hidden europe 45

Offshore Provence

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Château d’If with the city of Marseille on the mainland behind (photo © Dan Talson / dreamstime.com).


Sailing east from Marseille along the coast of Provence to the Italian border, there are some two dozen islands, many of which are overlooked by visitors to the region. Climb aboard the hidden europe private yacht (if only!) as we set sail for the Côte d'Azur.

You know Provence. Of course you do. Palm-fringed boulevards, Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire , the scent of lavender, a whiff of garlic, the taste of bouillabaisse, corniche roads and villages perched precariously on the edge of cliffs. These and similar images merge in the senses to create that unmistakeable feel which is Provence. Southern, sensual, seductive.

But how well do you know the region’s offshore islands? From the soggy margins of the Rhône delta across to the Italian border near Cape Mortola, a string of islands, like pearls from a torn necklace, dance in the Mediterranean. Could you name them all? Even devotees of Provence might be hard-pressed to recall the names of more than a handful.

Visitors to Marseille often take the ferry out to the Îles du Frioul, of which the most photographed is the lonely lump of rock on which stands the fortress known as Château d’If. It served the French authorities well as a prison and it served novelist Alexandre Dumas well, for it features prominently in The Count of Monte Cristo as the place to which the protagonist Edmond Dantès was condemned to life imprisonment. Interestingly, some early English translations of the book appeared under the title The Prisoner of If.

Dantès saw […] the frowning rock on which stands the Château d’If. This strange mass, this prison around which such deep terror reigns, this fortress that for three hundred years has filled Marseille with its gloomy traditions, appearing this suddenly to Dantès […] seemed to him what the scaffold seems to the condemned prisoner.

From ‘The Count of Monté Cristo’ (1846) by Alexandre Dumas

The rocky island on which the Château d’If stands has had other uses. It was here that 500 years ago a passing rhinoceros was put ashore for a day or two in order to allow King François I to take a look at the beast. Neither king nor rhino lingered. Nor do the tourists who spend a few hours exploring this fortress and the other islands in the Rade de Marseille.

Moving east from Marseille, there are over two dozen islands off the coast of Provence before the Italian frontier, each with its distinctive history. Between them, these fragments of offshore Provence offer a remarkable variety of landscapes.

Barely round the headland from Marseille, and sailing east towards the rugged Calanques coast, we come to the Riou archipelago, a scatter of islands which now enjoy protected status as part of the new Calanques National Park. Lizards, shrews, cormorants and bats all thrive on the Île de Riou and the five smaller islands which make up the eponymous archipelago.

Several inshore islands then follow, all easily accessed on short boat rides from the mainland.

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