Notre Dame de la Garde
From the top of its hillthe famous basilicawatches over the people of Marseille

‘Notre‑Dame de la Garde’ basilica

Emblem of the city of Marseille, Notre-Dame watches over sailors, fishermen, and the people of Marseille. While visiting the Phocaean city, pay a visit to “la Bonne Mère” (the Good Mother), as it is called in Marseille, and from the top of the hill, you will be able to contemplate the breathtaking panorama. The basilica can be seen from every corner of the city and faces the Mediterranean sea from above.

Because of its external and internal architectural beauty, and magnificent 360 degrees view all over the city, the basilica is the most visited monument of the city of Marseille. You can reach it by walk or onboard the little touristic train, from which you will be able to enjoy the ride without having to hike up the hill! Do not miss this crucial monument of Marseille.

History of the hill of “Garde”

The hill of “Garde” (154 m) has always been an observation point. At its highest point at 154 meters, it offers a 360 degrees view of the city, the islands, and the sea. In the 15th century, a ruling from Charles II of Naples included it in the way station list. This lookout system improved with centuries and the hill kept a monitoring role until 1978.

Francis I of France ordered the building of a fort in 1524 to protect Marseille from the armies of Charles V led by the Constable of Bourbon, and together with the ‘Château d’If’ (If Castle), they constituted a maritime defense which was lacking in the city. Nowadays, the remains of the fort which were used as the basis for the actual basilica can still be seen, and we can guess the King’s emblem above the northern entrance porch: the salamander.

1853, the first stone was laid

In 1214, a priest named Pierre built a small chapel and a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary on-site and established the religious calling of the location. Many chapels succeeded one another in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance until the actual basilica was built. The hill of the ‘Garde’ had three purposes: a look-out post, a military building, and a place of worship and pilgrimage.

In the middle of the 19th century, the sanctuary turned out to be too small for the many pilgrims visiting. Monseigneur de Mazenod decided to build a big basilica called Notre-Dame de la Garde. The first stone was laid on the 11th of September 1853. The architect Henry Espérandieu was entrusted with the work and the consecration was celebrated on the 5th of June 1864.

The city took a different turn during this time and launched the construction of prestigious monuments such as the ‘Palais de la Bourse’ (Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and the Préfecture (administrative center).

The ‘Bonne Mère’ (Good Mother) and popular beliefs

The familiar shape of the basilica can be recognised by the people of Marseille from many locations in the city, from the ‘Vieux-Port’ to the islands of Frioul, from the Mucem museum to the tower of the fort Saint Jean to the hills of Pagnol, the famous local writer.

The basilica was built based on a Roman-Byzantine style (with domes, stones polychromy, golds, mosaics) according to the Big Constructions Plan in Marseille undertaken under Napoléon III. The building is made of two parts:

  • A lower church with an arched vault
  • A higher church, the sanctuary, consecrated to the Virgin Mary (celebrated with a Pilgrimmage on the 15 August)

Inside the building, the many ex-votos exposed on the walls are a testimony to popular beliefs, reaching far beyond the limits of the Phocaean city. People were coming from the whole of the ‘Bouches-du-Rhône’ and Provence to light up an altar candle and ask a favour, or simply to be revitalised by coming a little closer to Heaven.

Did you know?

The Virgin Mary looks towards the sea, and not towards her child, and introduces him to the world. As soon as someone arrives either from the North, the South, or from the sea, they can spot Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Anecdotes that you will want to know

  • There are three bells, including a tenor bell called ‘Marie-Joséphine’
  • The imposing statue of the Virgin Mary measures 11.20 meters
  • The statue is hollow, and a staircase leads to its eyes (closed to the public)
  • A funicular, operated between 1892 and 1967, used to climb the 80 meters from ‘rue Jules Moulet’

 

Practical Information

Notre-Dame de la Garde is open every day of the year.
From 7 am to 6 pm

Car parks close at 6.15 pm

By bus (route 60) RTM
Onboard the little touristic train (route  ”Notre-Dame de la Garde ”)
By car (beware of the car park closing time at 5.30 pm)
By bike (Le Velo)
By foot (around 20 minutes from ‘Vieux-Port’)

Access strongly discouraged to buses over 13 m.

This historical monument remains a place of worship. Respect is essential, particularly during Masses and religious services’ times. 

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