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Marseilles Island

01 ile phare planier marseilleThe île de Planier

It is part of the national park of the Calanques.

This far island, 12 km away from the shores of the Pointe Rouge, can always be seen, on the horizon, because of the distance and the mist. When the Mistral blows, the white and narrow silhouette is perfectly visible. The island is plain and low (hence its name « Planier »/ architects : Crillon et Arbus).

This is a dangerous place for boats, because of the reefs fushling on the surface, which were discovered in 1326. Robert d’Anjou, King of Sicilia and Jerusalem (The house of Anjou ruled Provence between 1246 and 1481), asked the sailors to bring 100 stones at each trip, to build a fire-tower. Then a 12,50 m tower was built ; at the top, a fire of pine branches and coal was always burning.

A 20 m lantern was built in 1774, fed by 14 canola-oil lamps.

In 1829, a higher tower was built (58 m.). Its revolutionary system of 16 half optical lenses was invented by Augustin Fresnel (he died before his invention was achieved). In France, at that time, ther were only 2 lighthouses of that kind. That’s why in 1944, a German officer who was engineer, in charge of the lighthouses and the tags in occupied zone, decided to save Planier’s optical lenses, as he learned the island was to be bombed. After the Liberation, the optical lenses were found in Cucuron (Southern France) where it has been moved to safety. They are actually in the 70m tower.

Since 1959, boats are guided by radio, but the entrance of the port is still signaled by a lighthouse which can be seen 42 km away thanks to the white flashes every 5 seconds (the lighthouse was automated in 1992). Since 2004, the premises are forbidden, it is now a historical monument and it is surrounded by a safety grid.

However, the place is the heaven of fishermen, divers and underwater photographers who love the abundant and bustling wildlife in the shipwrecks, the reefs, in the holes, the chimneys and the caves …. It is a privilege to be able to wander in these sea beds.

Ancient or modern shipwrecks can be seen : the Italian cargo, « le Dalton », lies on 15 and 30 m. underwater, it is coated with concretions (it was the setting of one of the first film shoot by Cousteau and Dumas). The « Chaouen », Moroccan ship which carried 640 t of oranges, sank in 1970 during a storm ; it is well preserved on 30m deep.

In 1944, the Luftwaffe plane « Messerschmitt BF 109 », driven by Hans Farenberger, plunged in the Mediterranean Sea. The pilot didn’t die as his parachute, full of air, bring him back to the surface, next to the ’île de Planier. He was rescued by a German craft… But the story does not end here.

In 1993, the survivor, who was then 73, was invited to come to France by Pierre Vogel (famous divers and manager of the chain of stores « Au Vieux Plongeur »), for the show « Fantômes du monde sous-marin » on FR3 Méditerranée. The diver brought Hans Farenberger above his aircraft wreckage and pulled the gunner of the hood out of the sand where it was buried for many years. The old man could not repress his emotion… (This exceptional and lucky pilot could land his downed plane 5 times, without his parachute. He died in 2009, at 89 years old).


02 ile fort degaby marseilleThe île Degaby (or île Gaby)

This island is 300m away from the coast, facing the Malmousque and the Petit Nice. It is a small island (3500m2) part of the Endoume archipelgo. Louis 14th built the « fort de Tourville » (called after the Amiral d’Escadre) to defend the Marseilles coast. It was finished in 1703. The date « 1813 » is still visible on the wall and a cannonball is still embedded in the rocks, that is the proof that this defensive building played its role. In 1890, Napoléon III restored it. An underwater cave accessing inside the fort was discovered.

This island is also named « Degaby «. Indeed it was bought to the Army by the rich industrial André Laval, in 1920, for his beautiful wife Liane Degaby, singer and review leader. The island then became the island of the parties during the « Roaring twenties ».

Then the premises were abandoned for decades… The jewellery Pascal Morabito restored it between 1990 and 1995. The island was bought in 2001 by a property developer. The fort is luxurious and wonderfully restored, it has become a place for receptions and shootings. Many beautiful marriages take place there, and seminars are organized.

The architects Claire Fatosme and Christian Lefèvre imagined an original shuttle between a five-star hotel C2 (73 cours Pierre Puget) and the island. Customers of the hotel can be taken there by boat for a relaxing day. There is no restaurant in the fort but catering meals are delivered. Bathing is possible in the small calanque. Nautical sports can be practiced.

The courtyard (70m2) lead you to the vaulted reception hall (180m2). 20 rooms and a SPA are available ; the outside terraces, on the ground floor and on the roof, are respectively 50 m2 and 267 m2. The latter offers a 360° view on the sea, including the îles du Château d’If and îles du Frioul, but also the Vierge de la Garde, the southern and northern coasts. At night, with the illuminatons, it is a fairyland panorama.

The hotels Sofitel and Pullman Marseille Palm Beach are partners of the island.


