If for yourself.
The Chateau d'If is an iconic island prison off the coast of Southern France. It's a name that is instantly recognizable in the western world, whether it's because you read and loved The Count of Monte Cristo or because you swooned over Jim Caviezel and Henry Cavill in the 2002 movie adaptation (also, fun fact in case you forgot, Dumbledore is in it!).
However, you may not realize that the Chateau d'If was a real prison, in operation from the 1500s until the 1800s. The prison is now a tourist site open to visitors all year round. It is in reality as it was in fiction, a "monument of terror which [has] become a monument of curiosity" (from The Count of Monte Cristo).
I recently got to visit, and while it was a bit of a headache trying to figure out how to get there, it was well worth the trip for this literary traveler.
Yes, I found it frustratingly difficult to find information online about how to visit the Chateau d'If. There really isn't a good visitor's guide out there that I could find, but luckily for you, I've done all the research, made the trek to Chateau d'If myself, and now I've compiled my knowledge and experience here to create this very informative, inspiringly beautiful, truly spectacular, monumentally comprehensive, Chateau d'If visitor's guide.
“To Dantes, who had not been thinking about it at all, the sudden appearance of this strange shape, this prison shrouded in such deep terror, this fortress which for three centuries has nourished Marseille with its gloomy legends, had the same effect as the spectacle of the scaffold on a condemned man.”
Quote from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Readers' Note: all Count of Monte Cristo quotes in this post come from the Robin Buss translation, which is beautiful. You can get this translation as a Penguin Classic (black spine), which is my personal favorite edition for readers' copies.
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The Count of Monte Cristo: a quick overview
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Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, is one of the most famous 19th century French writers. He was born in France in 1802 with a rather complicated family history: his paternal grandparents were the Marquis de La Pailleteria (a white French nobleman) and Marie-Césette Dumas, one of the enslaved Haitian women on his estate. So yes, some may not have realized that Alexandre Dumas was black, or 1/4 black to be exact.
Alexandre Dumas's father is deserving of his own history, but we'll just hit a couple of interest points. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a mulatto born in Saint Domingue, who was first sold by his white father, then bought back and brought to France to be educated and recognized as a legitimate son. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas took on the name Dumas from his mother's nickname at the time that he enlisted in Napoleon's army (his father didn't want him besmirching his own name). Thomas-Alexandre rose in Napoleon's army to become a General, the highest rank held by any black man in any European army.
Alexandre Dumas was not a military man like his father, but he rose in the ranks of the literary world. Today, Dumas is one of the most revered and famous French writers from the 19th century. In his own day, he was an internationally bestselling writer despite the racism and prejudice he faced. Dumas didn't often write about race, but once when someone mocked his ancestry, he famously replied:
“My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a negro, and my great-grandfather was a monkey. You see, sir, my family starts where yours ends.”
Like his British contemporary Charles Dickens, Dumas was a serial author, meaning his works were not published all at once but chapter by chapter. Readers had to wait weeks or months for the next part of the story, much like waiting for TV episodes to drop nowadays.
The Count of Monte Cristo was published piece-by-piece in mass-circulation newspapers from 1844 to 1846. Dumas was simultaneously working on another piece of fiction of which you may have heard, detailing the exploits of D'Artagnan, Porthos, Athos, and Aramis (yes, Dumas is also author of The Three Musketeers).
Related: If you enjoy learning facts about classic authors, check out these interesting facts about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
The Count of Monte Cristo: a quick overview
In brief, here's the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo: it tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a lowly sailor who was about to get everything he ever wanted: to become captain of a ship, and to marry the woman he loves, Mercedes. On the cusp of happiness, it is all snatched away when Dantès is wrongfully imprisoned at the Chateau d’If under charges of treason: accused of being a radical Bonapartist and assisting Napoleon’s escape from Elba, Dantès is subjected to a life sentence without trial.
You may imagine, this didn't make him terribly happy.
During his 14 years in solitary confinement in the dungeons of the Chateau d'If, Dantès accidentally meets another prisoner, the Abbé Farria. The two prisoners secretly maintain a passage through the rock between their cells. The Italian priest Farria changes Dantès's life forever, educating him in languages, history, culture, and religion. Most importantly, Farria tells Dantès how to find a treasure he himself had once hoped to claim on the island of Monte Cristo.
