By Cheryl Antier
Saint-Maximim is 35km from Aix en Provence, 67 km from Marseille and about 71 km from Toulon. If you’re on the A8 motorway, take exit “34 Saint-Maximim”. If you’re taking the train, then you can get there from Aix en Provence and Marseille Saint Charles.
Saint-Maximim is surrounded by vineyards and protected by the Mont Aurelien, Mont Sainte Victoire and the Sante Baume mountain ranges.
Legend says that after Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene and some of the other disciples continued preaching in Jerusalem – but eventually the authorities felt threatened, and the group was tried and sentenced and put into a boat (that had no sails and no oars) and set adrift.
The boat landed at Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer. Lazaurus, Mary Magdalaine, her sister Martha and the other people separated and began preaching and evangelizing in the surrounding area.
Eventually Mary decided she wanted solitude and so she shut herself away in a cave in the Saint Victoire mountains, where it is said that she stayed for 30 years until her death. Her relics were put in a crypt and then buried in 710 to protect them from being looted by the Sarrasisns. But as time passed, people forgot where she was buried and she remained lost until 1279.
When her relics were discovered again in 1279, Charles II of Anjou, the Duc de Provence, (the nephew of Saint Louis of France and who was later crowned Kind of Sicily), ordered that a Basilica worthy of being a reliquary for Sainte Marie Madeleine be built, because of the growing number of pilgrims who travelled to the village. Pope Boniface VIII gave his blessings to the plan.
The construction of the Basilica was begun in 1295 along with the convent next to it. The relics were put under the protection of the Dominican Monks who settled in the convent.
The convent was abandoned during the French Revolution, but otherwise Monks lived in the convent until 1957. (Interestingly, it became a fortress during the war against the Protestants.) After the monks left, the property was managed by the state, and became a cultural center. And then in 1999, it was sold and became the hotel and restaurant.
The village of Saint-Maximim is a wonderful place to visit during your visit to the French Riviera. You can park your car and spend several hours wandering around on your own, or the Tourist Board offers daily tours. Here is a list of the attractions you won’t want to miss see during your walking tour:
1. The Town Hall – (La Marie) It was built in 1750 using the blueprints of court architect Jean-Baptiste Franque. He designed it to accommodate the royal visitors who came to Saint-Maximim to marvel at the remains of Saint Mary Magdalene. During the French Revolution it was sold as a national monument and then later bought back by the town. It is located in the Place Jan Salusse.
2. The Royal Convent (Le Couvent Royal) – The religious community of the Dominican Monks settled in Saint-Maximim in 1295 and building began on th Basilica and the Convent itself. The construction work was done in stages (because all the stones were hand cut and carved).
One of the most interesting facts about this particular order of monks is that they did not have to survive on alms (donations from townspeople) as was usual of other orders in the day. Instead, they lived in relative comfort and security on an income that the King of France provided them.
Once the two main wings of the convent were finished (the east wing was finished at th end of the 13th century and the north wind during the 14th century), the monks moved in. Their community continued to grow – so much so that they had to add another floor! The monks left in 1957. Take your time strolling through the gardens and visit the library. These days, the former austere cells of the monks have been remodeled into very comfortable bedrooms, and the Convent serves as the hotel/restaurant, and also hosts numerous musical and cultural events throughout the year.
If you’re eating at the restaurant, you can park inside the heavy stone walls of the convent – just look for the big blue metal gates and buzz the intercom to get in. Otherwise, you can find parking around the Place de l’Hotel d Villa or the Town Hall square.
3 . The Basilica (La Basilique) – The Basilica is the largest Gothic building in the southeast of France. It is 73 meters long, 37 meters wide and 29 meters high.) Take the stone steps down underneath the main part of the church to the sacred crypt to see Mary’s original sarcophagus, carved from fine-grained marble which came from the Imperial quarries of the Marmara Sea, near Constantinople. There is also an impressively gilded bronze reliquary that was designed by Revoil in the 19th century. The reliquary holds her skull, and below that, in the center of the reliquary is a glass tube, which holds a fragment of her skin, said to be the “noli me tangere” (the place on her forehead where Christ touched her with his finger, the morning of his resurrection).
The crypt is also home to the sarcophagi of Saint Maximin, Saint Sidoin, Saint Marcelle and Sainte Suzanne, who were all about the same age of Mary Magdelaine, and all dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries as well.
Make sure to take the time to look at the rather remarkable altarpiece of painted wood done by Antoine Ronzen (1517). It stands just north of the nave and represents scenes from the Passion.
Above the door is the world-renowned double-chested organ that was built in 1773 by the Dominican Friar Jean Esprit Isnard. It is composed of four keyboards and 2960 pipes! Only the quick thinking of Napoleon’s brother, Lucien Bonaparte saved it from destruction during the French Revolution because he commanded that the “Marseillaise” was to be played on it to herald the arrival of Baras as he entered the building.
4. The Medieval Quarter – Just a short walk south of the Basilica takes you to the 13th century Medieval Quarter of Saint Maximim. Notice the fine porch that once provided shelter from the weather to the many tradesmen and merchants who set up shop there. Take a stroll through the Jewish Quarter with its classical, dark arcades and narrow streets. Facing the Jewish Quarter is the ancient cistern, which fell into disrepair during the 14th century, and was later transformed into a prison. It is now the Louis Rostan Museum.
5. Artist’s shops and stores -You’ll find a wonderful selection of “Santons” the little carved wooden figures that are set around the crêche during Christmas. They show the different types of peasants, farmers and merchants from the Middle Ages -and make for a unique display as they come to witness and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.
There are festivals, fairs and concerts in Saint Maximim throughout the year:
The Feast of Saint Vincent – last weekend of January
Organ recitals in the Basilica every Sunday at 5:00 p.m. – April to September
Music Festival in the Basilica – July/August
Harvest Festival – third weekend in July
Feast of Mary Magdalene End of July
Boules Grand Prix – Last weekend in August
The Santons Fair – Third weekend in November
Amateur Painters’ Exhibition – Second weekend in December
The Tourist Office is across the cobblestone square from the Basilica, and they offer information about the area in English, as well as guided tours. Saint Maximim is a short drive from the French Riviera, and well-worth adding to your vacation itinerary.
About the Author
Learn all about where to go and what to do in the French Riviera from an American who lives there! Discover the best places to eat, stay and shop. Why settle for an ordinary vacation, when you can create an extraordinary one? French Riviera Vacation Guide