The view of the Palais de l’Île from Pont Perrière in Annecy is one of the most photographed sights in France. Separating the Thiou into two canals, this picturesque fortified house resembles the prow of a stone ship seemingly advancing towards the river.
The Palais de l’Île: a bit of history
The fortified Palais de l’Île was built on a natural rocky island in the 12th century and was referred to for the first time in 1325 as a prison when the feudal lord of Annecy paid Jean de Menthoux, the master of the island, to feed two prisoners.
Thirty years later, the Holy Roman Germanic Emperor Charles IV granted Count Amadeus III of Geneva the right to establish a coin minting workshop in the little castle. This activity continued until the end of the 14th century.
The fortified house was subsequently bought by the Dukes of Savoy. François of Luxembourg (1445-died after 1511) with his wife Louise of Savoy and their son François II resided in the castle.
At the end of the 16th century, the Palais de l’Île served as a court house and a prison. It also housed the Presidial Council of the Genevois province and the Court of Auditors.
During the French Revolution and until 1865, the castle continued its notorious prison role whilst also housing barracks for the passing troops. Between 1865 and 1880, it served as an old peoples’ home before being turned back to a barracks.
There were attempts to raze the building but the excessive cost involved prevented any action being taken. It was saved by being listed as an Historical Monument by the French State in 1900.
During the Second World War, the Palais de l’Île resumed its prison function.
After a series of restorations throughout the 20th century, the Palais de l’Île is now accessible to the public and houses the Architecture and Heritage Interpretation Centre.
Description of the Palais de l’Île
The Palais de l’Île follows the shape of the two branches of the Thiou River. Its oldest part is the tower-lodge (12th or early 13th century) which today houses the exhibitions of the museum.
The Entrance Courtyard
From the entrance courtyard, the façade of the castle is flanked by a quadrangular tower built in small stone apparel which houses the spiral staircase.
To the left are the “Banches” offices of the lawyers and to the right, the Coin Minting Wing and the public access to the castle.
This low wing is where the lawyers had their offices. This is where business was conducted, contracts signed and conciliations made. ‘Banches’ is similar to benches in English (or counters).
The lawyers had their offices set inside a low building called “les banches”. This part of the castle is not accessible to the public.
The Coin Mint Wing
This side of the castle borders a small arm of the Thiou from east to west. The wing was built using large blocks of rock when the Holy Emperor granted Annecy permission to operate a coin mint workshop (1356-1358).
Today, visitors access the castle through the former royal office building on the ground floor.
The ground floor is divided into four vaulted rooms with semicircular arches, including the large gaoler’s kitchen.
The Coin Mint Wing is separated from the Tower-Lodge, where justice used to be administered, by a corridor. Located on the north side of the castle and bordered by the northern arm of the Thiou, its façade was constructed of river pebbles, small limestone blocks and molasse shards.
On the first floor is a small court hearing room where judges interrogated criminals in front of three prison cells.
Beyond them, the former hearing room of the Court of Justice is followed by a smaller hearing room. Both rooms now include panels explaining the urban history of Annecy.
The second hearing room opens onto the latrine area where the tombstone of Pierre Voisin, canon of the St Sepulchre Church and who died in 1744, has been oddly placed upside-down above one latrine.
The hearing rooms are surmounted by two other floors linked by a spiral staircase which was added in the 15th century.
The small Archives Room had shelves suspended by rings that supported bags of archives in order to keep them from the floor’s humidity and greedy rats. The rings can still be seen today.
The dungeons of the Palais de l’Île
On the ground floor of the Tower-Lodge four prison cells can be found along the little arm of the Thiou river.
The dungeons are one of the outstanding features of the castle as they reveal the conditions of imprisonment during the Old Regime. The fortress’ position on an island, which isolated it from the rest of town, was ideal for a prison. Men and women of all ages were maintained inside the four cells for committing all kinds of crimes.
Two cells were constructed in 1550 and two others were added by the beginning of the 17th century. During the French Revolution, there were more than one hundred people imprisoned at a time.
In Autumn 1864, prisoners were moved to another prison site. From 1905 to 1955, two police rooms were used to house tramps during the night. They still have their bedsteads which were added in the 20th century.
The inner courtyard of the Palais de l’Île
The inner courtyard to the East separates the lodge from the former chapel.
It includes the 18th century tombstone of Jean-Baptiste Simond who was the chief judge of the courthouse from 1729 to 1748 and was on friendly terms with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In 1906, it was used as a stone-cutter’s workshop and store.
Closing off the courtyard and the castle complex, the triangular-shape chapel is flanked on the lake side by a turret. It was used by the Orthodox community in Annecy between 1928 and 1981.
The museum inside the Palais de l’Île
This historical monument can be visited and is accessed by walking across the footbridge of Passage de l’Île. The CIAP museum (The Architecture and Heritage Interpretation Centre) leads visitors through a historical itinerary inside the castle.
The old rooms display information about their historic functions.
This permanent exhibition displays the urban history, heritage and environment of Annecy and its surroundings with several French-language audiovisual presentations. Visitors can buy a combined ticket for the Palais de l’Île and Annecy Castle.
The Palais de l’Île: English-French Vocabulary
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjective and (v) for verbs
- Alps = Alpes (f,p)
- Amadeus = Amédée
- archives = archives (f,p)
- barracks = caserne (f)
- canal = canal (m)
- castle = château (m)
- cell = cellule (f)
- chapel = chapelle (f)
- corridor = couloir (m)
- court house = cour de justice (f)
- court of auditors = cour des comptes (f)
- courtyard = cour (f)
- duke = duc (m)
- dungeon = prison (f)
- fortified house = maison fortifiée (f)
- French revolution = révolution française (f)
- Geneva = Genève
- gaoler = geôlier (m)
- imprisonment = emprisonnement (m)
- island = île (f)
- kitchen = cuisine (f)
- latrine = latrines (f,p)
- lawyer = avocat (m)
- mint = hôtel des monnaies (m)
- museum = musée (m)
- prison = prison (f)
- Savoy = Savoie (f)
- spiral staircase = escalier à vis (m)
- wing = aile (f)
- workshop = atelier (m)
Visit the Annecy Tourist Office website.