They may not be the first place you would think to visit, but jails hold more interest than you might think. And, as travel writer Claire Gervat explains, some of the world’s lockups have such a fascinating history that you might be quite keen to spend some time behind bars…
Oxford Prison is now a luxurious hotel, with its sleek designer looks and its original window bars and thick metal doors, while the neo-classical elegance of Istanbul’s Old Town jail has eased its transition to boutique bolt hole with an acclaimed restaurant
A night in jail, or even just a few hours, might seem an odd way to spend part of your holiday. These days, though, travellers have the opportunity to step inside some of the world’s oldest, most infamous prisons without breaking a single law – and leave again whenever they want. The truly adventurous can even sleep in the cells. Oxford Prison, for instance, is now a luxurious hotel, with its sleek designer looks and its original window bars and thick metal doors, while the neo-classical elegance of Istanbul’s Old Town jail has eased its transition to boutique bolt hole with an acclaimed restaurant. Our chosen five former lockups, though, all slot easily into a day of exploration, and with former inmates ranging from Casanova to Nelson Mandela and everything on offer from fine art to bird colonies to keep you entertained, you will most definitely be detained at your own pleasure, not Her Majesty’s.
Doge’s Palace, Venice
The doges, elected from Venice’s leading families, ruled the watery city and its empire for more than 1,000 years from the palace by St Mark’s Square. The wonderfully ornate Gothic building dates mostly from the 15th century and it seems entirely appropriate that its cells should have housed one of history’s equally flamboyant characters, Casanova. He was sentenced to five years for being a magician, but escaped a year later and fled to Paris. These days visitors will be more tempted to stay, whether it’s to visit the former prison, admire the art or take in the Grand Council Chamber, lined with portraits of Venice’s former rulers.
Robben Island, Cape Town
Five miles off the South African coast near Cape Town’s Table Bay, lonely Robben Island was a place of banishment for social outcasts of all kinds, from the mentally ill and lepers to criminals and political agitators, for nearly 400 years. The island’s rise to international infamy, however, came during the apartheid years; from 1961 to 1991, more than 3,000 political prisoners were detained there in terrible conditions, Nelson Mandela being the best known. Today, those who take the ferry ride across from Cape Town to the World Heritage Site have a more enjoyable time of it visiting the prison museum, the lighthouse, the penguin colony and the giant tortoises.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg
Its roll call of former inmates includes some of Russia’s most illustrious names, including Trotsky, Dostoyevsky and even its founder Peter the Great’s rebellious son Alexei. The Peter and Paul Fortress was the first building of the new city of St Petersburg, with solid stone walls 40 feet high and 20 feet thick in some parts; no wonder no-one ever escaped from its cells, some of which are now open to visitors. Also within the fortress walls, there is the City History Museum, the Mint and the gold-tipped cathedral, in which almost all the tsars and tsarinas from Peter the Great onwards are buried. Gorkovskaya is the nearest metro.
Alcatraz, San Francisco
From 1934 to 1963, this bleak lump of sandstone in San Francisco Bay – previously a military detention centre – was home to America’s best-known high-security prison, with inmates including Al Capone. The film Birdman of Alcatraz was based on the life of another prisoner, Robert Stroud, who spent much of his sentence studying the bird life – the island’s name comes from the Spanish word for pelicans. The Rock, as it’s known, is still a nesting site for sea birds. As well as seeing the prison, visitors can enjoy views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz lighthouse. Ferries cross from Fisherman’s Wharf from 9.30am daily.
In the early 19th century, the Italian island of Elba became a prison for just one man, exiled French Emperor Napoleon I. It was an unusual incarceration: Elba was made a principality with Napoleon as ruler, he was allowed to keep a personal guard of 400 men, and kept busy by improving the life of the islanders. Finally, the emperor grew bored of his little kingdom and, evading the British naval blockade, he made his escape to France, leaving behind his house in Portoferraio, the Palazzina dei Mulini, still full of beautiful furniture and artworks. As for the British, they may have lost their prisoner but they did gain a palindrome: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”