Paris may have its Eiffel Tower, but for the Marseillais, it can only be Notre Dame de la Garde. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is actually not a Cathedral, but a Basilica. It is known as La Bonne Mere (the Good Mother) to its locals and is the highest natural point in Marseille (155m), overlooking the Old Port and beyond.
Unlike the Eiffel Tower, however, visitors who are in Marseille only a short amount of time, often don’t visit the Basilica. And that is because it is not the easiest to get to. There are so many other things to do in Marseille and nearby Aix-en-Provence that choices have to be made. As someone married to a Marseillais, I’m here to tell you it is well worth the trip.
The History of the hill of “Garde”
In 1214, a local priest was inspired to build a small chapel to the Virgin Mary on top of the hill known as La Garde which was already belonged to the Church of France. In the 15th century, French King François I paid a visit to the city and decided that Marseille was poorly defended against neighboring Spain.
He realized that an excellent spot for his battlements would be on top of this hill which overlooked the entire city, and set about making the Basilica bigger, with surrounding fortifications. As the Basilica grew in stature, local sailors and fishermen started giving thanks to La Bonne Mere for keeping their safe on their travels.
During the French revolution, the King Louis XVI’s cousin, the Duke of Orleans, his two sons, and other family members were imprisoned for months in the apartments attached to the Basilica. One of the wealthiest men in France at the time, the Duke would not survive the revolution. One of his sons however would go on to become King of France after the July Revolution of 1830.
In 1853, it was Napoleon III decided to make the Basilica even bigger, and that is the building we see today. The building survived occupation, when German soldiers and snipers were stationed there during World War II.
At the end of the war, local French soldiers were able to take back the Basilica without much damage by sneaking up hidden hallways and staircases along a side street 26 Cherchel street, (now Rue Jules-Moulet). A plaque there commemorates the event.
There used to be a funicular direct from the Vieux Port, constructed in 1892 by Gustave Eiffel’s company (of Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty fame), but that closed in 1967.
Visiting the Basilica
From close-up, you will see that Notre-Dame de la Garde has was constructed in a beautiful alternating green and white stone on the outside and red and white on the inside. There are also exquisite mosaics decorated all over the place
This style of architecture is called Romano-Byzantine style and was designed by King François I’s 24-year-old architect. In the center of the alter is a statue in black of Madonna and Child.
It is made of hammered gold, and was made with donations of several dignitaries including the Duchess of Orleans in 1823 to replace a statue of the Virgin Mary that was melted down during the French revolution a few years earlier.
From the outside, there is also a series of small stairs leading to the Crypt, which is rather dark and somber. On the lower level, there is a museum that traces the history of the Basilica, along with a small provençale souvenir shop with religious offerings.
On the top of the dome, the golden statue of Mary dominating the basilica is more than 11 metres tall and weighs nearly 10,000 kg. It was made by the Christofle company in 1870 and was constructed in four pieces out of copper, due to the difficulty of getting the statue up the hill and onto the top of Notre Dame.
It has been regilded with 500 grams of gold several times, as finances allow.
Views from the top
There is no better place in Marseille for a view of the city. You can see the Vieux Port, the islands of Chateau d’If, as well as the new modern port where the cruise ships dock.
As we say in French, c’est une vue à couper le souffle (“it is a view that will take your breath away). On the outside, you will see the bell tower with the golden statue of the Virgin Mary on top. It is not possible to climb the Bell tower.
Frequently asked questions
How to get to Notre Dame de la Garde?
Marseille has a metro system, but there are no metros that go to Notre Dame de la Garde.
By Foot: From the east side of the Vieux Port is a trail to climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde on foot. It is a steep climb, so bring your walking shoes.
By Bus: There are several public buses running up to Notre Dame de la Garde, notably Bus 60, which runs from the Vieux Port up to the Cathedral. There is also a City Pass, which includes tourist busses that take you up to Basilica.
By Petit Train: Marseille’s tourist authority has put in place the Petit Train (Tourist train) that runs from the Hotel de Ville (City hall) next to the Vieux Port. Trains run several times a day, and tickets can be purchased online.
By car: Notre Dame de la Garde is located in a neighborhood surrounded by buildings, so parking can be difficult in the area. There is a small parking lot on church premises, but it gets very busy on Sundays and religious holidays.
How easy is it getting around the area?
For those with accessibility issues, please note there is a series of stairs that you have to climb from the Church parking lot to get into the Basilica. Strollers are not recommended.
So, will you be visiting Notre Dame de la Garde when you are in Marseille? Or will you stick to the easily accessible Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille? Either way, enjoy your trip!
If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about day trips from Marseille. Bon voyage and à bientôt!