East of Arles, beyond Aix en Provence, count your good fortune stumbling into St Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, a small town 45 minutes north of Marseille, which holds a wealth of surprises — from the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, to the grotto high in the Great Massif where she, the iconic Mary, is said to have lived the last 30 years of her life. At the end of the day, relax in the surrounding environs, soak up the Provençal culture, and entertain thoughts of the gastronomic experience you have in store at 7 o’clock that evening.
The French town of St Maximin-la-Ste-Baume is full of crowded cafes spilling onto the street, though that’s not what it’s known for. What may surprise you most of all, is how all that jazz sits right in front of the massive Gothic Basilica of Mary Magdalene, founded in 1295.
Drive 15 minutes away from the town centre to find the base of the trek through the forest, up the Great Massif to The Grotto.
How to do it? St Max sits east of Avignon, and is easy to access by driving (1.5 hours), or by TGV (fast train) to Marseille, where you can pick up your rental car at the gare (train station) and head to your accommodation. Situated just outside of town, Le Clos Geraldy is a lovely chambres d’hôtes (French B&B). Casually elegant, Le Clos Geraldy offers well-appointed private rooms and an authentic French countryside experience surrounded by natural beauty.
On your first refreshed morning, after a breakfast full of hot brew, croissants and choice regional fare, hop to the centre to shop, lunch, then head across the place in the blinding, hot sun that’s bouncing off every stone, nook and cranny, and walk through the creaking, massive doors of entry into what from the outside appears as not much. Deceptively simple as you approach, the basilica may take your breath away when you step inside. Be sure to visit the crypt, which houses the relics of Mary Magdalene.
Your second morning? Consider The Grotto. It’s a 45-minute walk to the top at a leisurely pace. The earlier you arrive, the longer you have to enjoy the forest, the 360 views from the top, and the cave of Mary Magdalene.
Access is from the large, open parking area. From here, you’ll begin a climb up the Great Massif. It is well paved with benches along the way, and not too steep. Bring water and snacks if you think you might get hungry, as there is no commerce on this hike.
Regionally, leisure activities abound, from golfing to visiting olive groves and tucked-away places of interest only known locally — or simply book an on-site massage and sit by the pool. If it’s not too hot, take a day trip into the old quarter of Marseille.
Your host, Thierry, is happy to recommend restaurants that cater to you, from brasseries to fine dining. A favourite of mine sits in the courtyard of a 12th century abbey, home of Alain Ducasse‘s Hostellerie de L’Abbaye de la Celle. This ‘restaurant gastronomique‘ offers you the pleasure of the high art of French cuisine in exquisite surroundings.