“He was no longer going to be alone, he might perhaps even be free. The worst case, should he remain a prisoner, was to have a companion: captivity shared is only semi-captivity. Sighs united together are almost prayers; prayers coming from two hearts are almost acts of grace.”
Quote from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
After 14 years at the Chateau d'If, Dantès escapes from the island prison, travels to the island of Monte Cristo, claims the treasure, assumes a new identity (well, a few actually), and sets out to dedicate the rest of his life to seeking revenge on those responsible for ruining his life when happiness had been within reach.
Many people are scared off from reading this masterpiece of French literature when they google the Count of Monte Cristo page count (it’s 1,200-1,400 pages, by the way, depending on which edition you read). But The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic for a reason; it's a rich, thrilling, poetic story of humanity, friendship, love, despair, faith, and revenge.
Published serially between 1844 to 1846, The Count of Monte Cristo was then translated into 20 languages and became the first internationally bestselling book. It was so popular that Dumas himself adapted the story of Edmond Dantès into a two-part stage play.
“Dantès went through all the stages of misery endured by prisoners who are left entombed in prison. He started with pride, which is the product of hope and the knowledge of one’s innocence. Then he came to doubt his own innocence, which did a great deal to justify the governor’s idea of mental derangement. Finally, he fell from the summit of his pride and prayed, not to God, but to men; God is the last refuge.”
Quote from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Visiting Chateau d’If, the Count of Monte Cristo Prison
“The point towards which the boat appeared to be heading: some two hundred yards in front of them loomed the sheer black rock from which, like a flinty excrescence, rises the Chateau d’If.”
Alexandre Dumas was well aware of the Chateau d'If and its reputation when he condemned Dantès to his life sentence there. Dumas visited the Chateau d'If in 1834, 8 years before publication of his novel. The prison was notorious for its unsanitary living conditions and was a symbol of doom and despair.
Dumas did take a lot of creative liberties in his depiction of the prison, so don't be surprised when the descriptions in the novel do not exactly match what the prison looks like on your visit. Still, those who run the Chateau d'If have taken pains to make the experience as much like The Count of Monte Cristo as possible.
This is a unique case in which a real location inspired a fictional novel, a novel that attained such fame for the location that it adapted itself to match the fictional novel. You follow?
Coincidentally, I visited the Chateau d'If on March 3, only one day after the anniversary of Dantès's imprisonment there, which began on March 2, 1815. Thankfully, my experience was much more like Dantès's return to this island near the end of the novel than it was like his first trip to the island:
"Despite the clear sky and the finely shaped ships, despite the golden light flooding the scene, the count, wrapped in his cloak, recalled one by one all the details of the dreadful journey: the lone light burning in Les Catalans, the sight of the Chateau d'If that told him where he was being taken, the struggle with the gendarmes when he tried to jump into the water, his despair when he felt himself overcome, and the cold touch of the muzzle of the carbine pressed into his temple like a ring of ice."
Monte Cristo's return to the Chateau d'If
Where is the Count of Monte Cristo prison?
The Chateau d’If prison is on an island located just 4 km off the coast of Marseille in Southern France. It is on the smallest of the four islands that make up the Frioul archipelago.
The Chateau d'If casts a beautiful if formidable vision: a white fortress perched atop an island of white limestone, contrasting with the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean. It is within sight of Marseille without being accessible by swimming, making it a brilliantly cruel location for a prison, much like the island prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco.
The Frioul archipelago islands are actually part of France’s Calanques National Park (a stunning place that I absolutely recommend spending more time seeing while you're in Marseille).
Related: Spending more time in France? Check out these amazing Paris bookshops you shouldn’t miss on your trip to the City of Love.
How to get to Chateau d’If
To get to Chateau d’If, you will need to take a ferry boat out to the island. There are two ferry companies that offer passage to the Count of Monte Cristo prison: le bateau Frioul If Express Shuttles, and Croisières Marseille Calanques. Both companies offer round trip boat tickets multiple times throughout the day, and tickets with both companies cost between 11-12 euro. Note that this is a separate expense from the entrance ticket to Chateau d’If.
Check the ferry timetables on their respective websites linked above, and you can either pre-purchase your ticket online or purchase it in-person at the Vieux Port. They are located on opposite, inland corners of the Vieux Port.
