Top Ten Prisons to Visit

Château d'If, Marseille, France
Château d'If, Marseille, France
Bird's-eye-view of Château d'If, Marseille, France (Sami Sarkis/Photographer's Choice/Getty)

3. Château d'If
Most popularly known as the setting for Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo and once visited by Mark Twain, Château d'If can be viewed by boarding a tour boat at Vieux Port in Marseille, France, headed for the Frioul Islands, the most popular attraction being the historic fortress on the tiny island of If.

Built in 1531, the Chateau d'If is surrounded by water that features a fearful offshore current, making the one-time prison an ideal place to house people who you don't want getting out. Conditions here were notoriously harsh, often leaving prisoners insane or even dead before they completed the end of their sentence. The reality inside of the prison walls were much worse than depicted in The Count of Monte Cristo, with only the nobles housed in the top-tier cells harboring any sort of hope of getting out alive. A Monsieur de Niozelles once did six years in solitary confinement here for failing to remove his hat in respect for King Louis XlV.

With only a short jaunt across the Bay of Marseille and a brief introduction from a guide, the castle is open for you to explore freely. The impressively dreary lower levels were occupied by the poorest prisoners, and are virtually free of windows or fresh air, while the wealthier prisoners were offered incredible views of the surrounding landscape and in-cell fireplaces. The stories of the past are quite chilling—one tower holds the oubliette, a dungeon only accessible through a ceiling hatch where prisoners were walled up and often forgotten about, presumably eventually starving to death. Oubliette is derived from the French word oubliett, which literally means "forgotten place." The heavily fortified island and densely solid walls are said to be quite creepy and chill-inducing even on a sunny, tourist-ridden day. Visitors often echo that they are happy they didn't tour the former fortress alone.

The surrounding Frioul archipelago is wrapped up with three other islands, Pomègues, Ratonneau, and Tiboulen. Despite their small size, the islands hold deep historical significance, dating back to 600 B.C. when Mediterranean sailors and warriors used them as a resting place on their journeys. Eventually they were used as a place to quarantine ship crews to protect the city of Marseille from disease and control the outbreak of an epidemic. The islands are now beautiful rocky islets with deep steep-sided valleys, rough sand beaches, and a vast array of island-specific wildlife.


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