The Madonna of Notre Dame de la Garde, MarseillePart lighthouse, part fortress, part sacred place of pilgrimage, La Bonne Mère (the Good Mother), as Notre Dame de la Garde is universally and affectionately referred to, is the symbol of Marseille.

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Built on the city's highest point, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde can constantly be glimpsed along streets and through archways from the moment you emerge out of Saint Charles Station.

Illuminated by night, the great church dominates the bay like a beacon. It has a magnificent setting, panoramic views, a stirring history, an exotic, Byzantine interior and a firm place in the affections of the local community - and not just Catholics.

It all makes Notre Dame de la Garde an unmissable destination for anyone who wants to understand something of the Marseille spirit.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The site served as a look-out point from Roman times. A church was originally built there in 1214, and sailors would climb the hill to pray for a safe voyage in prospect or to give thanks for their unharmed return.

King François I ordered a fort to be erected there to protect Marseille from King Charles V of Spain in 1524 - the year work began on the Château d'If for the very same reason (François' emblem, the salamander, is still visible in the stonework above the north porch).

The current basilica was built in 1853 and consecrated in 1864 and, with its drawbridge and residual ramparts, doesn't disguise its history as a fortress.

The architect, Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, came from a Protestant family in Nîmes. But he spent most of his creative life in Marseille and is the driving force behind some of its most famous monuments, including the Palais Longchamp and the Cathedral de la Major.

Ceiling mosaic from Notre Dame de la Garde, MarseilleEspérandieu was just 24 when he began work on Notre Dame de la Garde. He had a radical - and, at the time, shocking - vision of an exotic, Romano-Byzantine edifice built in multi-coloured striped stone.

It's topped by a monumental statue of the Virgin coated in gold leaf by the sculptor Eugène-Louis Lequesne, installed in 1870. It weighs 9796 kilos / 21600 lbs, and the wrist measurement of the infant Jesus is 1.10 metres / 3.5 feet.

In line with the city's multi-cultural heritage, there's an oriental, almost Islamic feel to the upper sanctuary, with its acres of ornate gold leaf. The intricate floor and ceiling mosaics depict olives, vines, palm trees and exotic birds and, above the altar, a ship with sails in Marseille's blue and white colours, pictured.

The city's maritime connections are apparent everywhere, from the omnipresent anchor motifs to the intricate models of boats hanging from the ceiling or displayed in the outer corridors in glass cases. Votive offerings are everywhere, hinting at thousands of fascinating stories.

There are war medals, life buoys, crash helmets, even Olympique de Marseille shirts and pennants (the football team made a pilgrimage to the church to give thanks for one of its victories).

Some of the engraved stones that line the walls are in provençal, a couple are in English and many date from the last couple of decades. They tell of miraculous escapes: from a terrible cyclone, from a war, from exam failure, from a stomach ulcer. Naïf paintings depict traumatic events: ships buffeted by the waves, patients on their sickbeds and the civic turbulence of May 1968.

Notre Dame de la Garde, MarseilleWorks of art to look out for when visiting the upper sanctuary and vaulted crypt include the imposing bronze doors and high altar designed by Henri Revoil, a silver statue of the Virgin Mary by Chanuel and a multi-coloured bas-relief of Annunciation, a Florentine work of the 16th century.

You should allow time to stroll around the wraparound terraces which - though it can get very windy when the Mistral is blowing - offer breathtaking 360 degree views of Marseille, the bay, the hills, the Chateau d'If and Frioul Islands. Telescopes are set up at suitable vantage points.

The northern wall still bears the scars of bullets from the liberation of the basilica on 25 August 1944, three days before the liberation of the rest of the city (you can see the remains of the Jeanne d'Arc tank, which took part in this assault, sitting on the place du Colonel Edon halfway up the hill).

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Open daily (check the website for Notre Dame de la Garde for opening hours as these can vary during the year). Admission free. Try to arrive early to avoid the endless series of noisy tour groups.

assumption procession marseilleNotre Dame de la Garde now has its own museum, for which there is a small admission charge. It presents 800 years of the Basilica and its place in the history of Marseille, as well as many more examples of ex voto offerings.

The church receives supplicants throughout the year and is the focus of a major pilgrimage each year on 15 August (Assumption Day).

It's customarily preceded on the evening of 14 August by a candlelight procession, pictured, followed by a mass.

How to get there: A funicular was constructed in 1892 which rose directly from the rue Dragon to the drawbridge.

Alas, it fell into disuse as people turned to road transport and was dismantled in 1967 after having transported 20 million passengers in its 75-year existence.

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille, interiorThere is currently a vague future project to create a cable-car connection from the Old Port to the Bonne Mère but this is still very much at the planning stage.

Today you can get to Notre Dame on bus 60 from the MuCEM or the Old Port, or else take the petit train (little tourist train) on the quai du Port for a guided tour: you can get off the train at Notre Dame, look around at your leisure and take the next petit train back down.

On foot, it's a steep 1 km / 0.6 mile climb from the quai de Rive Neuve.

The long staircase leading up to Notre Dame de la Garde from the drop-off point for buses, cars and petit train has always presented a problem for disabled visitors, families with small children and pushchairs and, indeed, anyone with restricted mobility.

According to tradition, "true" pilgrims would crawl laboriously up the stairs on their hands and knees (and even the able-bodied would put stones in their shoes to make the ascent more challenging).

However that has now changed and in 2012 a major construction project carved out a shaft for a large lift / elevator serving all the levels of the basilica, including the crypt.

Where to eat and drink: The only place on the site itself - unless you bring a picnic, or have the time and inclination to walk down a lot of steps (and back up again) - is L'Eau Vive, Notre Dame's own restaurant.

The rather uninspiring dining room doesn't make anything of the fantastic views, but you are served by waitresses in traditional national dress recruited from around the world by missionary nuns and brought here for a year or two to learn French. (However, questions have been raised recently about their tough conditions of employment.)

There is a set menu and a dish of the day, as well as a good range of simple but imaginative starters, salads, main courses, desserts and ices. Takeaways are available. Tel: (+33) 4 91 37 86 62.

A short walk down the hill behind Notre Dame, the recently opened La Bonne Mère has quickly established the reputation of serving some of the best pizzas in Marseille. 16 rue Fort du Sanctuaire, 13006 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 58 22 05

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