Back in 1214, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was constructed over the old Abbey of Saint Victor. Forty-two years later, it had become a monastery. At the beginning of the 15th century, it was replaced by a church dedicated to Saint Gabriel. During the 16th century’s “Italian War” (1536 to 1538), Francis I commissioned the building of a fort surrounding the church (along with an additional fort outside the harbor on the island of “If”) in order to resist a possible siege by Charles I’s forces. This is the only known example of a military fort sharing space with a sanctuary open to the public.
In 1790, the hill’s fort and sanctuary were invaded by anti-clerical revolutionaries, eventually resulting in the closing down of the church buildings. By 1793, it had been transformed into a prison to hold Louis Phillipe, the Duke of Orleans (and the King’s cousin), along with his two sons, his sister, and the Prince of Conti. After several weeks, they all were transferred to Fort Saint-Jean. On April 4, 1807, the church finally re-opened for worship, while the fort portion went unused.
A privately commissioned silver Madonna and Child - known as “The Black Madonna” - was given to the church in 1834 and quickly became one of the most popular items within the building. During April of 1851, expansion plans for the church resulted in there no longer being any room for military buildings. Construction of these plans began in September of 1853.
In 1892, a funicular was built to make it easier for visitors to get up the 276 foot tall hill. Fifteen years later, after having transported 20 million people) it was shut down because of the increased usage of private automobiles. During World War II, German blockhouses covered the top of the hill. Allied forces liberated Marseilles in August of 1944.
Today, the views of the harbor and of Marseilles from Notre-Dame de la Garde make it the top tourist attraction in the city. It is well worth a visit.