The ferry from Marseille to Chateau d’If takes about 25 minutes one-way. Note that the return ferries with le bateau make a stop at another island on the return journey, making the return time closer to 50 minutes.
By plane: The nearest airport to Chateau d’If is the Marseille Provence airport (MRS). If you want to go directly to Chateau d’If from the airport, take the L091 bus from the airport to the Gare Saint-Charles (about 30 minutes), then either take the M1 metro to Vieux Port (3 minutes) or walk about 15 minutes to the Vieux Port.
By train: If you’re coming from Paris, you can take a 3.5 hour train ride directly from Paris Gare de Lyon to Gare Saint-Charles in Marseille, then take the M1 to Vieux Port or walk there in 15 minutes.
What can you see at Chateau d’If?
Most visitors come to Chateau d’If because they know it as the Count of Monte Cristo prison, so the displays inside are heavily skewed toward this classic novel (no complaints from this literary travel lover).
Inside the Chateau d'If, you’ll see multiple displays telling more about the life of 19th century French writer Alexandre Dumas and his famous work as well as how it has influenced the history of the prison and its status as a tourist destination today.
Visitors can also go inside cells named after Edmond Dantès and the Abbé Farria.
Edmond Dantès is a fictional character invented by Alexandre Dumas, so this is not his cell in any historical sense. As for the Abbe Farria, he was inspired by an actual prisoner of Chateau d’If, José Faria, one of the pioneers of hypnotism. While there was a real prisoner who shared Farria's name, the cell you will visit at Chateau d'If is not his actual cell.
The cells named after these literary characters are adapted to bring the novel to life, to plunge visitors into the Chateau d'If of the novel, much like Heididorf in Switzerland recreates Heidi’s fictional world, and the Sherlock Holmes museum does the same in London.
In the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, the two prisoners' cells are in the dungeons, the worst cells reserved for those whom the governors deem "mad." At the real Chateau d'If, they have converted rooms on the main floor for the ease of visitors, even if it isn't exactly the accurate location where Dantès and Farria would have been held.
The cells are mostly bare, but in Dantès's cell, you'll see some sparse sleeping things, his bowl, a prisoner's ball and chain, and, of most interest, a hole dug into the wall that connects to the Abbé's cell. You'll also see some excerpts from one of the film adaptations playing on a small TV screen.
“Dantes was crouching in a corner of the dungeon where head the unspeakable happiness of enjoying the thin ray of daylight that filtered through the bars of a narrow window; hearing the grating of the massive locks and the screech of the rusty doorpost turning in its socket, he looked up.”
Quote from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
You can also climb a series of narrow, spiral staircases and come out on top of the prison roof for some incredible panoramic views of Marseille and the French coast. With blue skies and sea birds soaring overhead, the silhouette of Notre-Dame de la Garde, this view is a highlight of the visit to Chateau d'If.
There is a gift shop inside the Chateau d’If that sells copies of The Count of Monte Cristo in French and English. Happily, all of these editions are stamped with a Chateau d’If stamp, making this an ideal souvenir from this literary destination.
Tips for visiting Chateau d’If
Tips for taking the boat to Chateau d'If:
Don’t pre-purchase your boat ticket. This is a personal opinion, of course, but there's really no need to buy it in advance, and doing so may make your plans more complicated if the boats aren't running on schedule or if your plans change. My advice is to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure, and purchase your ticket at the stand.
Understand that the boats have to travel into the open sea and dock at a small island, so the schedule is incredibly weather-dependent. Even if it is a beautiful day on shore, winds may affect the waves near the island, and the boats may not run, or may run on an adjusted schedule. This is another main reason to not pre-book your ticket, because then you're stuck with a ticket you can't use or you're hassling, trying to get a refund.
On a related note, if one boat company isn't operating on the day you visit, check with both boat companies. On the day that I visited, one company had already posted a sign in the morning that they would not be doing any trips to the Chateau d'If due to waves. They told me the other company had likely decided the same, but when I walked over to their booth to double-check, the other company said they were going to run a trial trip out to the island, so there was still a chance they'd be able to take visitors. I braved this trial trip, and I was rewarded by getting to be one of the first visitors to the island that day, once they determined the conditions safe enough to dock.
