The Sainte-Baume forest, between nature and legends

In Provence, the Sainte-Baume forest combines an extraordinary ecosystem with a rich history.

Both a place of tourism and pilgrimage, this state-owned forest located between the Bouches-du-Rhône and Var departments has been awarded the Forêt d’Exception® label (Exceptional Forest label). It is home to the cave in which Mary Magdalene is said to have taken refuge after evangelising the whole of Provence.

An extraordinary ecosystem

Scientists prefer to refer to the Sainte-Baume forest as a “relic forest” or “climax forest”. Located 30 km east of Marseille, this forest covers 2076 hectares and has a particularly rich ecosystem according to botanical specialists. Exceptional and contrasting weather conditions explain the diversity of this vast natural expanse.

Indeed, the state forest is located between the sea and the mountains. The view from the ridge shows the striking contrast between ubac and adret, that is to say between the least sunny (north) and the most sunny (south) slopes. In this way, on the northern flank of the state forest, one can observe the fauna and flora traditionally found in more northerly forests. Trees that need moisture, cold or shade are present in large numbers, such as beech, holly, yew and maple. The beech forest of the mountain range – culminating at 1147 m and consisting of high limestone cliffs – prevents the trees from suffering from summer drought. As for the southern slope, it is mainly populated by a typically Mediterranean forest where trees that are more sensitive to light grow.

The Sainte-Baume forest is home to a diversity of mammals and birds such as rabbits, wild boars, foxes, hares, bats, owls, etc. In order to preserve this unique ecosystem, hunting is prohibited. The forest as such is an invitation to the imagination and to dreaming. Every branch, every plant and every stump can be the starting point for a magical story. All it takes is a little imagination and fantasy to immerse yourself in it.

The Forêt d’exception label

Since September 2018, the Sainte-Baume forest has become the tenth French forest to receive the Forêt d’exception® label. Created in 2007 by the National Forestry Office, this label allows the creation of a network of reference forests concerning the sustainable management of forest heritage. It is awarded for a period of five years, renewable.

This distinction is not the result of a regulatory protection approach, but rather of consultation between the territorial partners linked to a state-owned forest in order to share the forest space and balance its various missions. The latter may be environmental, economic or social. The forests that have received the exceptional label all have a unique heritage in terms of biodiversity, history or landscape.

Thus, by implementing the Exceptional Forest approach, the preservation, development and enhancement of the natural, cultural and historical heritage are guaranteed within the Sainte-Baume forest. It will therefore be possible to develop links between the forests and the area, particularly in terms of communication.

Place of pilgrimage

According to legend, Mary Magdalene, a disciple of Jesus, settled in the Sainte-Baume cave – located at the foot of the cliff – after having evangelised the whole of Provence. This story is said to be the origin of the name “Sainte-Baume”, baumo meaning cave in Provençal. Nestled at an altitude of 900 metres, the cave has become a Christian sanctuary.

Like Lourdes, the Sainte-Baume site has been a major pilgrimage site since the 11th century. Even today, the grotto in which Mary Magdalene spent the last thirty years of her life in prayer is a place of interest and welcomes many visitors. With its rich biodiversity, legendary site and traditional Christian pilgrimage site, the Sainte-Baume massif is one of the most visited sites in the southern region.

Beyond its spiritual nature, this state forest is a paradise for hikers. There are various hiking trails, but the shortest way to reach the Sainte-Baume ridges is from the hostelry run by the Dominican sisters and brothers.

In the footsteps of the Sainte-Baume forest

Do you want to see some beautiful scenery? Or simply eager to hike? The Sainte-Baume Forest has everything you need.

If you want to reach the Sainte-Baume Forest from Marseille, follow the A52 motorway to Auriol and then take the D45A road to Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume. You should reach your destination in about an hour.

If you are driving from Aix-en-Provence, you will need to take motorway 18 towards Nice and exit at Saint-Maximin, towards Marseille-Auriol. Then, you will continue your way via the D560 and the D80 in the direction of Nans-les-Pins. You will end up following the direction of Plan-d’Aups-Sainte-Baume. Your journey will take approximately one and a half hours.