The Frioul archipelago

03 archipel frioul chateau  if marseille


04 ile fort chateau if marseilleThe Château d’If

This 3 ha island, facing Malmousque and the Petit Nice, is part of the archipelago of the Frioul with Pomègues, Ratonneau and Tiboulen du Frioul (total surface : 200 hectares).

François Ier understood the strategic importance of this island situated in the center of Marseilles bay and made it a fortified place (1527-1529) ; at the same time, he increased the fortifications of the Vierge de la Garde (in 1536). Then the South of France, which was often invaded, needed new and solid protections for coastal surveillance and to protect the royal galleys in the Vieux Port.

The defensive castle of the île d’If was born, surrounded by inaccessible cliffs of limestone. Three massive towers (the highest is 22m high), with massive artillery fire, protect a square-shaped block of 28 m side sheltering an inner courtyard embellished by a well. It has a military solid and esthetic architecture. Crenelated ramparts entirely girdly it.

In 1702, Vauban built there the « Caserne Vauban », the governor’s residence (with red tiles/ situated next to the visitor’s entrance/ until 1950, guards live there with their families). The lighthouse, at the southern tip of the island, topped with a red lantern, catches the eye’s attention ; it replaces the original one, bombed in summer 1944. At night, you will see 2 white flashes very 6 seconds are visible 11 miles away (around 17 km).

Observation posts and trenches are still visible ; but the powder reserves, the barracks and the mill were destroyed. The chapel built faces the Bonne Mère.

The island hosts sea birds such as gulls and avifaunas, it has kept a wild aspect. The flora is very limited, because of the low rainfall, but it has very beautiful protected species on the rocks or thin soil layers. From the summit of the towers, you have a 360° view. When the Mistral blows, you can see the Phare de Planier.

On the island, it is recommended to sit at on one of the most beautiful terraces of Marseille, at the restaurant « Marseille en face » (simple cuisine, outdoors/ panoramic view).

The Château d’If was above all a prison for 4 centuries. In this « Bastille des mers », state fortress, the prisoners’ life expectancy was very short due to the deplorable hygiene. The richer prisoners could « buy » a cell with a chimney and a window. But under the towers, the cells were real tombs where a small hole, closed by a heavy grid, let in very few light.

The revocation of the Edict of Nanter (1685) which ended the tolerance for Protestants, send 3500 prisoners in the castle. The man with the Iron mask came here (died in 1703 in the Bastille/ nobody knows who he was/state secret). During the Revolution, Mirabeau was imprisoned here for a year, upon request of his own father who wanted to cure him of his debauchery. In 1848, 120 people were imprisoned after a riot. At the end of the second Empire, in 1870, supporters of Napoléon III were put in jail here. Some prisoners were tied up to the galleys until they died.
In 1926, the Château d’If was classified as a historical monument. It is one of the most visited place of Marseille (100 000 visitors par year). Entrance fee 5,50€ (4,50€ reduced price). SWith the shuttles, you will be there in 20 mn from the Vieux Port.

Tourists love to visit this place to see the place evoked by Alexandre Dumas in his book « Le Comte de Monte Cristo ». they want to visit the cells of Abbé Faria and Edmond Dantès, and understand their secret intellectual relationship. A permanent exhibition is dedicated to the book, giving more informations, as well as the history of the building.

Alexandre Dumas’ book was known from 1844, serialized. It was inspired by actual events. This master piece says that in 1815, under Louis XVIII (King of Navarre and Count of Provence), the sailor Edmond Dantès is wrongly accused of bonapartism and to have conspired against the ruling regime by unworthy friends. The man is then arrested and sent to the Château d’If. There, he managed to communicate with the abbé Faria, prisoner of the neighbor cell. The abbot transmitted him all his science and knowledge, made him another man and revealed that a treasure is hidden on the island of Montecristo (at the south of the Elbe island, offshore the Toscany/Italy). Edmond Dantès escaped and found the treasure. 17 years later, the hero came back where he used to lived, under the title of « Comte de Monte Cristo », rich and unrecognizable, infront of the traitors and Mercédès he was to marry. His revenge will be merciless…

The story inspired many movie makers, in France and in the world. In 1954, Robert Vernay chose 2 wonderfully actors, Jean Marais and Lia Amanda. In 1961, Claude Autant-Lara chose Louis Jourdan and Yvonne Furneaux. In 1998, Josée Dayan chose the great actor Gérard Depardieu and the sublim Ornella Muti ; (this piece of art received the « Sept d’Or » in 1999). A great adaptation of Kevin Reynolds, « La vengeance de Monte Cristo » was released in April 2002 (with Jim Caviezel and Dagmara Dominczyk).

