Island Time - Part One
by John Pekich
The pace is slower, thoughts have more time to develop, and the senses come alive on an island. Indeed, there is a kind of escapism and romanticism associated with an island: Blue waters; exotic birds; lush vegetation; and friendly locals. In short, it is Island Time.
It was not so in the cell on the island where I found myself. There, the air was oppressive, hot, dusty, and bleak. An almost overwhelming sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and despair hung in the air. The single opening in the thick sandstone wall looked onto a bright, intense blue sky; if the prisoner in the cell raised himself on the tiny ledge, he could glimpse the Mediterranean Sea below. It was a horrific sensation, being so close to the freedom of the sea…yet so far away. The condemned would die there unless someone rescued him.
That is what makes this island so extraordinary, I thought, as I looked out the window at the Sea. I could hear the waves lapping at the base of the fort around me, offering a way to escape.
I could not imagine being in there for a day or a week, let alone several years; I could only guess what l'homme au masque de fer (the Man in the Iron Mask) must have felt each time he looked out that window opening. I put myself in his place, drew myself up higher by grasping the powdering window ledge, and gazed at the world that I often took for granted. Inside his oppressive cell, the miserable prisoner took nothing for granted, save for his wasting away, lost forever on this seemingly idyllic island, the Île Sainte-Marguerite.
I realized that that was what makes the eponymous novel so powerful: The single isolated man, absolutely alone, except for his jailer; upon his escape, he wreaked a terrible vengeance on those who had put him there.
I dropped from the ledge and studied the room for some moments. My gaze rested on the far wall, on rusting iron shackles hanging in shadows. I imagined them locked, with finality, on my wrists, then being left totally alone and forgotten by the world.
Dumas got all the horror and cruelty right.
The cell where l’homme au masque de fer was locked away had cramped, limestone walls covered with the names of past visitors; the graffiti gave them a certain sense of immorality. The single window opening - if it can be called a window - was the only source of light and air, a false hope of escape leading to the Mediterranean and freedom...until Alexander Dumas wrote his novel.
There are other versions of the Man in the Iron Masque, his identity, and the exact location of his incarceration. Some of them name different prisoners, alternate locations, and other reasons for the harsh sentence.
None of that mattered as the heat and humidity increased. I could not imagine a more depressing place to be trapped.
I needed some air.
I crossed the space in three paces and stood outside, finding the heat of midmorning welcome. Looking off to the Mediterranean Sea, I reveled in its deep rich blue-green waters, soothing and comforting, and real. Even more real was Cannes, a mere 10 miles and twenty-five minutes by boat - but a lifetime - away.
After some quick photographs of the fort housing the cell, including close-ups of the doorway, I turned to my right, to a short dirt path which led to an upper trail around the fort. From this vantage point I was able to capture the magnificence of the Mediterranean and the sense of how close the cell was to water and freedom. Those shots, combined with the interior of the cell, would describe the seeming impossibility of escape, until Edmund Dantes did the impossible.
I was visiting Île Ste-Marguerite, one of two islands collectively known as les Îles de Lérins; it was named after the sister of Saint-Honorat who had established a monastery on Île St-Honorat, the second of the two islands. Ste-Marguerite had lived on the island with a group of nuns, in the fifth century, making it one of the earlier religious communities for women.
The dominant feature of Île Ste-Marguerite is the Fort, rebuilt and reinforced by the Spanish in the early seventeenth century in their Thirty Year War against France, which they ultimately lost. Beneath that fort is an earlier settlement, the ruins of a Roman town from the first century. Presumably, the Fort was where the Man in the Iron Mask was incarcerated under orders from King Louis XIV of France; according to some traditions, the condemned was the King’s twin brother.
No longer a military fortress, the Royal Fort of Île St-Marguerite was transformed into the Musée de la Mer (Museum of the Sea); it houses a variety of finds from the many shipwrecks off the coast from the days of the ancient Romans and Saracens.
