Once an important place of pilgrimage, the town of Saint Maximin has had an incredible chance to preserve its rich medieval heritage until our days. Approaching the town you will see from far off its main landmark - Basilique de Sainte-Marie-Magdalene - the biggest gothic cathedral of Provence. This impressive sanctuary was built in XIII-XV centuries to house the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene discovered by Charles II d’Anjou, the count of Provence. The crypte of basilique contains numerous sarcophages of christian saints, the most important of them are sarcophage of Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Maximin. The organ of basilique is one of the biggest in Provence and the best preserved. Incredibly, its 2962 pipes have stayed in an excellent state. Royal Convent was constructed at the same time next to Basilique. This magnificent building, pure and simple in form, now is turned into a four-star hotel. In fact, the Convent, the cathedral and XVIII-century townhall constitute harmonic ensemble that you will see in the very heart of the town.
Saint-Maximin is typical medieval town with narrow streets, unexpected turns and small terraces. Take a tour of its excellent souvenir shops selling authentic provencal art and craft objects. Look for Hôtel Dieu - charitable hospital built in the end of XVII century and a beautiful square surrounded by two lines of medieval arcades. La place des Arcades was the heart of jewish community of Saint-Maximin. The jews, chased out of France in the end of XIII century by Philippe IV, were invited to Provence by Charles II d’Anjou. In the beginning of XIV century the jews of Saint-Maximin were grated the right to build a synagogue and a cemetery. In the building opposite to arcades resided during the French Revolution Lucien Bonaparte with his wife, native of Saint-Maximin. The bell tower (la tour d’horloge) of Saint-Maximin was constructed in the late XV century upon the order of legendary Roi René. It has one one of the oldest bells of Provence.
Le Massif de la Sainte Baume on the south-west of Saint-Maximin is well known in christian tradition. According to the legend, saint Mary Magdalene has spent long years in one of its caves (baume is provencal means a grotto) and was buried there. The grotto of Mary Magdalene has been the place of pilgrimage of popes and royals (among them such personalities of Philippe IV of France and Alphonse IV of Aragon). The grotto is still the ultimate stage of the pilgrimage of compagnons de Tour de France (journeyman years).
The “sanctity” of the forest around Sainte Baume was known well before construction of Basilique. It was the place of druid cult in pre-christian era. In V century the monks of abbaye Saint Victor of Marseille become the guardians of the grotto of Saint Mary Magdalene, the tradtition says that they have hidden the relics of Saint Mary and Saint Maximin in VIII century during sarrazin invasion. The relics were retrieved in XIII century by Charles II d’Anjou. The house Anjou comes into posession of Saint Maximin in the middle of XIII century after the death of Raymond Berenger IV of the house of Barcelone. Saint Maximin was granted to the youngest daughter of Raymond, married to Charles I d’Anjou - the brother of Louis IX the Saint. In the hands of the house Anjou Saint Maximin becomes important religious centre and a prosperous city living from the pilgrimage and agriculture. The relics and landmarks of Saint Maximin are spared during French Revolutions thanks to the efforst of Lucien Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon I, who leads local revolutioners. The history says that the great organ of Basilique was saved by the organist Forcade, who played la Marsellaise in the presence of revolutioners. However, some precious monasteries and chapels were declared national property and turned into habitations.
Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume is situated just off the main autoroute of Provence A8 between Aix-en-Provence and Fréjus. From A8 take the exit 34 (Saint-Maximin).
The town has regular shuttles to Aix TGV station and Marseille-Provence airport. You can see the schedule on official website.