Historical Churches Walking Tour, Marseille

Historical Churches Walking Tour (Self Guided), Marseille

Marseille's religious scene, albeit diverse, is dominated by Christianity. The Christian presence in the city dates back to ancient times, making it an integral part of local identity. The vibrant Mediterranean port city also has been a significant pilgrimage destination.

The majority of Christians in Marseille are Roman Catholics, whose prevalence is manifested in the form of multiple historical churches, showcasing various architectural styles, serving as both spiritual and cultural landmarks.

One such is the Marseille Cathedral (Cathédrale de la Major), a magnificent example of 19th-century Neo-Byzantine style. Its striking twin green-and-white striped domes dominate the city's skyline.

Saint-Laurent Church (Eglise Saint-Laurent), in the Panier district, catches the eye with its austere Romanesque exterior. The simple beauty of this temple harkens back to the Middle Ages, providing a serene contrast to the vibrant streets of the neighborhood.

The Church of Saint Ferreol (Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins), nestled in the heart of Marseille's old town, is a Gothic masterpiece with an ornate Baroque-style facade – a true testament to the city's architectural prowess.

The Saint-Victor Abbey (Abbaye Saint-Victor) is one of Marseille's oldest religious sites, with roots dating back to the 5th century. This Romanesque abbey, known for its crypt and historic artifacts, holds a special place in the city's history.

Finally, the iconic Byzantine-Revival basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde, perched on a hill overlooking Marseille, for years has been a focal point for both ardent worshipers and tourists seeking breathtaking views of the city and the sea.

As you explore these historical sanctuaries, you can appreciate their architectural beauty but also find some moments of tranquility, through which gain insight into the soul of Marseille. You won't miss this opportunity with the help of our self-guided tour. Visit these locations, explore their stories, and experience the spirituality of this vibrant city firsthand.
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Historical Churches Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historical Churches Walking Tour
Guide Location: France » Marseille (See other walking tours in Marseille)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 5
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.6 Km or 2.2 Miles
Author: kane
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral)
  • Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)
  • Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)
  • Abbaye Saint-Victor (Saint-Victor Abbey)
  • Notre-Dame de la Garde
Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral)

1) Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral) (must see)

Also known as Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille, it is actually two cathedrals, old and new. In the latter part of the 19th century Napoleon III, Emperor of France, decided to replace the 12th century provencal romanesque cathedral ("Vielle Major"). He had it demolished, all but the choir and one bay of the nave.

He spared the remnant when the outraged population demonstrated against the change. The new cathedral ("Nouvelle Major") is a massive Romanesque-Byzantine Revival structure. Towering over the waterfront, it is 469 feet long, and the main cupola is 231 feet high. It can hold up to some 3,000 souls.

It is located on the Plaza Major. The facade is formed of two different types of stone tile, giving the effect of horizontal bars of color. The locals were reminded of bedtime attire and they often refer to the cathedral as "the Pajamas", no offense intended. The interior features Carrera marble, Tunisian onyx, and Venetian mosaics.

The remains of the old 12th century cathedral huddle alongside La Major. There is not a lot left of it after Napoleon III's smashing venture. There is a chansel and an apse with smaller apses on the side. The vault is cylindrical with an eight-sided cupola above the transept and a seven-sided cupola above the cross of the transept.

Why You Should Visit:
This is an awesome structure. It declares not so much spiritual glory as it does the past glory of Imperial France. Dominating all around it, it declares power forgotten but never outdone. And besides, admission is free.
Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)

2) Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)

Located at 16 Esplanade de la Tourette, Saint Laurent is a church in the Provence Romanesque style of architecture. It was established as a fisherman' parish and erected over the remnants of a temple of Apollo.

There was no sign of Apollo, but a capital was unearthed that certainly must be Apollo's. At least it looks like it very well might be. In any event, this mysterious capital is now on display at the Marseille History Museum.

The Saint Laurent Church has fared much better than Apollo. The church along with the Saint Catherine Chapel survived the devastation of the so-called Battle of Marseille during the German occupation. The current state of the building is ok, but its main draw is history. A long history in a city full of incredible histories.

It sits across from Fort Saint Jean, accessible by footbridge. The Saint Laurent Church appears rather plain looking. Perhaps its facade and interior do not compete well with the other churches in town. But if you go inside, the weight of all those years of struggle and hope will touch you.
Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)

3) Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)

The Church of Saint Ferreol in Marseille is a Roman Catholic church with a fascinating history. Originally owned by the Knights Templar, it was later given to a community of Augustinian hermits in 1369. In 1447, they took the initiative to construct a new church building, which was finally dedicated in 1542, although the vault's completion came later in 1588.