The site was surrounded by crumbling sandstone walls and contained several buildings which once served as a garrison for the troops. Today, they are dormitories and offices for a youth center; aside from swimming, sunning and sailing, the students work on the restoration of the fort. There is also some basic housing for tourists who participate in the work, if they chose to do so, and restaurants for the staff and visitors.
“Maman?” a young girl asked her mother, startling me from my reveries with her question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What is it?). Dressed in khaki shorts and a pink knit shirt, as her mother was, she was pointing inside one of the deserted rooms to the left of the Tower where the Man in the Iron Masque was imprisoned. The mother explained that it was once an ammunition storage cell; all that remained was a small pile of iron cannon balls outside the entrance.
I waited until the mother and child examined the scene for some minutes before they continued on in the dry, dusty heat. I walked closer, then peered through the iron-barred window, into the shadows. The interior contained a bed and desk, a small bathroom, and some wood shelves on the wall. A dull maroon rug partially covered the newly poured cement floor. It was probably a room for one of the students working there during the summer. I was not certain that I could live that ascetic life.
I laughed easily, chiding myself for a lack of a sense of adventure. I had come to explore, I told myself, as I looked upward at a high walkway around the fort. It was time to explore this place...to see what was there.
I followed the girl and her mother, at a distance of some thirty feet, as they led the way through the fort, past other sandstone rooms built against the outer wall. The two crossed to a dusty intersection, then climbed upward to the higher ground, passing other enclosures. Inside each I saw neat, clean orderly rooms.
I continued to the top of the sandstone wall, fragmented and crumbling through the ravages of time. Below me spread the island, the Mediterranean Sea, the Île St-Honorat to the left, and Cannes in the distance.
To my left, half a mile away, lay the loading dock, with a ferry arriving, bringing another load of visitors. The dock area contained a small café and restaurants with magnificent views of the Sea. There were also the usual souvenir shops, water faucets to fill bottles for those who would walk the island in the heat, signs pointing out various sites on Île Ste-Marguerite, and footpaths leading down the rocky coast to the water.
Several people had set up blankets and mats near the water and were snorkeling in the crystalline Bay. Offshore, dozens of boats were anchored; most were multi-colored sailboats, twenty feet or more in length, their sails secured to their masts. The setting was idyllic and I took several shots from my vantage point.
The mother and child walked down a dirt path, leading to the dock, sliding and slipping on loose scree and sand. The heat was rising, with a slight breeze over the island. By mid-afternoon, the temperatures would be in the upper eighties, making a walkabout slow and deliberate, but there were enough pine trees to produce some shade. Sunbathers loved the island, for its isolation and the abundance of such perfect days.
I half-walked, half-slid down the dirt trail to the Fort. Glancing at my watch, I made a quick calculation, and decided I still had time to visit the second island, Île St-Honorat.
I looked, one final time, around the dry, desolate Fort, the interior little more than sandy soil and pieces of sandstone that had broken off from the walls. It was a ruin, in the best and worst sense of the word. Archaeologists and historians love such places, while tourists often have love/hate relationships with them: They are often fun to explore and to talk about, but, after an hour or so, there is little for most kids and families to do. The purists would thrive on exploring and contemplating what the ruins represented; the rest of the world would take pictures and move on.
Rather than returning along the coast path to the docks, I decided to turn inland. In seconds, I was engulfed in a shaded, eucalyptus tree-covered walkway, surrounded by the soothing fragrance from the trees. The fort was part of the past; now, I was in a different time and place. For an all-too-brief interlude, I heard no motors, saw no people, felt no intrusions.
Yet, time has a way of intruding into even the best of worlds and I had to meet the boat’s timetable, else I would not experience the second of the Îles des Lérins. Île St-Honorat was a ten-minute boat ride away, across the Plateau du Milieu, yet it was a world unto itself. Where Île Ste-Marguerite tended to be louder and more active, Île St-Honorat was quiet, contemplative. By comparison, fewer visitors traveled to Île St-Honorat than to Île Ste-Marguerite; those that did were older, perhaps seeking the opportunity to escape the noise and frantic pace of Cannes.
John’s evocative description of Île St-Honorat will be published next week.
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