Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

View from the Gare St Charles down le Grand escalier with the  basilica on the far horizon

Atop the highest point in the city, overlooking the Vieux Port (Old port), stands Marseille's most striking landmark, the majestic neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde.

Arriving in the city by train, your first sight of the edifice is from the top of le Grand escalier, the broad steps that lead down from the station to the city spread at its feet. From this viewpoint the basilica is a mere silhouette on the horizon, and between you and it, hidden in a cove, is Marseille's Old Port and the site of the original Greek settlement from circa 600 BC.

Descend the steps with their striking sculptures and follow the Boulevard d'Athènes until it reaches a crossroads with La Canebière, the famous road which English sailors in the early 20th century dubbed 'the can o' beer', by virtue of the large number of bars that could be found there. La Canebière leads straight to the Vieux Port, and then onwards and upwards to the 'guardian and protector of the city', the name given to the basilica by the good folk of Marseille.

Le Vieux Port with the basilica on the hill
The basilica was constructed between 1853-1864. Although not among the largest of Catholic basilicas, what distinguished it, aside from its stunning location, is the height of its statue of the Virgin Mary, which stands at 23.7 metres (approx. 78 feet) including the pedestal, and which weighs around 10,000 kilos. To get there it's either a hard slog up the steep streets, a tourist ride in le petit train, or a municipal bus ride on the number 60 from Cours Jean Ballard.

Looking out from the basilica towards the Château
d'If, the small island on the left
And once there the views are magnificent! You can look down onto the Vieux Port and onto Marseille's other basilica, the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille. You can see the fort of the French Foreign Legion with its images of Beau Geste. And looking out across the white statue of St. Veronica and the Passion of Christ you can see in the distance the Château d'If, the island prison of Edmund Dantès, the romantic hero of Dumas' classic novel of revenge and justice, The Count of Monte Cristo. 

Not to be missed also is the enormous vaulted crypt measuring 30.15 metres x 13.60 metres (99 ft x 45 ft) and which houses a multi-coloured crucifix dating from the 16th Century, and a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin with its golden mosaics. 

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