An essential place to visit in the Green Provence, the pretty little city of St-Maximin-la-Ste-Baume is full of character and history. All while having a flourishing economic and agricultural life, the town has preserved its traditions and cherishes its heritage.
To understand the importance St-Maximin you will have to recall a bit of history, or legend, depending on your beliefs. After the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is said to have arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Saintes Marie de la Mer. She left her traveling companions there and retreated to a cave in the Massif de la Sainte Baume where she later died.
In the 13th century, her tomb and that of St Maximin were discovered by the king Charles d'Anjou who had a basilica built on the site with a convent next to it. The town that was called St Maximin became an important pilgrimage spot.
Aerial view of the village of Saint-Maximin
Sainte Marie Basilica and the Royal Convent
Cloister, Saint-Maximin la Sainte-Baume
Hiking in the Massif de la Sainte-Baume
The Massif de la Sainte-Baume
The Saint-Pilon Chapel in the Massif de la Sainte-Baume
Today, Saint Maximin remains a lively city. Divided into two parts, there is is shopping neighbourhood with its many boutiques and stores and the old Jewish quarter with its traditional arcaded houses from the Middle Ages. Cafés and restaurants surround the Place Malherbe with its obelisk fountain in the center. And every Wednesday morning, the big market takes place on the squares and in the main streets of the town.
Dominating the city, one of the main attractions is the Sainte Marie Madeleine Basilica, the biggest Gothic edifice in Provence. Inside, you can see the Gallo-Roman crypt from the 6th century, Saint Mary's sarcophagus, the relics (her skull) as well as several works of art and the big 18th century organ.
Next door, the Royal Convent, of which construction started at the same time as the basilica, was completed in the 15th century. The convent has a lovely cloister with 32 openings around which are set the chapel with a beautiful vaulted ceiling, the old refectory and the chapter house with its impressive Gothic vault resting on slim columns.
The Royal Convent has today been transformed into a prestigious hotel.
On the contrary, the “hotel” with a classical architecture built in the 17th century to accommodate the most prestigious pilgrims has become the Town Hall.
The oldest neighbourhood of St-Maximin is the medieval Jewish quarter. Built against the 12th century ramparts, its oldest houses date from the 13th century. Starting in 1303, many Jews settled here and, in the centre of the neighbourhood, built arcades with the storeys above jutting out over the street. While the demolition of all structures of that type had been ordered throughout Provence, those in St-Maximin were spared thanks to a privilege granted by King Robert in 1323.
In the area around St-Maximin
Do as the pilgrims did and go to the Massif de la Sainte Baume to visit Mary Magdalene's cave. Even before, in the pre-Christian era, the massif had been a sacred mountain for the people of Marseille.
Many hiking trails can be followed in the mountains there. The landscapes are magnificent, sometimes vertiginous, the flora and fauna abundant and the views are just spectacular. From the Saint Pilon chapel at 994 metres altitude, the panorama stretches from Mont Aurélien and the Sainte Victoire Mountain to Marseille and the reliefs of the department of the Var.