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Les Îles de Lérins: Sainte-Marguerite

The cell made of slowly crumbling limestone was dark and very dry on that hot August morning. My breathing was ragged as I leaped onto a narrow ledge to a small opening in the cell wall. Outside, I saw the Mediterranean Sea shimmering beneath an intense blue, cloudless sky. The freedom offered by the sea was so close at the base of the fort, yet hopeless for anyone locked away in the cell. You can hear the waves striking the base of the building, like the siren calls that almost drove Ulysses mad. I could only imagine what the Man in the Iron Mask thought as he hopelessly gazed out onto the Sea.

What to see on Ile Sainte-Margeurite

I was on Sainte-Marguerite, one of the two major Iles de Lerin, less than 20 minutes from Cannes and the civilized world. I felt, for those few minutes, like l’homme au masque de fer (the Man in the Iron Mask). I understood the attractions of Dumas’ novel: false incarceration, escape, and revenge…a romantic work full of thrills, an exotic location, and a genuinely satisfying conclusion.

The interior of the cell is dusty and claustrophobic, the walls partially covered with graffiti. On a wall, iron shackles hang, just visible in the half-light. I imagined them cruelly snapped onto my wrists and saw myself helpless, alone, discarded by the world. Departing via the heavy oak door, the heat of late morning is intense.

Île Sainte-Marguerite is the largest of the four islands collectively known as Les Îles de Lérins, the Lérins Islands, named after the martyr of Antioch, Lero, during the early years of Christianity. It was probably renamed by medieval Crusaders. They built a chapel here dedicated to the saint. It might also have been named after the possibly fictional sister of Saint Honorat.

Because of its strategic location, so close to the mainland, the island was sought after and has a history of warfare from Roman times to the late seventeenth century when France recaptured its Fort Royal from the Spanish who built the Fort de Îles. The Fort became popularized as the supposed site where the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated under orders from King Louis XIV of France.

The island is now an attractive location for boating, scuba diving, sunbathing, and picnicking on its quiet shores, away from the hectic pace often found in Cannes and the Riviera coastline.

You can’t help but notice the deteriorating sandstone walls enclosing several buildings. Part of a garrison for the troops occupying the Fort, the buildings were turned into compact dormitories, offices and support centers for those working on the restoration of the Fort. There is also housing for tourists who wish to work here and live in Spartan quarters. A restaurant and a café provide meals for staff and visitors. One of the deserted rooms was a former ammunition store, marked by a small pile of cannon balls outside the doorway. The interior, filled with hot dead air, contains a bed and desk, wooden shelves and a cramped bathroom. A threadbare dark rug partially covers the cement floor. It’s certainly not luxury accommodation. The top of the sandstone wall is fragmented and crumbling thanks to the ravages of time.

You can view the rest of the small island, across the sea to Île Sainte-Honorat and spot Cannes on the horizon. To the left is the loading dock where the mainland ferry arrives. Tourists come for the calming pace and soothing atmosphere of the Allée des Eucalyptus, the enveloping beauty of Aleppo pine forests and the inviting beaches.

The dock area has two small cafés, upscale restaurants, and a souvenir shop. The island is clearly signposted for points of interest as well as paths leading down the rocky coast to the water. No vehicles are permitted on the island except for those servicing the dining areas, the docks and the fort. The serenity of Île Sainte-Marguerite is strictly enforced.

Colorful beach blankets and reed mats were set out near the water, their owners snorkelling in the crystal-clear waters of the bay or picnicking on the sand. Offshore, dozens of sailboats were anchored, all painted white with a strip of color along the hulls. The heat rose and a gentle breeze caressed the island. Once the fort would have been a place of terror, but the island is now a peaceful refuge, well worth a detour from busy Cannes.

By John Pekich  producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA

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