Ile Ste-Marguerite:The Man in the Iron Mask

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Ile Ste-MargueriteIt’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.