From just about any spot in the French city of Marseille, it’s possible to spot the silhouette of Notre-Dame de la Garde, sitting nobly on an extremely high limestone hill like a lighthouse that can see equally as far out across the sea as back inland to the spread-out city below and mountains of Provence in the distance. After months of visiting Marseille weekly but being satisfied to leave its landmark Notre-Dame for another day (as it seemed like such a steep climb), I finally made it to the church one day in early December after I’d finished rehearsing. And I was completely blown away by the church, the surprising objects it holds inside, and its stunning views of the South coast of France.
The Race Against the Sunset
My pal was already at the top of the hill- Le Garde- by the time I’d left the dance studio in the 10th Arrondissement, sending me repeated messages to hurry up before the sun set- as the combo of sunset and view was the ‘best thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.’ Well, with a claim like that, there was nothing for it but to leg it almost the entire way there, steep uphill climb and all. And I’ll tell you this for free- the distance between the two locations is quite the hefty one at the best of times.
I ran right the way out of the 10th Arrondissement, past the kebab shops, Turkish barbers and discarded piles of furniture leaning against lampposts, towards the street cafes and crowded pavements of the Place Castellane, eventually reaching the winding alleys of Vauban which are more the kind of thing that might spring to mind when you think of Provence.
I was exhausted, but I was on a mission. A fifty minute marathon mission.
The sky had a tint of pink in it, and despite the fact that I was now mildly concerned that I was on the brink of collapse, I was also completely set on seeing the city from Notre-Dame, bathed in this pinkish glow. It was one of those December days where the sun is warm but the air is icy, and on my final push up the hill I realised I was absolutely drenched in cold sweat. It was all rather disgusting to tell you the truth.
That downright splendid view
The moment that I reached the finishing line of my race against the actual turning of the planet, was a VICTORIOUS ONE. I had made it, you guys!! The sun had not quite gone to bed, the twinkling lights of Marseille were starting to blink on in the dusky glow of sunset, and I was SO HAPPY I COULD HAVE CRIED. What a time to be alive! The view from here really is incredible, and we watched as the pink and purple glow turned into a blazing streak of golden-red streaking across the darkening sky. Eventually, the lights around the church came on, uplighting the striped marble and sandstone church and the golden statue of the Virgin Mary standing serenely on the very top; completing the lighthouse-esque vibe of the whole magnificent construction.
Related: Going Solo in Nice
Inside the church
By the time darkness had completely fallen the wind had picked up, and as you might expect, the Highest Point in Marseille is quite a full-on location to be hanging out in such windy conditions. We ventured into the church, partly out of curiosity and partly to prevent hypothermia.
And that is when my mind was blown even more.
The inside of the building seemed to be almost entirely golden (at least, it felt like that), as if Midas had come in just before we arrived and transformed everything with a sheen of magic. Mosaics in gold and a selection of vivid colours cover the floors and domed ceilings, but even more amazing than that are the strings of model ships hanging overhead, and a whole wall of paintings of stormy seas and boats being pushed around by these tempestuous waves. The wind howled around the walls outside, adding sound effects to these painted tempests and creating an even warmer atmosphere inside, with the flickering of candles bouncing off of the reflective walls and emitting the cozy smell of burnt candle wick.
What are the ships actually for?
It turns out Notre-Dame de la Garde really is a sort of lighthouse guiding sailors home, and the model and painted ships are what is known as ex-votos. (And if you’re not sure what an ex-voto is, then don’t panic because neither was I until I looked it up.) Basically an offering to thank a Saint- in this case the Virgin who keeps watch over the city from the top of that big old bell tower- these offerings can come in any form. But here at Notre-Dame de la Garde they tend to take the form of a scale model or painting of whichever vessel was saved from either a storm, or pirates, or just generally from having a really bad time. The models in particular really fascinated me, looking like giant mobiles for a very sophisticated baby, and I spied the odd submarine or aeroplane in these strings of ships as well. This was not what I had ever expected to find inside a church, pals.
As the church is Catholic, it’s an important spot for pilgrims to visit on Assumption Day (when the Virgin Mary went on up to heaven), but I found myself becoming a regular pilgrim up the hill just to soak in the magical peaceful atmosphere again, and I made the steep climb again a few times before our final day in Marseille, just to soak in that bewitchingly magical atmosphere again.
What. A. Place.
Before you visit Notre-Dame de la Garde
- To walk from the Vieux Port to Notre-Dame de la Garde should normally take about half an hour…although remember that the walk is steeply uphill so this might add on some travel time.
- But if you don’t feel like walking, bus number 60 goes from the Vieux Port up the hill to the church.
- In Winter the church is open from 7am-6.15pm, and in Summer from 7am-7.15pm.
- Entry is free; there’s also a crypt underneath which you can visit.
- To check out the church’s website…go here!