Notre Dame de la Garde Marseille

And with this blog we come to the last of our series on Marseille – that is, until we visit it again.

Many major cities have identifying monuments: Big Ben tells a cinema audience they are now in London; a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and it’s Paris. For Marseille, it’s the curious towering structure of Notre Dame de la Garde which, perched on a high hill, literally overlooks the entire city.

Visitor be warned! On a warm day it’s hard work climbing up the nearly 150 m to the entrance. You are however rewarded by an astonishing view of the sprawl that is modern Marseille and out towards some of the rocky islands.

Looking south

looking north

Not only is the building high, but it’s surmounted by a bell tower supporting a monumental statue of the Virgin and Child. You might expect to find a fort on such a hill rather than a church, and in fact if you look closely from a distance (as the first photo here) you can see that it does indeed rest on an older fortress.

The basilica is apparently the ‘most visited’ site in Marseille, and we can believe it, although there was plenty of room on the wide platform round the building to admire the amazing view.

Although there has been a church of some sort on the site from the earliest days of Christianity in France, the current basilica was built in the mid 19th century but with a distinctly backwards look towards Roman basilicas. The result is in many ways rather disconcerting. You feel it ought to be incredibly ancient, but it isn’t. The architect probably wanted to offend no one but ended up annoying everybody.

When your eyes get used to the distinctly fussy interior with its architectural embellishments (which probably have names) you’re stuck by how ‘Greek’ it looks. Although it’s a Catholic church, it was deliberately built in the Byzantine style so there’s Greek lettering as well as Latin round the edges of the domes. Those domes are inlaid with mosaic of gold and bright colours. It’s sumptuous but is that how a church is supposed to look?

But it’s not just the colours that stand out, but the model ships on strings which hang from the ceiling. On closer examination the models also include aeroplanes. Why? There’s been a long tradition of giving votive offerings of thanks to “Our Lady” of La Garde (Notre Dame de la Garde) for safety in travel, so, ships and planes, and a few lifebelts, abound. The walls of every side chapel are covered in paintings representing images of prayerfully averted disaster . Some of these are extremely curious…



Are the nuns giving thanks that the aeroplane missed them or that they survived the crash?

To be honest, as an example of ecclesiastical architecture, we weren’t particularly struck by the church. Nevertheless the view (and the quirky offerings) makes the ascent worthwhile.

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