The Grotte Sainte Marie-Madeleine, also known as the Grotte de la Sainte-Baume is one of the more impressive grottos I’ve been to. La Sainte-Baume is a geological wonder in and of itself. The large rock stretches to be twelve kilometers long and is protected by the Forêt de la Sainte-Baume.
You must pass through this forest in order to reach the grotto and it’s about a 45 minute hike. Once there, you are provided with stunning views of the valley below. You are also in the presence of a place that has a wonderful, long, history behind it.
History and Legend Combined of the Grotte Sainte Baume Esterel
The natural cave created by erosion has become one of the oldest places of pilgrimage in the Christian world. Legend says that Saint Mary Magdalene would have lived there for thirty years of her life.
According to the Gospels in the Bible, Mary Magdalene is the woman who became one of Jesus’ first female disciples. She was present at the foot of the cross during his crucifixion and was the person whom Jesus appeared to first on the morning of his resurrection from the dead and was the first person to preach to others the news of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the traditions of Provence, Mary Magdalene was expelled from Palestine with several disciples during the first persecutions against the Christians after the Ascension of Jesus. She was then sent away on a boat without a sail or rudder. She, along with the others who were exiled with her, miraculously approached the shores of Provence to a place now called Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and became the first evangelists of Provence. Mary Magdalene preached in Marseille in the company of Lazarus, and then settled in this steep, mountain grotto, which now bears her name. Here she was able to devote herself to prayer and contemplation in solitude.
The History of the Grotte Sainte Marie-Madeleine from the Middle Ages to Present
Around the year 1295, excavations in and around Saint-Maximin de la Sainte-Baume, led by Charles II of Anjou, led to the discovery of the believed to be remains of Mary Magdalene and her skull now resides in the Basilique Sainte-Marie Madeleine de Sainte Maximin de la Sainte-Baume.
A renewed interest in the pilgrimages to the grotto began.
At that time, the Dominicans took over the watch and care of the grotto that had, before this time, been done by the monks since the 5th century. The monks were considered guardians of the place for hundreds of years previous to the discovery of the remains. For several centuries after the Dominicans took over, pilgrimages to the site had a steady increase.
From 1481 until the French Revolution, the kings of France took a special interest in the site and its future sustainability. They made numerous visits, made sure continuous work and care was given in order to maintain the site, and also assured that it was a secure place in times of trouble within the country. The arrival of the Revolution caused a decrease in people coming to visit and the site was all but abandoned by visitors, and the Dominicans were force to leave.
Then in the early to mid- 1800’s, moved by the religious history of the abandoned site, Father Lacordaire undertook the restoration of it and also the construction of the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume, which is located in the valley just below the site of the grotto. He then reinstalled the Dominican friars to once again care for the site. Today, they continue the mission of keeping watch and maintaining the grotto as well as welcoming visitors who wish to follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene.
The Climb to the Sanctuary of Sainte Marie-Madeleine
Once you reach the large staircase, you are but only 150 steps away from the entrance to the grotto. This staircase was built in 1913 to give better access to the grotto from the forest below. The 150 steps represent the 150 beads on the original rosary (which represents the chapters in the book of Psalms in the Bible).
Half way up the stairs you will come to a doorway. When you enter, you will immediately turn right to go up some more stairs. Before going all the way up, you will want to take the short stair case on the left that leads to statues of the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus. Just next to this are remnants of statues that were found from the 15th century.
At this point you will want to take in the breathtaking view that is just behind you. No matter what season you are in, this view is magnificent. The cluster of buildings you see in the distance is the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume and the convent Sainte Marie-Madeleine. I took more pictures of this than I could count and there are not even words to express how beautiful it is.
Once you think you’ve had enough of the view, continue up a few more steps until you reach the base of the grotto.
The Outer Buildings of the Grotte de la Sainte-Baume
The building that you see in front of you with the wooden door and red shutters, is a more “modern” building. I take the word modern lightly. It was built around the mid 19th century and it houses the Dominicans who care for the grotto and conduct mass here. You cannot go inside for a visit, although I really wish you could.
There is another building, also of a more “modern” area, that is a place where travelers can go to have a rest and if needed, be welcomed by a Dominican for religious reasons or confessions. There is also a little gift shop where you can by religious objects, books, post cards, etc. If it’s not open, just ring the bell and someone will come to open it for you if they are available to do so.
The Grotte of Sainte Marie-Madeleine de la Sainte-Baume
The entrance to the grotto is unmistakable. A small staircase leads you directly into the side of the rock. The minute you are inside, you feel peace and calm and quiet. It’s just wonderful. There are rows of benches for resting, meditating or hearing mass. The grotto is fairly spacious and has a pulpit area made of carved stones with a statue of the crucifixion. There are lighted candles everywhere. I visited just after Christmas and the Nativity scene was still being displayed.