05 iles frioul pomegue rateneau marseillePomègues et Ratonneau

These islands of white limestone are crushed by the sun and/or wind-lashed, are the biggest of the archipelago. They are part, like the Château d’If, of Marseille’s 7th district. 7 km offshore from the city, they are of one its 111 districts with the île d’If and Tiboulen. They are respectively 2,7 km and 2,5 km and are linked by the Digue Berry built in 1821, under the order of Louis XVIII.

The Frioul archipelago has always been used as a base to conquest Marseille. In the 6th century AD, the Greek sailors built a port in the natural cove of Pomègues. Later, Jules César anchored offshore, near the islands to invade the Phocean city (49 AD / César vs Pompée/ defeat of Marseille, after six months of siege). In the 15th century, Alphonse V, King of Portugal and Charles Quint, German Eperor in the 16th century created military basis there.

Vauban, Louis 14th military architect, built fortifications on the site to complete the defences of the Arsenal des Galères on the Vieux Port.

The actual forts on both islands were built between the end of the 18th and the beginnig of the 19th century, on the culminating points.

During the second world war, from 1942, German occupied the forts and built two blockhouses (seven were to be built), before they surrender on the 29th of August 1944, under the allies bombs.

But these islands also had a humanitary use, indeed at the beginning of the 18th century, boats were put in quarantine on the ’île de Pomègues, to prevent any epidemics or contagious diseases to enter Marseille (during the 1720 plague in particular). The Digue Berry in 1821, made of Marseille the most important quarantine port in the Mediterranean Sea.

People started to talk about the « Lazaret des îles » as the Hôpital Caroline was created in 1828, on a promontory in Ratonneau ; yellow fever sick people were locked in it (acute viral disease transmitted by monkeys and by mosquitos). Its remarkable chapel was built in a neo-classical style (it looks like a Greek temple). Teh building was used util 1941. In 1944, it was bombed then abandoned ; in 1980, it was classified as a historical monument. It is restored by the Association « Acta Vista » which manages the training center of the heritage occupations ( the Association also restores the Fort Nicolas). This magnificent building became a social and cultural place. Since 2000, « Les nuits Caroline » are organized here and you can visit it during the Journées du Patrimoine. The MIMI festival is organized by the « Association d’aide aux musiques innovatrices » of La Belle de mai.

In 1974 the archipelago became one of Marseille’s district, through the determination of Monsieur Gaston Defferre, Mayor of the town who bought it from the Navy. On the île de Ratonneau, around the port of 600 rooms, is built a village where 100 people live, animated by restaurants, shops, the Léo-Lagrange holiday resort, a fire station. A few boaters live in their boats. But the Mistral, its disadvantages and the boats time constraints slow some people. Some projects to extend the port are though in progress.

The fort du Brégantin, on the île Ratonneau, belongs to the designer Ora ïto (son of the famous jewellery Pascal Morabito), born in Paris, but inhabitant of Marseille of heart, who already bought the upper terrace of the Corbusier where he exposes his works. The restored fort is becoming a contemporary art centre and a ecodesign hotel, thanks to Gérald Passédat (Top chef of the Petit Nice) and Roland Carta (Great architect in Marseille).

The attractiveness of the archipelago is undeniable as it offers a total disorientation with its countless creeks to be accessed by boat or on foot. The sandy beach of Saint Estève, wide and welcoming, is situated between the Hôpital Caroline and the Fort, takes about 15 mn to reach on foot from the port.

There are often divers who come to admire the underwater fauna and flora. The most experienced one go and visit the « le Junker 88 », a German bomber, vestige of the Second World War which rests, mostly intact; 20 meters below the sea surface ; The German cross can still be distingued on its side. It was discovered in 1989.

The île de Pomègues can be recognized thanks to its huge TV antenna. It hosts the first « bio » aquaculture farming of the Mediterranean sea. In floating cages are risen seabreans and seabasses with the biolevel, in the strictest compliance of specifications.

To conserve the natural environments, flora (13 protected species) and fauna of the archipelago is protected from 2002, by the “Parc Maritime de France”.


06 archipel du riouiles marseilleThe Riou archipelago

It is a set of aligned islands facing the massif de Marseilleveyre. There are, from west to east : Maïre, Riou, Jarre, Jarron, Plane and a few tiny islands. The total area is 162 hectares. It was a military land before it became properties of the « Conservatoire du Littoral” in 1992. In 2003, they are part of the Réserve Naturelle Nationale ; in 2012, they are included in the Parc National des Calanques, to preserve all our precious ecosystems. They are uninhabited ; the acces is forbidden at nights and reglemented during the days.

Iles de Maïre and Tiboulen de Maïre
Both islands are situating in front of the Massif des Calanques, facing the Baie des Singes. They are part of the 8th district.

