It is a fact that by far … and by “by far” I mean by millions of miles … the coolest character ever to grace the pages of any book ever written is Edmond Dantès, Alexander Dumas’s famous Count of Monte Cristo. Even James Bond is an uncultured buffoon compared to the magnificent count. When I first read the book, I was immediately overcome with a deep, unshakable regret that I was not, and never would be, the Count of Monte Cristo. The thought still saddens me.
Although Edmond Dantès only ever existed in Dumas’s imagination, a character possessing such an extreme degree of coolness leaves a trace on the world, or so I think, kind of like how a powerful personality leaves a ghostly presence. This, coupled with the fact that it’s a pretty cool place in its own right, led me to the Château d’If.
In the first volume of The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès is wrongly accused of treachery and is sentenced to life imprisonment on the dreaded Château d’If, a place from which escape is impossible. There, he meets the Abbé Faria and becomes the learned man’s disciple, communicating with him via a tunnel dug between their two cells. It is then that he learns the skills that begin to turn him into the ultra-cool quasi-superhero he later becomes, and it is then that he learns the location of the vast treasure that will make him a very rich quasi-superhero. (And you thought Bruce Wayne was the first. Believe me, Batman doesn’t come up to Dantès’s toenail when it comes to either riches or coolness.) It is also thanks to Faria that Dantès is able to escape the dreaded island, although I won’t tell you how just in case there’s a great gaping hole in your literary culture and you haven’t yet read the book (in which case, stop now, buy it, then come back).
Anyway, the castle certainly does exist. It was built, or at least begun, in the 16th century, both to protect the approaches to the port of Marseille and to watch over the sometimes unruly and recently acquired city. The castle takes up the entire island of If, which is pretty small, and the keep itself has three towers, which is kind of weird. The reason is simply that the construction was intentionally carried out at a somewhat leisurely pace, with one tower being built at the time of the keep’s construction, and other towers being added at roughly 50-year intervals. They simply never got around to building the fourth. Life is kind of leisurely in Marseille.
You can visit If by taking a boat from the port of Marseille. (Wonderful place, Marseille—visit the city, too, spend some time there, walk around the old city, eat some bouillabaisse.) The boat only takes about 15 minutes to get out to the castle, where it pulls up to a small dock, from which you climb a fortified passageway up to the main gate. From there, you can pretty much walk around as you like. There’s a small fee to get into the keep.
The castle did indeed serve as a prison, and a number of famous prisoners were held there, both fictional and real. You can visit the cells once you’re inside the keep. Some of them are very claustrophobic, but some seem not so bad, with a window or two and even a nice fireplace. It seems that the more aristocratic “guests” were given better accommodations.
There are also two cells that have been labeled as those of Dantès and Faria, respectively. There’s even a little tunnel between them (nowhere near as long as that described in the book). I asked one of the attendants why they had labeled these cells as having held people who never existed, and he explained that these were the cells that had inspired Dumas when he visited the castle in the 1830s.
“You’re sure about that, huh?”
He hesitated a little. “So I’m told,” he replied.
The keep itself is pretty small, but in my book this makes it charming. Some castles are more like towns, and while this can be damn impressive, the Château d’If is more approachable—kind of a Castle McNugget. Furthermore, since it was a prison, after all, one doesn’t expect it to be all big and airy, now does one?
One thing it does have is a lot of little passageways, especially leading to the towers. I like that—castles should have passageways.
Of all the nonfictional inhabitants of the If , the most unusual and perhaps the most famous was the rhinoceros. In 1513, the king of Gujarat decided to offer an Asian rhinoceros to Emmanuel the Magnificent, king of Portugal. Emmanuel, always eager to gain a few brownie points with the pope, decided to send the animal to Rome, by ship, as a gift to His Holiness Pope Leo X. The ship wanted to put into Marseille, but apparently it was decided that this wasn’t prudent and instead it stopped off at If, where it stayed for a few weeks. (This was before the castle was built.)
No one in Europe could ever remember having seen a rhinoceros (the Romans were familiar with the animals, but they had apparently been forgotten in the interim), and there was a steady stream of admirers who came to the island from the mainland to ooh and aah and ogle the thing, including François I, king of France.
The rhino then took ship again and sailed off to be delivered to the pope, but the ship slammed against the rocks off of Genoa during a violent storm and sank. The rhino’s carcass washed up on the Italian coast some time later, much worse for the wear.
Albrecht Dürer, the great German engraver, was asked to make an engraving of the animal for posterity’s sake. The fact that he hadn’t actually seen it was deemed less important than the fact that he was one mean engraver, so he just worked from a sketch by an unknown artist. Dürer’s engraving was, for many years, the only image of a rhinoceros extant in Europe. Today, you can find copies of it all over, and you can buy a T-shirt sporting the engraving in the castle’s gift shop. It’s a pretty cool engraving, when all is said and done.
Not as cool as Edmond Dantès, of course, but then nothing and no one will ever be as cool as Edmond Dantès. Did I already mention that?