France is like much of Europe in terms of its breathtaking religious architecture, but it’s interesting to see how regional differences have influenced this historical development. In the north of France you have a number of well known constructions, probably most famously the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, an enormous visage rising out of the Seine river as it cuts across the city. Lyon, in central France, is home to the Cathedrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Based on the glamorous internal structure it comes as little surprise that the archbishop of Lyon can be found here. But Marseille is something else entirely. It is, in its entirety, a city on the water.
From the famed island prison nearby, (Chateau d’If, featured in “The Count of Monte Cristo”) to the fish market, and boat-filled harbor, to the French fjords (know as calanques), and nightly beachside parties found down stairways to the water, it’s a marine city. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that Marseilles own stunning Notre Dame might have a more sailorly twist than the one in Paris or Lyon.
Intricate ships with masts and rigging flowing in minute detail hang one after another from ropes high in the gilded rafters of Notre-Dame de la Garde. The carefully painted murals depict ships, and the ships in turn depict religious icons. An assortment of eclectically framed images of ancient sailboats adorn walls beside hanging life preservers, but the red, white, and gold colors are what make the church particularly striking amidst the hanging decorations, the whole ceiling seeming a sea of floating ships against gold. Filled with the traditional candles and pews, the basilica looks anything but traditional in so many way.
The enormous church sits high atop the city, overlooking the water and homes below. While a bit of a hike, and not a few stairs, the castle-like construction (referencing its history as the site of an old fort), and the unique character of the inside, all make the journey worthwhile – not to mention the view!
The ground upon which the basilica is built has a long military history, and the church itself has a more detailed history within the city and art world that’s worth looking into. But for many, the most interesting thing about the Notre-Dame de la Garde is its connection to the water, and to those that have made their living out of Marseille’s harbor.
Not only does this highpoint of the city act as a landmark for sailors coming home, with its golden topped statue easily visible, but there is an old tradition amongst sailors that make this site an even more remarkable site of return. Many sailors traditionally offered up ex-votos (tangible religious offerings, sometimes money, sometimes art, or small ship models, or statues, etc.) at churches after surviving a particularly frightening storm or journey. Upon returning home alive to Marseille, many chose the Note-Dame de la Garde as the site for their thanks.
To this day, Marseille’s port is a busy hub connecting cities, commercial enterprises, and families to their traditional business – long journeys across the water to the shelter of Marseille are not simply a thing of the past. Enormous cruise liners, oil tankers, tiny sailboats, pleasure craft, and a good amount of waterfowl and seaweed can all be spotted crammed into the busy bay. Fish-mongers sell fresh wares out of the old port to tourists and locals alike, so an early brunch by the water is a thematically perfect way to start your hike from the waterside to the steep apex of Marseille’s Notre-Dame.