Maïre is the biggest one (1 km X 0,5 km/ alt. 138 m.). Its strategical position, at the entrance of Marseille, why there are so many observation posts on the white limestone bloc where there is so few vegetation. There is a blockhouse at the top. The island is accessible only with the authorization of the CEEP (Conservatoire Etudes des Ecosystèmes de Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur), if you come to study the seagulls and their eggs as well as the flora.
At the East tip of the island there are two Pharillons (ou Farillons = small lighthouses) that the divers well know as they are interesting to explore. Indeed, underwater, they are linked with beautiful arches of sea anemones and gorgonian corals. There are also coral caves and many types of fishes.

It can be dangerous for bats because of the narrow passage. It is by the way a place known for its shipwrecks. One of the mis below the Pharillons, at 25 and 30 m below the sea level, « le Liban » (91m) sank in 1903, after a collision with « l’Insulaire » following a piloting error of the latter. The boiler of “le Liban” exploded and the ship was cut in half. Many people died, 100 m away from the coast as they couldn’t swim. The Commander of « l’Insulaire » was condemned as he went back to the port without rescuing the castaways.

The Liban shipwreck, so close of the coast, is often visited by the divers. It is interesting as it is mostly intact and embellished by underwtaer fauna and flora. The different rooms of the ship are still easily identified.
The île de Tiboulen de Maïre, is much smaller (100 m de long et 49 m d’altitude). It was called the ’île de la Tortue because of its curious shape. This uninhabited rock played its role until the end of the second World War with the white flashes of its semaphore (116 m high).

This island is well-known by the divers, especially behind the small calanque where there are a tunnel and a cave (part of the island).

07 ile maire archipel riou marseilleThe île de Riou

Archaelogical excavations revealed objects that have been dated to 5600 AD (Neolithic period / shells, potteries debris, grinding wheels, axes). Since Antiquity, Ligurian, Etruscan and Greek sailors settled here (between 700 and 350 AD). Around 50 AD, people fished tuna. Between 1295 and 1695 there was a coastal surveillance (vestiges of a 13th century watchtower and a tank).

More recently (from 1860), the island was where the sand has been removed during the extraction process for constructions in Marseille (vestiges of the slides of the former sandpits facing the île Plane).

The site is now protected from any aggression thanks to the surveillance of the Conservatoire du Littoral. The flora is then preserved and can multiply (230 vegetal species including lentisques bushes and salt-tolerant plants. Then fauna is also very abundant (lizards, cormorants, sea gulls, petrels, puffins, ducks, rats, rabbits and bats,…).

This place is impressive by the variety of its structure made of sheer cliffs (highest point 190m.), chasms, caves, sandy calanques (ie calanque de Riou or the calanque de Fontagne, with its turquoise waters. On the opposite side, on the Southern side, the calanque of the smugglers (cigarettes) is secret, narrow, hidden in the impressive cliffs. It was crowded until the middle of the 20th century. Today it is the paradise of the divers. The site is a hot spot of underwater archeology. In 1952, Cousteau found 2 shipwrecks and magnificent amphorae which are in the Musée des Docks of Marseille. The remains of the P 38 aircraft of Saint Exupéry were discovered there by Luc Vanrell.

The île Plane

Also called the île Calseraigne which means serene calanque, because of its gentle topography ; plane and grassy. It produced a striking contrast with the île de Riou and its rugged terrain. In the middle, a calanque offers a safe place when the Mistral blows. It is also a priviledged place for divers ; the archs of Plane are at 12 m belong the sea level. They attract by the beauty as well as their fauna and flora.

But the site also experiences its dark days, when it was a purgatory for foreign boats suspected to be infected by a virus. The cargoes were put there to be ventilated when boats were directed to Pomègues, where they were in quarantine. The contaminated ones were burnt at the île de Jarre.

The îles de Jarre et Jarron
Both islands, quite small, are two inseparable sisters ; just a strem of water separates them. They are plain ; the smaller, Jarron, is oriented south-west and the other one north-west.

Jarre is linked to the « Grand Saint Antoine », a Dutch flute (three-mested sailboat) brought the pest in 1720. It was responsible of the death of half of the population of Marseille as well as a quarter of the population of Provence. The vessel delivered balls of fabrics, cotton, silk from Syria. All was contaminated by the plague bacillus. The town administrator’s (the alderman) negligence and ignorance made the disease spead like a wildfire. The boat was brought her, burnt and sunk.
The burnt wreck was discovered in 1978, at the north of the island ; its archeological vestiges are exposed in the hôpital Caroline, on the île Ratonneau and the anchor is in the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (in the Centre Bourse).

[The epidemics went up to Apt, in the Vaucluse, where the « Mur de la Peste » was built. This 27km-long wall made of big dry stones is still visible. It is signalled with a stele of that period (in Lagnes, at the east of the Isle-sur-Sorgue, between the Durance and the Mont Ventoux). With the natural protection of the surrounding rivers, it was an additional barrier. Vigilant guards preventing any citizen crossing, to avoid contagion to spread].