There are several areas where statues are placed and just under them are candles for people to light and to say a prayer. Everywhere in the cave you can hear the sound of dripping water and it is very humid.
You can go up the staircase just near the crucifixion. Once you are at the top, turn around and you have a nice view of the amazing stain glass windows. While you are at this point, turn to the right and you will see another statue of a woman. Most of the time it’s too dark to see so I usually use my phone light to get a glimpse. If you choose to go down the staircase at the back, be very careful. It is really dark so keep the phone light on (or flashlight) and walk slowly. It is usually slippery due to the continuous drip of water that happens to land right there. I usually choose to go down the same staircase I came up, it’s much safer that way!
Whichever way you choose to go, make sure to look around to the side of the staircase and you will see a relic housed inside a box. It is supposedly a bone fragment from Mary Magdalene. It’s crazy to see and there are, of course, candles to light right in front of it. I assume it’s a place that quite a few people have done so.
At this point you will want to turn directly around and go down another staircase. This will lead you to a small side space of the grotto that houses a water cistern, another statue with candles and additional seating. From here, make your way back up the staircase to the main part of the grotto.
At this point, I just usually sit on the benches and ponder what exactly I’m looking at and the history of this place. If you love history as much as I do, the presence here of all the souls that have passed is incredible. I also like to touch everything that has to do with history, so most of the cave has been touch by me! I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
The Last View of the Valley of Plan d’Aups and Hostellerie de Sainte Baume
As you exit the grotto, gaze upon the fantastic statue of Mary holding Jesus after his death. It sits right at the edge of the grotto so you get both the view of the valley and the statue in one eyeful. I’m usually taking about a hundred photos right about now. The view of the beautiful forest of trees and the hills in the distance is breath taking.
Exit the same staircase you came up on and then proceed back through the forest.
During Summer: The grotto is open every day from 7:30am to 6:30pm except for Monday. Mass is held every day at 11:00am and is open to the general public. An evening song to celebrate the end of the day is at 6:00pm. On Sunday, the evening song is at 4:30pm.
During Winter: The grotto is open every day from 8:30am to 5:00pm. Mass is held every day at 11:00am and is open to the general public. The evening song to celebrate the end of the day is at 4:30pm.
Entrance is free to everyone.
Throughout the year there are special masses and processions to commemorate important religious events. If you happen to visit during the time of year when one of these masses is being held, I encourage you to go.
Information on the Processions:
- Procession on the night of Noel
- Procession of 31 December (the vigil of Mary mother of Jesus)
- Procession of Pentecost Monday (Provencal Pilgrimage)
- Procession of 22 July (Saint Mary Magdalene Day)
Information on the candle light masses:
- 24 December- Midnight mass at the Grotto
- 25 December- Sunrise service to the Chapel of Saint Pilon
- 2 October-Mass of the guardian angels of Saint Pilon
- 2 November-Mass for All Saints’ Day
In addition, there are a number of things to see and do throughout the year. Some have ticket prices, some do not. For more information you can contact :
Sanctuaire de la Sainte-Baume
2200 CD 80, route de Nans
83640 Plan d’Aups Sainte Baume
Tel. : + 33 4 42 04 54 84
How to Get to The Grotto
Enter the following information in your GPS:
To the city: Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume
For the place: D 80 Nazareth or just Nazareth
If you are coming from Aix-en-Provence or Nice, take the exit of Saint-Maximin off of the A8 auto route and take the direction Nans-les-Pins. You will come across the village of Plan d’Aups Sainte Baume and from there you will climb up to the plateau of the Sainte-Baume. Once at the top, turn right and 500 meters after you will arrive at the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume.
If you are coming from Marseille, take the exit of Auriol off of the A52 auto route. At the intersection just after the toll booth, turn right and at the first roundabout take the first exit in the direction of Plan d’Aups Sainte-Baume. You will go through the village and 2 kilometers afterwards you will find the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume.
If you are coming from Toulon, the easiest way is to take the A50 auto route, then transition onto the A52 auto route going in the direction of Aix-en-Provence. Exit at Auriol and follow the same directions indicated above as if you were leaving from Marseille.
If you would like a more touristy route to follow then take:
– the pass of the Espigoulier by Gémenos.
– the roads passed Soulies-Pont, La Roquebrussane and Mazaugues.
For additional reading on Mary Magdelene, I recommend reading the book Mary Magdalene in Medieval Culture. It explores both the historical aspects of Mary Magdelene’s life, as well as where the myths and legends come from. She has become both a popular and controversial figure in today’s world and this book examines the many different sides to which we have come to believe who and what Mary Magdelene was.
I would love to hear how your adventure went so please let me know by leaving a comment below.
The location map, along with my Google Local Guide review, is here.