Summiting the dragon of Sainte-Baume

When mountaintops had somehow resisted my attempts to reach their heights, I found myself with one more opportunity to summit an old dragon in southern France.

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One of my goals in 2023 was to summit a mountain, but as the year pressed on it seemed like it wasn’t meant to be. A record snowfall made a push for Mount Whitney untenable with the single-day permit my friend Tim was able to get. Minor injury sent us back down our alternative, Mount Shasta. Smaller local trips were proposed and then quashed due to scheduling, illness, and work. It seemed that standing atop a mountain just wasn’t in the cards for my year.

But then there was a September trip to southern France. We weren’t planning on any mountaineering while we were there, but shortly after arrival it became apparent — I was going to summit Sainte-Baume. 

A view of Sainte-Baume
A view of Sainte-Baume.

A little background

I wasn’t initially meant to go on this trip. Clarissa’s longtime friend and mentor Pat was holding a series of women’s retreats centering around the Cave of Mary Magdalene, and she intended to go. Knowing I love France, especially southern France, she asked if I had any interest in coming along. 

I was hesitant — the trip sounded lovely, no doubt about that, but I didn’t want to intrude on a women’s retreat. But Clarissa asked some questions, and as it turned out, no one had booked that week. Thus a women’s retreat became a couples’ retreat for a week, and Clarissa and I joined Pat and her husband Oliver near Saint-Baume.

Sainte-Baume trail map
There is a significant number of trails crisscrossing the area and connecting towns.

Saint-Baume is a small, limestone mountain ridge in the heart of the Sainte-Baume Regional Natural Park. There are a number of trails that make their way through the park, and connect the nearby towns, as well as connecting long distance trails that cover hundreds of miles across France. In our brief time there, we only had an opportunity to scratch the surface, but I could have happily spent weeks hopping around the region’s trails. 

The Dragon of Sainte-Baume

We noticed that on a few illustrated maps in books and on display at our bed and breakfast, that the Sainte-Baume mountain was sometimes referred to as the dragon of Sainte-Baume. Digging into this, we eventually found out that there was a local legend about a dragon that settled in the area, supposedly because he hated the beauty of the region, and used his considerable power to cause storms that actually altered the landscape. 

The legend continues with a deity — possibly a local pagan deity or the Christian God, depending on when the legend was retold — who slayed the dragon with a bolt of lightning from the sky. The body became the mountain, and when you look at it, you can sort of see how the formation could resemble a dragon, with the summit as its head, and the ridges forming a body. The valleys below the mountain are, on occasion, said to resemble wings. Mary Magdalene’s Cave, for which the region is much better known, is said to be the wound where the lightning struck the dragon.

Dragon from illuminated manuscript

There is another, more peaceful version of this that I was told, in which the dragon liked the beauty of the area, and simply laid down and fell into a deep slumber, thus forming the mountain. I definitely prefer this version, but the tale of the more antagonistic dragon resembles the legend of Saint Martha taming the Tarasque, a dragon-like creature, also in Provence, roughly 75 miles to the northwest of Sainte-Baume.

Mary Magdalene’s Cave    

Mary Magdalene taken to the top of Sainte-Baume by angels.
Angels supposedly carried Mary Magdalene to the top of Sainte-Baume to pray.

I mentioned Mary Magdalene’s Cave, what Sainte-Baume is probably best known for, which has its own legend. According to that legend, Mary and several other disciples were exiled from Palestine after the Ascension, victims of Christian persecution. Cast asunder on a small boat with no sails or rudder, the small group was tossed about by storms and waves, before washing ashore in Provence in what is now called Les Saintes Maries De La Mer. Mary preached the gospel in Marseille with Lazarus for a spell, before settling in a cave on Sainte-Baume.

There she lived the final 30 years of her life, visited by angels every day, who carried her to the top of the mountain where she would pray and connect with the divine.

Or so the legend goes. Eventually a chapel was built into and around the cave, which is now managed by the Dominicans and is host to visitors and pilgrims from around the world. 

The Red House

We stayed at a bed and breakfast near the forest named La Maison Rouge — The Red House, in English. It’s a lovely spot to stay, and aptly named.

