The Basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is on the highest hill in Marseille, 162 meters above sea level, so it can be seen from most places in the city and the harbor. It is a colorful, friendly church nicknamed “The Good Mother”. Even secular people tend to like it and feel that it casts a protective aura over the city.
Unlike the basilicas Sacré-Coeur in Paris or Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, which are also on steep hills dominating their cities, Marseille’s Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde was not begun in the 1870s and was not intended as a reactionary monument to celebrate the defeat of the Communes in 1871.
Rather, it was begun in 1853 and was consecrated in 1864. The architect was a man named Jacques Henri Espérandieu, who was only twenty-three years old when he got the commission — and he was a Protestant, though this is definitely a Catholic church. Apparently he was the winner of an architectural competition, and by the time they found out he was a Protestant the results of the competition had already been announced.
Late one afternoon I decided to walk up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde from the Cours d’Estienne-d’Orves, near the Old Port. It’s an uphill walk, of course, but pleasant and well-signposted. At each turn you get a different view of the church, the city and the harbor.
The top of the hill is rather steep, so there is a long stone stairway to climb. I did not find this to be a problem, but if you have bad knees you might want to take the # 60 bus instead.
The long stone stairway has a name, Montée du Commandant René Valentin, in honor of a French army officer who fought for the deliverance of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde from the Germans on August 26, 1944. He was killed twelve days later in one of the final skirmishes of the Second World War in this part of France.
René Valentin was born in 1907 (the year my mother was born, incidentally) and did his officer’s training at the École spéciale militaire (E.S.M.) in Saint-Cyr prior to serving as an officer in the French “Army of Africa” in Algeria.
Even though I arrived too late to go inside the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (it’s open till eight during the summer, but only till seven the rest of the year), I did at least get to see the great views of Marseille from the parvis at the front of the building.
After watching the sunset, with the Frioul Islands visible in the harbor just below the setting sun, I took the # 60 bus to get back down to the Old Port.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.
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