In the steps of Mary Magdalene: visiting a famous pilgrimage site in France
I lived in Provence for a year as a student and fell in love with its light, lifestyle, and climate. But it’s only recently that I discovered its rich history with early Christianity and in particular, Mary Magdalene.
The story of how Mary Magdalene ended up in Provence is in itself quite extraordinary.
Supposedly, after landing in what is today the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (named after her), she traveled through Provence evangelizing the region. After this, she made her way to a cave in the Saint Baume mountain where she spent the last thirty years of her life. She was buried in the nearby town of Saint-Maximin, named after the disciple Maximin, who also came with her to Provence. The town of Saint-Maximin has an important cathedral dedicated to Mary Magdalene and even has an annual festival in her honor where they display what they believe to be…her skull!
On my most recent trip south, I was able to visit the cave, which is today considered an important pilgrimage site.
This is my experience and what to expect for anyone else who wishes to make the trip, whether you simply want to take a nice hike in sunny Provence or are looking for a spiritual connection.
Departure for la Grotte de la Sainte Baume, France
The cave, located on the side of the Sainte Baume mountain, can be accessed by a forty-five-minute hike up to the mountainside.
The departure site has its own tourist office, public restrooms, and even a bar, but these are the last amenities you’ll see before coming back down. The pilgrimage path has been around since the fourteenth century. Around this time French kings started to make the trip to honor Magdalene and entrusted the site to the Dominican Order.
I anxiously asked several times at the tourist office about the difficulty of the hike. I’m not trained in difficult mountain hikes and have a pretty strong fear of heights, so I was hoping the path to the cave would be manageable. The tourist office agent assured me that it’s a very visited site by young and old alike. And she was right. The hike was almost entirely uphill, but the path was wide and well-marked. And to my great delight, almost entirely shaded and through the forest, rather than exposed to the glaring Provence sun.
In addition, you can hike an extra twenty-five minutes beyond the cave to reach the crête of the mountain. There you’ll find beautiful views of the valleys below, and the small Pilon chapel, also dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
Visiting la Grotte de la Sainte Baume, France
The cave itself is still today run by Dominicans and is essentially a chapel with a wall erected to close off and protect the cave space. There are some simple pews, an altar space, and a statue of Mary Magdalene at the back with candles. There’s also a lower area called the Chemin de la consolation, where parents can honor the memory of unborn children.
I’ll admit that the space wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I had in mind something more like you can find in many cathedrals, with pamphlets or signs and some indication of the site’s importance. Instead, I was disappointed by the lack of information on Mary Magdalene, her story, and the interesting geological site of the cave itself. There is also a relic of Mary Magdalene in the cave, but in an area that’s poorly lit, only accessible to a few people at a time, and with no mention of what the relic is!
The presence of the cave, though, is indisputable
It’s quite deep and there’s still a natural spring that runs nearby, dripping cool water from the ceiling. The force of nature that created this site, juxtaposed with human presence and accommodation, is what makes it so unique.
Although the site was less informative than I was hoping, it was definitely worth visiting. The stunning setting and the story behind it piqued my interest to visit more of these holy sites in Provence.
Have you visited any major pilgrimage sites? Are you interested in the history of France’s pilgrimage sites? Let us know in the comments.
- Map of South of France, Sainte Baume site via Google maps
- Hike entrance column (Jessica Sarlandie)
- Hiking path (Jessica Sarlandie)
- Pilon Chapel (Jessica Sarlandie)
- Cave Statue of Mary Magdalene (Jessica Sarlandi)
 Office de Tourisme, La Provence Verte, Laissez-vous conter Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, (Autrement Dit Communication, Octobre 2016).
 If you’re not familiar with the Catholic tradition of relics: “A relic is a piece of the body of a saint, an item owned or used by the saint or an object which has been touched to the tomb of a saint. Traditionally, a piece of the body of a saint, especially that of a martyr, maybe with the permission of the local ecclesiastical authority used in solemn processions recalling the specific holy person.”