If you're prone to motion sickness and/or sea sickness, be ready with dramamine. I do get sea sick, so I purchased some over-the-counter sea sickness medication at one of the pharmacies located near Vieux Port, took it 30 minutes prior to departure, and did just fine on the boat.
Timing of your visit:
The ferries tend to depart back to Marseille approximately an hour after drop-off on the island. This hour is just enough time at Chateau d'If if you are moving pretty quickly. If you want to spend more time exploring the prison and the island with its unique flora, you will likely need to wait for the next boat and spend a minimum of two hours there.
For most visitors, an hour should be sufficient, but you definitely won’t have time to dawdle.
On the island:
The placards inside are written in both French and English, but there are also free pamphlets in many more languages giving information about the prison and its literary history, so grab one as you leave the ticket counter.
Chateau d’If opening hours and ticket prices
1 April - 30 September
Open daily from 10:30 am - 6 pm
1 October - 31 March
Open Tues-Sun from 10:30 am - 5:15 pm
General admission costs 6€ (not including the boat fare, which is paid separately)
As always, double check that opening hours have not changed at the official website. Also be aware that openings are frequently impacted by sea conditions. If the ferry companies decide they can’t safely dock and unload passengers at Chateau d’If, the monument will not open.
Travel tip: My favorite travel rewards credit card for European travel is the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (I also use the Amex Platinum, but Amex is not widely accepted in Europe). Perks of the Chase Sapphire include access to airport travel lounges, a $300 annual travel credit, free TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and built-in travel insurance. Points are also worth 50% more when you redeem them for travel.
Where to stay near Chateau d’If
Especially if you are traveling off peak season, it's possible to stay in Marseille city center very affordably.
I almost always book my accommodations through Hotels.com, because you earn a free night after every 10 nights you stay, a benefit that can be used across Hotel companies and even with small, locally owned hotels and B&Bs.
The ferries that take you to Chateau d’If depart from Marseille’s old port, or Vieux Port. If you want to be within easy walking distance to the Vieux Port, here is a great nearby option:
Escale Oceania Marseille Vieux Port is a 3-star hotel that visitors love, and it's located right at the entrance to the Vieux Port. If you're lucky, you may end up with a balcony overlooking Vieux Port and the famous Notre-Dame de la Garde church on the hill.
If you don’t mind taking the Metro to the Vieux Port, here’s an option a little further out:
The Holiday Inn Express - Saint Charles is a surprisingly affordable hotel option in Marseille. I stayed here myself, and I can attest that the staff was friendly, and the rooms were clean. Plus, it's located directly next to the Gare Saint-Charles, so it's very easy to get to and from other destinations, whether Paris via train, the airport, or other train connections in Southern France. It's a few minutes on the metro or a 15-minute walk to Vieux Port.
Travel Resources At-A-Glance
All of the following are links to sites and services I actually use to book and plan my travel or to purchase books or travel gear.
For flights: Skyscanner is my number one go-to resource for booking flights. I love using the “explore” function to find the cheapest places I can fly during a given time, or using the fare calendar to identify the cheapest days to fly.
For hotels and lodgings: For hotels, hotels.com and for vacation rentals, VRBO.com. I’ve had much better experiences with private rentals through this website than through other popular private vacation rental websites.
For car rentals: Kayak allows comparisons across a wide range of booking agencies and lists reviews of companies as well. I’ve found this to be the most user-friendly and efficient way to compare car rental prices.
For tours & excursions: Viator is my top choice for booking excursions and tour experiences in a new destination.
Best travel credit card: My favorite travel rewards credit card for European travel has been the Chase Sapphire Rewards card. Visa is accepted just about everywhere in Europe, and there are no foreign transaction fees on the card. Some of the travel benefits I love on the Chase Sapphire include free TSA pre check or Global Entry (worth it every time), an annual $200 travel credit, an annual $200 hotel benefit, built-in rental car and trip insurance, and points are worth 50% more when used to book travel. I travel around Europe a LOT, and I end up with many free flights and hotel stays from using my points on my Chase Sapphire.
For books: Bookshop.org often has prices as good as Amazon or sometimes better, but profits go to indie bookstores all over the country. Whenever possible, consider buying your books from this online indie bookshop resource.
I hope this information helps you plan your visit to the literary destination, the Count of Monte Cristo prison or the Chateau d'If.
What other literary locations are on your bucket list?
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