It’s so easy to fall into sybaritic routines in the chic Riviera resort of Cannes—bronzing on the beach, browsing the designer boutiques of promenade de la Croisette, gambling and nightclub hopping at night. But if you want to jolt yourself out of that self-indulgent rut, hop on a ferry to the Ile Ste-Marguerite, the largest of the Iles des Lérins that pepper the Bay of Cannes. It’s literally the sister island to nearby Ile St. Honorat, named after a 5th-century nun whose brother founded the still-thriving Cistercian monastery of St. Honorat. Marguerite’s island convent is long gone, but what’s here today is even more fascinating: the austere cell of a 17th-century prisoner whose identity is still shrouded in mystery.
Alexandre Dumas romanticized his story in the 1850 novel The Man in the Iron Mask, the title referring to the heavy iron casque that concealed the prisoner’s face (in reality the mask was probably black velvet). Historians now believe he was one Eustache Dauger, described as a mere valet, but over the years nearly 100 different identities have been proposed—the son of Oliver Cromwell, perhaps, the real father of king Louis XIV, or (in Dumas’s version) the king’s twin brother. It was also rumored that while in prison he fathered a son, who was taken to Corsica and later founded the Bonaparte family. Whoever the masked prisoner was, he lived here from 1687 to 1698, then was transferred to the Bastille, where he died in 1703, his name—and his exact crime—forever unknown.
Disembarking from the ferry, you’ll be struck right away by the fragrance of Aleppo pines, eucalyptus, holly oaks, myrtle, honeysuckle, and clematis. Much of the island is a forest preserve; leave time to hike around and enjoy the breathtaking sea views from various observation points. It’s only a short walk, however, on a wellmarked path from the dock to the stout ramparts of the Fort de l’Ile, built of sun-bleached stone on this promontory by Spanish troops in 1635. After the French took over the fort in 1637, it served as a prison until it was decommissioned in 1944. Among its other prisoners were Huguenot pastors imprisoned after the revoked Edict of Nantes; Algerian hero Abd-El-Qader; and the exiled Marechal Bazaine, who daringly escaped in 1874.
In the main fort building, the Musée de la Mer occupies the old cisterns of the island’s original Roman settlement. Its exhibits trace the history of the island, displaying artifacts of Ligurian, Roman, and Arab eras, plus the remains of ancient shipwrecks and other undersea excavations. But the main attraction is definitely the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask, where it seems that every visitor has scrawled his or her name on the walls. Standing in this grim stone cell, listening to the sea pounding the ramparts without, you’ll feel a frisson of pity for that masked convict—whoever he was.