Maison Rouge

The owner Sylvie, her son Johan, and their dog Eduard made us feel very welcome, and the French breakfasts were heavenly. If I understood correctly — I admit my French isn’t the best — another extended family member lives in a different home on the property, and makes the delicious honey we enjoyed during our stay. 

People often assume that since I like to sleep in the middle of nowhere as often as I can, that I don’t like comfy beds or nice rooms. For some reason, there are people who think that you can’t like camping and enjoy staying in nice accommodations. But that’s not true. I love staying in delightful places, and Maison Rouge was homey, a little luxurious without being pretentious, and just an incredibly welcoming place.

So yes, compared to the accommodations I usually write about, Maison Rouge is a luxurious place to stay, but it wasn’t prohibitively expensive, costing roughly $100 a night. Considering the quality, the awesome breakfasts, and the proximity to the reason for our visit, I can tell you that it was worth every penny. 

And our room came with one hell of a view.

The Cave of Mary Magdalene

On our first full day at Saint-Baume, Clarissa and I joined Pat and Oliver on the trail to Mary Magdalene’s Cave. This is a popular spot — like I said, pilgrims from around the world make their way here — so we set out early to try to beat any crowds. At about 6:30, shortly before sunrise, we got started. 

Sunrise in southern France

The trail is part of the GR9, a long-distance hiking trail in France that covers roughly 600 miles from Saint-Amour, Jura, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. We picked it up at the Hostellerie de la Sainte-Baume, a hostel near the foot of the mountain, just down the road from Maison Rouge. It’s a religious hostel, managed by the Dominicans, and hosts travelers and pilgrims as they make their way to the mountain or just travel in the region.   

We trekked across the plain to the foot of the mountain, where the trail turns to trace the shape of the massif, before beginning to switchback upward. It didn’t take long for the sun to stretch out over the landscape and illuminate the hike for us.

We enjoyed the stroll, putting our legs to good use as we hiked along. The trails in the park are clean and well-maintained, and despite a near constant upward angle — to be expected when trekking up a mountain — the terrain was easy. The trail to the cave is wide and resembles a gravel road for the most part. Most of the way, this early in the morning, it was easy to forget that thousands of people come this way every year, or that we were as close to the road as we still were. 

Where the path gives way to stairs
Pat and Clarissa at the beginning of the steps.

The GR9 turns upward toward the top of the mountain, leaving a local road-like trail to lead to the cave. Another couple of twists and turns and we arrived at the stairs that mark the final upward approach to the cave. They look and feel like steps leading to a medieval fortress, though I’m uncertain just how old this construction is. 

We were the first to arrive at the cave, with the exception of a priest who was chanting inside. It was quite lovely, but I opted against entering the space just yet. Though I have a reverence for holy places, and caves hold a bit of a sacred significance to me, I thought better of going in. The melodic chanting — almost like a song — had a purpose, and it was most assuredly not intended for me.

Eventually the priest finished his chorus and went about the more mundane work of filling bins of votive candles to be lit in the altars in the chapel cave.

At this point, I felt comfortable entering, and immediately I was struck by the natural rock elements blending into the likeness of a cathedral or church setting. Natural spaces have always been holy places for me, especially caves, and I’ve always had an affinity for catholic iconography. I was a bit fascinated by the combination and juxtaposition of the two.  

Sculpture of Mary MagdaleneThe priest retired from the cave, and it was just the four of us, whispering quietly to one another, lighting votives, and looking into reliquaries among the sound of dripping water. Our early departure had served us well — we had the chapel to ourselves as we meditated, contemplated, and soaked up the stillness. Soon, we too exited the cave and enjoyed the view as we ate peaches that Pat handed to us. 

After returning to Maison Rouge for breakfast, we hit the trail again — first retracing our steps, then departing the GR9 to head toward Egg Cave. This trail proved a little more challenging, but wasn’t too much for our little group. 

To Egg Cave

Egg cave isn’t as popular or well-known as Mary Magdalene’s cave, and directions to its location are more scant. However, this was not Pat and Oliver’s first trip, so they knew the way. Unlike the trail to Mary’s cave, this trail doesn’t resemble a road — it’s narrow, rocky, and slick, sometimes precipitously close to steep drop offs. A few areas required some scrambling and though I wouldn’t say climbing skills were needed, I gratefully used a rock hold above me more than once on a particularly steep section. There are few markings to let you know which way to go, so I’m grateful we had guides. 

