The basilica sits at the highest natural peak in Marseille (called “La Garde“), which for centuries had been used as an important post for defending the city (along with the island fortress Château d’If). A church was built here in the 13th century and later, the basilica was built on the same site. It was completed in 1864 and the name “notre-dame” means “our lady”. There is a 10-metre-tall statue of the Virgin Mary on the top of the bell tower, who is said to watch over the entire city.
The site was a place of pilgrimage throughout the centuries and by the mid-19th century, there were too many visitors for the site to manage, which is one of the reasons why the basilica was built. Lots of people visit on Assumption Day (to commemorate the day when Mary’s body was taken into heaven) and the basilica is still used for daily church services, so bear this in mind when you visit. The engraved stones on the wall in the old Provençal dialect are people’s thanks to Mary for protecting them from cyclones, war, exam failure or health problems. The local beloved football team, Olympique de Marseille, left their shirts here in thanks after winning an important match. There’s a small museum inside that tells the story of the basilica’s history.
The Byzantine revival (called Neo-Byzantine) occurred in the late 19th century when buildings, like Notre-Dame, were built in the style of Roman architecture with complicated structures and lots of domes. Buildings in this style incorporated mosaics, multi-coloured stonework and ornate tiles, usually in gold. People also visit for its art; Notre-Dame contains murals depicting the safe passage of sailors as well as religious paintings.
Notre-Dame de la Garde is the most visited place in Marseille and it’s not hard to see why – it has 360 panoramic views over the city. Locals head to her steps to watch the Bastille Day fireworks or simply to take a picnic in the evenings. Just be warned, it can be a bit of climb to get to her, so best to take the tourist train from the Old Port unless you’re feeling energetic. Take lots of water if you’re walking the steps in summer.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, Marseille, France +33 (0)4 91 13 40 80