Most people have never heard of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence. And they don’t know its connection to Mary Magdalene, and her years in France. The clue is in this little French town’s very long name which is filled with meaning, bringing visitors and tourists from around the world.
If you read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, you would think that there is a hidden grave somewhere in the Louvre, under a glass pyramid. I watched the movie too, but didn’t give it much thought until we stopped in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume for lunch on a road trip between Marseille and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
And there, while walking towards the town square, we stumbled upon a tiny sign in front of the town’s church, claiming the tomb of Mary Magdalene. Only in France will you ever run into so much history on a pit stop!
Mary Magdalene in Provence
According to Provençale tradition, after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and several companions are expelled from the Holy Land and arrive in France near Arles, a place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Saints Mary of the Sea).
She arrives in France in a broken-down little boat with Lazarus, Maximin, Mary Salomé, and their servant Sara. From there she is said to have gone to Marseille, and converted the locals to Christianity. (This is where the Da Vinci Code and French tradition agree.)
Lazarus went on to become the first bishop of Marseille and Maximin became the first bishop of Aix-en-Provence, both already big cities even in those days.
Afterward, Mary Magdalene is said to have retired to a grotto in La Sainte-Baume Mountain (“Baumo” in the Provençale language means “Holy Cave”) where she is said to have spent several years.
At the time of her death, it is believed that Maximin and buried her in the oratory built by the first Christians. That oratory today is in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, in a crypt inside a Basilica, with that little sign in front of it.
Things to do in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume
1) Basilique de Sainte Marie-Madeleine
The outside of the Basilica is not much to look at, which is why it is even more surprising to find what is inside.
Signs at the Basilica indicate that after her death the crypt was guarded by disciples of Saint Cassien. In the 8th century, the Saracens invaded this area from North Africa and Spain, and the crypt had to be buried to be protected.
In the 12th century, Charles II of Anjou began to search for the relics of Mary Madeleine and discovers an early Christian tomb, the current crypt, containing bones, and sets about expanding the church.
Over the centuries the Basilica was subject to large numbers of pilgrims, royalty and church officials from Rome, who all wanted a piece of the relics there. Several items were stolen or degraded and had to be repaired. During the French Revolution, the church was ransacked and pillaged.
The original gold and silver reliquary that held the bones has been stolen several times. The current golden reliquary (see picture below) dates back to 1860.
Nonetheless, the Basilica states that official tests conducted in 1974 have shown that the bones belong to “a woman around 50 years old, of Mediterranean type”.
2) The Grotto in Saint Baume
After visiting the Basilica, you can also visit the grotto where Mary Magdalene is believed to have spent her last years. However, the grotto is not actually in the town of Saint-Maximin but in a protected regional park about 16km (10 miles away).
The grotto is a place of pilgrimage, having been a holy site of importance since Saint Louis IX visited the cave in 1254. As with the Basilica, it was also ransacked during the French Revolution of 1789 but restored to the Dominican order in the 1800s. In 1941, a hostel was established there as a refuge for those fleeing Nazi persecution.
The only way up to the grotto in the Saint Baume mountain is by foot. It takes about 45 minutes to climb up to it.
There are several paths to go to the cave, but none of them are particularly accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. The “Chemin des Rois” (Kings Paths) is the easiest and largest. A slightly more complicated route is a hiking trail called GR9.
3) Wander around town
After visiting the Basilica, you may want to walk around the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. It may not be one of the more famous towns of Provence, but it still has a cute town square and plenty of charm. There are also several lovely restaurants there if you wish to stop for lunch.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume?
How many days should you spend here?
Saint-Maximin is an easy day trip from nearby Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, or Avignon.
If you intend to go to the grotto, you may wish to spend the evening in Saint-Maximin, as you may not be keen to drive back to your accommodation after a big day out.
Where should you stay?
If you do decide to stay overnight, I highly recommend staying at Hotel le Couvent Royal. It is a convent that directly adjoins the Basilica and is almost as old. Today it is a hotel that you can stay in, for very reasonable rates.
Will you be putting Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume on your list on your next holiday in Provence? Comment below and let me know!
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