Everything you need to know before you visit La Bonne Mère in Marseille, one of the city’s most treasured landmarks
If we were to translate La Bonne Mère literally, it would sound something like The Good Mother, and she rightfully is. This giant statue of Virgin Mary and Child weighs almost one ton and is 11.92 meters tall, towering and watching over the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica.
Marseille inhabitants and religious connoisseurs fondly refer to the whole basilica as La Bonne Mère, although technically it is incorrect. However, whether you ask around for one name or the other, you will definitely end up in the same place.
To summarize, we can say that this historical Marseille monument is composed of two different sections or areas:
– La Bonne Mère (golden Virgin Mary or Madonna statue)
– Notre-Dame de la Garde (basilica)
Within the basilica itself you will also find a crypt, boutiques, and a restaurant– more than enough to flesh out your visit to La Bonne Mère.
Also read: The 13 best things to do in Marseille
The history of La Bonne Mère
Long before the golden Madonna and Child statue was erected, the Notre-Dame de la Garde monument was only just a tiny sanctuary. This Catholic sanctuary was first constructed over 800 years ago, in 1214. It rested atop the La Garde hill, which contributed to the chapel’s name.
Around the year 1536, French king François 1er had a triangular-shaped fort built up around the chapel, in an effort to fortify Marseille against potential attacks. Fast forward to the French revolution in 1793, and part of the French royal family (Louis XVI era) was imprisoned in the building.
Religious faith returned to the venue in the early 1800s, but the chapel was no longer big enough to welcome the growing number of followers that were seeking La Bonne Mère’s protection.
Hence, in 1853, the chapel was torn down in order to build a full-sized basilica. A young architect by the name Henri Jacques Espérandieu made the plans in neo-roman style.
This new, huge basilica was inaugurated in 1864, ready to accommodate the 11.2-meter-tall, gold-covered Virgin Mary statue six years later. In terms of style, Notre-Dame de la Garde is considered to be romano-byzantine style due to the mosaic decorations that were added after its construction. They have been kept in good shape and generally well maintained and the basilica’s exterior walls and interior mosaics have recently been renovated, between 2001 and 2008.
What to see and do at La Bonne Mère in Marseille?
La Bonne Mère statue and bell tower
The golden-plated copper statue of the Virgin Mary is truly one of a kind. Every 25 years, the statue receives a fresh layer of gold to preserve its dazzling beauty.
You won’t get to climb the stairs inside it and see through the statue’s eyes, but you’ll be more than pleased to look up at the statue from 41 meters below, at the steeple’s base.
Notre-Dame de la Garde’s crypt used to be solid stone. Workers dug through the stone and sculpted it to build the crypt, a relatively humble place of prayer.
Mosaics and statues
The mosaics inside the basilica’s various chambers are a must-see. They represent the monument’s long and rich history. You’ll also get to see a number of statues, artifacts, and ornaments.
There are a number of courtyards around the basilica that allow you to capture incredible panoramas of Marseille and the Mediterranean sea. The unique position of La Bonne Mère atop a hill overlooking Marseille is what makes such an emblematic part of Marseille, you can see it from all over the city and it makes for a perfect landmark to orient yourself, as if it were a lighthouse guiding the city’s sailors home. This same promontory will mean that once you climb up top, you will also see the whole city, from the inland up to to Chateau d’If out at sea.
Notre-Dame de la Garde museum
Back in 2013, Marseille inaugurated a dedicated museum for their iconic basilica. Due to a lack of visitors, however, the museum sadly announced that they’d close down mid 2019, so hurry up if you want to visit it!.
The Notre-Dame de la Garde museum used to showcase ex-votos (offerings) that veteran sailors used to gift to La Bonne Mère. These donations were given as thanks to the Virgin Mary for watching over them and helping them get back home safely from the turbulent sea. A few of the offerings remain for visitors to see, as well as a few paintings and sailboat mockups.
Restaurant L’Eau Vive
What better way to take a break and rest than to eat delicious seafood made and served by missionary workers? The restaurant is located on the third floor and is accessible to reduced-mobility people. Try to book your table a few days (or more) beforehand as it is often full, many people are attracted by the community-oriented atmosphere and the very reasonable prices.
If you need a replica of the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica or any other nifty souvenir, make sure to stop by one of the basilica’s two gift shops.
How to visit La Bonne Mère in Marseille?
Once you’ve arrived at the Bonne Mère’s first flight of stairs outside, you’ll probably be wondering where to start and how to visit la Bonne Mère.
There’s no particularly recommended way of visiting La Bonne Mère. Nevertheless, if you’re there during the Summer, you may want to visit the exteriors first during the morning. That way you can avoid the heat and sun during warmer hours while you cool down within the basilica.
Then, it’s up to you to see which artifacts, architectural elements, or statues you want to see first (and where there aren’t any groups of tourists obstructing your view).
How to get to La Bonne Mère in Marseille?
- By foot
If you’re in for a challenge, put on your comfiest sneakers and hike your way up to the sacred basilica. You can make your way to the top by following the small streets that lead upwards.
- By bike
For those that are brave enough to ride uphill– with a roughly 18% slope– going to La Bonne Mère by bicycle is a neat adventure.
- By bus
Bus line n°60 will take you all the way up to the parking lot.
- By car
There are two parking lots at the base of the monument. It is free to park there, but you may want to consider arriving early as the carpark is often full. If it is already full once you get there, there are a variety of car parks in Marseille, including some you can book in advance to guarantee a spot!
- By train with Le Petit Train
Marseille’s Petit Train (Little Train) is one of the most popular ways to get to visit La Bonne Mère in Marseille. Departing from the Old Port, this charming little locomotive will glide its way through the city’s prettiest streets, stopping right below the basilica.
Although the waiting line is quite long most of the time, the beautiful seaside scenery you’ll get to see definitely makes it worth the wait.
The ticket (round trip) costs €8.00 for adults, and €4.00 for children up to 11 years old. Keep a hold of your ticket during your visit to La Bonne Mère, you will need it to take the train back down to the city.
La Bonne Mère in Marseille: rates and opening hours
How much does it cost to visit La Bonne Mère in Marseille? What are the opening hours of Notre-Dame de la Garde?
7:00 AM to 6:15 PM (last gate closes at 6:30 PM)
This Marseille visit is free! All of its components are free to visit, except for the museum while it is still open.
GOOD TO KNOW:
You’ll need to wear proper clothing and be respectfully quiet while you visit the basilica.
Animals are not permitted within the basilica or even in its outdoor squares.
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