In the Ancien Régime (15th-18th century), the church hosted professional ceremonies. Ship-porters had altars for Saint Peter and Saint Paul since 1390. Notably, Pope Clement VII married Catherine de' Medici and Henry II of France there on October 28, 1533. During the French Revolution, the church was almost destroyed but saved. It was later renamed after Saint Augustine, changed ownership, and finally returned to the Catholic Church.

The church boasts remarkable architectural features. The high altar, along with the altars of the Augustinians and the ship-porters, was skillfully designed by Dominique Fossaty. Inside, you can find the Mazenod family's tomb, dating back to 1564, and the Montolieu family's tomb from 1695. Additionally, the church houses the relics of Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274–1297).

As an artistic treasure, the Church of Saint Ferreol exhibits three paintings by Michel Serre (1658-1733), featuring Sainte Marguerite, La Vierge à l'enfant apparaissant à Saint Pierre, and Saint Paul. Also, a bust of Saint Ferréol de Vienne and a sculpture of Saint Augustine, both created by Raymond Servian (1903-1953), grace the interior. Another sculpture of Saint Theresa by Élie-Jean Vézien (1890-1982) and one of Joan of Arc by Louis Botinelly (1883-1962) can be admired. A more recent addition, sculpted by Yves le Pape in 1979, depicts the Holy Family.

The church's neogothic pipe organ, a masterpiece designed by Augustin Zieger, dates back to 1844, adding to the grandeur of this cherished place of worship.
Abbaye Saint-Victor (Saint-Victor Abbey)

4) Abbaye Saint-Victor (Saint-Victor Abbey) (must see)

South of the Old Port, overlooking the sea, is the Abbaye Saint Victor. The abbey has always been on that spot, more or less since the year 415. Tradition has it that the abbey was founded by the monk John Cassian. Some say the crypt of the abbey contains relics from Saint Victor or evidence of a quarry dating back to ancient Greece.

Cassian founded two monasteries, one for men and one for women on opposite sides of the old harbor. Both were destroyed by Saracen raiders in the 8th or 9th centuries. In 977 monastic life at Saint Victor's began again. The abbey thrived more or less until 1794, when in the wake of the revolution it was stripped of all its treasures.

At various stages it became a warehouse, prison and a barracks. It made a comeback in Napoleon's day and it was designated a minor basilica after restoration in 1934 by Pope Pius XI.

Let us descend now, to the ancient crypt of Saint Victor. What will we find? Tombs. Tombs of saints and some bishops who were also saints. Also there are to be found ancient pagan sarcophagi. Soft music in the background accompanies visitors.

Ascending to the crenelated towers of the abbey we get a stunning view of the harbor and the sea. The abbey is perched on a hill close by Fort Saint Nicolas. The monks liked to catch sight of the Saracens and Vikings as far out to sea as possible.

Each year at Candlemas there is a pilgrimage from the Old Port to the abbey. Early in the morning a procession leaves the Old Port and heads to the Abbey. The black Madonna from the crypt is wrapped in her green cloak and presented to the public in the square in front of the abbey where she receives the blessing of the Bishop.

Why You Should Visit:
The abbey, and especially the crypt of the abbey will take you well back in time when Europe was still being formed.

It is worth paying the small fee to go downstairs and visit the wonderful crypt – it is like entering another world!
Notre-Dame de la Garde

5) Notre-Dame de la Garde (must see)

Notre-Dame de la Garde stands proudly as an opulent Neo-Byzantine church situated atop the highest natural point in Marseille, perched upon a 532 feet limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port. This majestic site has become a cherished destination for an annual pilgrimage on Assumption Day.

Conceived by the talented architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, the basilica received its consecration on the 5th of June in 1864. Its origins trace back to a church with the same name, first erected in 1214 and later reconstructed during the 15th century. Remarkably, the basilica's foundations rest upon a 16th-century fortress built by Francis I of France to fend off Emperor Charles V's siege of the city in 1536.

The basilica comprises two distinct sections: a lower church or crypt, artistically carved into the rock in the Romanesque style, and an upper church boasting Neo-Byzantine elegance adorned with breathtaking mosaics. Towering above is a square bell-tower, reaching a height of 135 feet, crowned with a belfry standing at 42 feet. At its peak, a monumental statue of the Madonna and Child, crafted from copper gilded with gold leaf, soars to an impressive 27 feet.

During its history, the basilica encountered challenges, particularly regarding the stone used in its construction, which proved susceptible to atmospheric corrosion. In response, extensive restoration work took place from 2001 to 2008. This effort encompassed the meticulous repair of the mosaics, damaged by candle smoke over the years, as well as by bullets during the Liberation of France at the end of World War II.

Walking Tours in Marseille, France

Create Your Own Walk in Marseille

Create Your Own Walk in Marseille

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