On our first, and hopefully not last visit to Marseille, we went to visit the Notre-Dame basilica. Marseille itself is an absolutely gorgeous city. We liked it a whole lot, and l am so glad that we did not let ourselves get swayed by the opinions of others. Many people tried to talk us out of visiting. The Notre-Dame basilica is a stunning and historical church whose foundation is built on an old fort. I like to think of it as “the cherry on top” of a very delicious cake. The name translates into “our lady of the guard. The Notre-Dame is located to the south of the Vieux-Port (Old Port).
The church towers over everything and is visible from anywhere in the city as it sits approximately 500 feet above it. You can therefore imagine the stupendous views from the top. We had purchased the Marseille pass from the tourist office located in the old port. This was a smart thing for us to do. With this pass, we were able to save on museum entrance fees, most of them were free with the card actually. We were also able to use it on the buses as well as the metro, which saved a lot of time rummaging for change. I recommend doing that if you visit Marseille.
With the pass, we could also visit the basilica with the Petit Train company, so we took advantage of that. We caught the petit train from their station at the port. It was quite nice actually to be in the open air train car whizzing along on the streets. It certainly couldn’t get any more touristy than that! :-). The views were lovely, especially the sea views The streets are very narrow going up and it felt cozy. Sometimes you don’t want to look down as you feel the whole thing might just roll down backwards :-), but it wasn’t scary.
Along the way, the driver points out little interesting tidbits about Marseille. It was so cool seeing all these little houses built into the hills, and what views they must have. Aaahh.. I wanted one. I think it took twenty minutes or so to get up to Notre-Dame. It’s required that you get off the train at the top.
The current basilica that is there replaced an old church by the same name that was originally built in 1214. It was consecrated as a basilica in 1864.
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Some facts about the Notre-Dame basilica: (Notre Dame de la Garde History)
– The 27 ft stature of Madonna and child at the top is made of copper, gilded with gold leaf. It was made into four sections because of the difficulty of getting it up the hill, then assembled at the top.
– King Francois I observed that Marseille was not well protected from attack. Charles III had almost taken it in a siege in 1524. He therefore ordered two forts to be built to prevent further attacks. The first one was built on the island of If, which later became known as the Chateau D’if (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame). The other is this one, built on top of the Garde.
– During the Great Plague of Marseille which killed over 100,000 people, the then Bishop, Henri de Belsunce went 3 times on foot to the Notre-Dame to bless the people of the city. Trust me, it’s a big deal..that place is high up :-)
– There was a funicular at the Notre-Dame. It was built in 1892, and over it’s 75 year existence, transported 20 million people on it’s 2 minute ride to the top. It was shut down in 1967 because cars had become popular by then, and the funicular was no longer profitable.
– There is a tank named Joan of Arc that played a crucial role in helping the French reclaim the Notre-Dame, and therefore the city from the Germans in 1944. An French soldier was familiar with the neighborhood and knew of a hidden hallway that led to a staircase under the basilica that was unknown to the Germans. This is one of two tanks that led the attack from the French side. It is located at the very place where it crashed upon being attacked by the Germans. The three soldiers manning it eventually died of sustained wounds. The street is Place de Colonel Udon, and you see it as the train goes up the hill.
– It served as a prison for a few weeks in 1793. The Duke of Orleans, Phillipe Egalite and some of his family members were imprisoned here before their transfer to Fort Saint-Jean. It is said they enjoyed the view, and the princess even left a pencil drawing of Marseille view from the top behind.
– The original green stone used to in construction called the Golfalina was very badly degraded by Industrial pollution, especially coal. The quarry where the stone had been taken from in Florence has closed down. Identical stone was found near a vineyard in Chianti, treated, and used to replace the old ones.
– The Notre-Dame basilica is referred to by the locals as “The Good Mother”. She is the protector and guardian of Marseille.
– There is a Romanesque style crypt in the entrance hall under the bell tower (we missed this :-( )
– LaGarde is the most visited site in Marseille, and ever increasing thanks to the cruise ships docking at the port.
Related Reading: Ultimate Guide to Marseille, France
The views like l said, are absolutely smashing. We spent just a few minutes in the interior. Unfortunately, our old files from the camera Federico has in his hands were lost to the computer meltdown. Most of these are cell phone pictures, and a few that l had put on Facebook. It does remind you of the Duomo in Florence, which is to be expected, since most of the limestone came from Italy.
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What do you think about this in my opinion, a beautiful little basilica perched up high above the city of Marseille? Would you like to visit it? I certainly wouldn’t mind revisiting. Have you been to Marseille? If yes, did you like it as much as we did?