With its mythical and ancient forest, the sacred site of Sainte-Baume is one of the oldest religious sites in the Western world. According to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Ligurians, it was inhabited by the goddess of fertility. It is believed that Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles, arrived here around 47A.D. She lived a penitent life in the grotto, preached the Gospel in Aix and Marseille, and died about 30 years later. Sainte-Baume is also referred to as the “Rock of Mercy” [Roc de la Miséricorde].
The Sainte-Baume mountain range stretches 12 kms and is an essential water tower for the area with many rivers originating here: Huveaune, Vede, Peyruis, Gaudin, Caramy, Issole, Gapeau, the Fauge, as well as tributaries: Nans Foux, la Figuiere in Tourves, southern source of the Abbey of Saint-Pons in Gemenos, the Castelette in Nans-les-Pins, Orris in La Roquebrussanne source, Raby in Signes. With lots of underground rivers and caves, it’s popular with adventure seekers too (see Speleology in VAR and Caving la Castellete).
Located about 60kms from Cotignac, south-west of Brignoles, the Grotto is a major attraction for both pilgrims and tourists. With a large picnic area near the Hostellerie, one can enjoy a lovely day out visiting the Grotto, which is only accessible by foot. There is an energetic 45-minute walk that culminates in 150 steps representing the 150 Ave Maria of the Catholic rosary, which in turn echo the 150 psalms. The view is breathtaking!
The statues that were desecrated during the French Revolution further reveal the site’s historical value. The Grotto chapel gets used for services by the Dominican monks and nuns. The sanctuary is open from 07h30 until 18h30 during the summer and 08h30 until 17h30 in winter. Mass is held at 11am and Vespers (sunset evening prayers) at 16h30 – visit the official website to confirm availability. NB: pets aren’t allowed.
Not a classic hotel, rather the Hostellerie is a religious home run by clerics, the Dominican brothers and sisters. Individuals, couples and families are welcomed, as well as groups of diocese, parish, devotees, chaplains, hikers (between 10 and 250 people). Guests can pray in the Hostellerie chapel, or in the Grotto chapel. Dinners are prepared with local, fresh produce. There is a small gift shop selling books, religious items, postcards, CDs, DVDs, etc.
To take part in special retreats and benedictions, you should contact the Hostellerie directly. Or perhaps you’d prefer a sacred mystical tour in Provence that includes Sainte-Baume? Whatever your reason for visiting this sacred site, it’s quite incredible having this history right under our noses!