Just a 20 minute ferry ride from Cannes, Île Sainte-Marguerite feels about a million miles from the bustling beach clubs and the Promenade de la Croisette. It’s the largest of the Lérins islands, a small archipelago just off Cannes’ coast, and abounds with 152 acres of forest. The island is home to many species of birds, hedgehogs, the Montpellier snake, a handful of fisherman that live in the charming village at the port, and the now bare tiny cell where the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated.
We stepped off the ferry to the intoxicating scents of pine and eucalyptus. No cars are allowed on the island, but it has an extensive network of walking paths leading to the fort, through the forest, and to deserted beaches. We followed the cobbled path past the 20 or so houses that make up the small village on the island up to Fort Royal.
The historic Fort Royal was built by the Spanish in 1635 during the Thirty Years War. It also became a prison in 1637. Today the fort is now home to a youth hostel and the Musee de la Mer, a maritime museum that houses interesting artifacts from shipwrecks dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Of course, you can also visit the tiny and now bare cell where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned for 11 years. The Man in the Iron Mask wasn’t the only famous prisoner here though – Abdel Kadir (an Algerian rebel leader), the Marquis Jouffroy d’Abbans (inventor of the steamboat) and Marshal Bazaine (the only successful escapee from the island) were all also prisoners here at one time or another.
Though the draw to the fort might be its famous former prisoner, the island was also an important trade route between Rome and Spain during the Roman Empire. Archaeologists have discovered traces of the original Roman port and baths on Île Sainte-Marguerite dating back to the 4th Century BC.
Also wander around to look at the canons. L’Incounnu (The Stranger) stands guard at the entrance to the fort and is a French 24-pounder siege gun cast in Strasbourg in 1715. It was designed for siege warfare but is also capable of launching a 12kg iron cannonball up to 4 kilometers.
The Man in the Iron Mask
Imprisoned at the order of King Louis the XIV, great measures were taken to ensure that no one ever saw the face of the Man in the Iron Mask. Benigne d’Auvergne de St.-Mars was charged with guarding the prisoner and he and two other guards, who were ordered to shoot and kill the prisoner if he ever tried to remove his mask, were the only ones to ever communicate with him during his incarceration. King Louis the XIV wanted his identity to remain a secret so badly that when St.-Mars was appointed governor of Île Sainte-Marguerite and Saint Honorat from 1867 to 1698 and then became Governor of the Bastille in Paris in 1698, the Man in the Iron Mask went right along with him. Because of this, no one ever learned his true identity. Though we do know that the Man in the Iron Mask died in the Bastille on November 19, 1703.
It is officially cell number 5 that housed the Man in the Iron Mask and the iron door to the small cell now stands open for visitors. Other than the impressively thick walls, a few markings, and a small window with an iron grate on it, the cell is empty. You are keenly aware that it would be impossible for anything to get out – or in – to the cell.
It certainly makes you wonder what this man could have done for his identity to be so painstakingly protected and for him to be imprisoned in such a place!
Pirates and Buried Treasure
Île Sainte-Marguerite was also a favorite haven of pirates. Barbary pirates invaded the islands in 1180, Genoa pirates in 1400, and the Spanish in 1524. There are legends that there are buried treasures left behind from the pirates. I don’t know that you’ll actually find any treasure (in the form of gold coins anyway), but the secluded beaches are a treasure themselves. If you don’t dine at one of the few restaurants in the village, pack a picnic and head to one of the beaches for a romantic seaside lunch.
Know Before You Go
- The ferry is €13 per adult and €8.50 per child. Book your ferry tickets online and receive a discount of €2 per ticket.
- The Maritime Museum is closed on Mondays, January 1, and December 24, 25 and 31. Guided tours of Fort Royal are available from June to September.
- There are two small restaurants at the port. We recommend L’Escale which serves local specialties and mostly fish.
- Another option is to reserve your own private yacht with skipper.