Just a few miles out from the Vieux Port of Marseille, four small, rocky islands form the Frioul archipelago. First stop for the regular ferry is If, an island mostly occupied by the chateau of the same name. This 15th century fortress, built to defend Marseille’s harbour, was used as a prison from the 16th century and is most famous as the place where the fictional hero of Alexandre Dumas’ novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ was wrongly imprisoned.
After rounding If and crossing a narrow sound the boat docks at Ratonneau, the northernmost island of the archipelago. The small settlement on this island, home to around one hundred permanent inhabitants, has several bars and restaurants as well as a sailing school, a block of holiday apartments, a fire station, and a chapel.
A stone digue or sea wall links Ratonneau to the neighbouring island of Pomègues and encloses a sheltered marina. Pomègues is rugged and uninhabited, apart from a coastguard station and a small fish farm, though the crumbling remains of barracks and gun emplacements are reminders of the island’s recent military past.
On a warm, June morning only the sparseness of the vegetation on exposed slopes hints at the harshness of the weather here. The low-lying islands receive little rainfall but are subject to storms from the sea as well as the fierce winds of the Mistral coming over the mountains to the north. Only plants adapted to salt spray, wind and drought can survive here.
The wind-scoured islands are mostly bare rock as soil can only build up in sheltered pockets. Plants which manage to take root in sheltered crevices stand out against a backdrop of pink-tinged limestone like carefully chosen specimens displayed in a botanic garden. Despite the harshness of the habitat over 300 species of plants have been counted here including twenty rare species protected on a regional or international level.
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Up until the 1970s the Frioul archipelago was military land, out of bounds to civilians. Marseille city council acquired the islands piece by piece and now owns most of the area. On Ratonneau bars, cafés and other facilities cater to visitors who arrive in the marina by private yacht as well as day trippers who catch the regular ferry from the mainland. The council has considered proposals to expand the marina alongside management plans to conserve the islands’ rare natural habitats. Responding to both demands will be a delicate balancing act.