As you approach, the cave is actually well-hidden by a tall, triangular boulder. It’s easy to walk past; I did. There’s even a small marker on the rock just past the boulder — an X indicating, “this isn’t the trail.” It took Oliver pointing out the cave for me to even notice it.

I read that the cave is called Egg Cave, Grotte aux Oeufs in French, because of speleothems inside that resemble eggs. These are mineral deposits formed over centuries of water dripping with trace amounts of minerals — calcium carbonate, I assume — dissolved by groundwater that has moved through the limestone in the area. The water made rocks that look like eggs. If that’s not magical, I don’t know what is. 

Egg Cave or Yoni Cave.
It is easy to see why many call this Yoni Cave.

This cave has its own mythology attached to it, tied to fertility. I’m assuming this is partly because of the egg formations inside, but also — or possibly more so — because the entrance resembles a vulva. Pat refers to the cave as Yoni Cave for this reason, as do many others. I prefer Egg Cave myself, but not from any prudishness or misogyny that I’m aware of. It’s just the name that’s on the map. 

Supposedly Saint-Baume was the center of a fertility cult in the pre-Roman era, although I haven’t found any specific evidence or story to support that claim. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was used in some sort of pagan spiritual practice, with the magical eggs and all that.  

Clarissa and I discovered, after making our way inside, that the ground was slick with moisture and worn smooth by what I am assuming is several footprints over the years. I had to anchor both hands against the walls as I descended into the cave. 

Egg cave isn’t large, and although there is another chamber that we could have climbed into, it looked tricky to get back out of, and we opted to stay in the main chamber. In the far back was a small rocky ledge that previous visitors had used as an altar of sorts. There were figurines, stones, photographs, letters and, of course, eggs set upon it, all visible in the soft glow put off by a burning candle at the center. 

We brought no such offerings, but I had carried one of Clarissa’s drums in my backpack, and retrieved it for her so that she could play in the space. Before long, the drumbeat reverberated throughout the cave, and quickly the sound and its echoes were all we could hear. 

We didn’t linger, however. Soon we made our way to the entrance, once again using the walls for leverage as we clambered back through the opening. Just as we set out to leave we were met by a small group of young women, carrying roses and other plants. I caught a whiff of some kind of incense. Perhaps there are some remnants of pagan spiritual practice still taking place here. At least, that’s what I like to think. 

To the top of the mountain

I enjoyed hiking to the caves, but I don’t think it will surprise anyone to know that what I was most excited for was the opportunity to reach the summit of Saint-Baume. 

As it turns out, the massif has two high points, both at 3,766 feet in elevation: the Joug de l’Aigle — or Eagle’s Yoke; and the Signal des Béguines — Signal of the Beguines. If possible, we were going to step foot on both.

Looking out of our window to Sainte-Baume that morning, we were met with swirling clouds obscuring most of the mountain ridge from view. 

Sainte-Baume obscured by clouds.

In my opinion, any inclement weather on a mountain — even a small one like Sainte-Baume — warrants consideration. We had brought rain gear and were ready for the elements, saw no indication of storms, and the forecast mentioned no lightning. We decided to carry on. We grabbed breakfast with Pat and Oliver, then the four of us returned to the same trailhead we had visited the previous day. We started back on the GR9, covering the same ground we had on the way to Mary’s cave. The GR9 turns sharply, making it look like the path to the grotto is the main trail, but because of the previous day’s trip, I knew better. Up we went.  

Nearing the the Chapelle des Parisiens
Nearing the Chapelle des Parisiens.

This section of the trail was steeper and slicker, than the one that led to Mary’s cave. Our foursome carefully managed up some cobblestones alongside the Chapelle des Parisiens, the Chapel of the Parisiens. Named not for Paris dwellers, but rather the name of the house belonging to the wealthy family that funded its construction in the 17th century. Also referred to as the Chapel of the Dead, it was pillaged and mostly destroyed during the French Revolution, was restored following the Revolution, and classified as a historic monument in 1913.

The trail narrowed, then gave way to rough hewn steps, and we continued upward. As we gained elevation, we wandered into a misty fog that only got thicker with each step. We pulled on additional layers and kept going. Nearing the top of the ridge we could hear gusts of wind lashing the massif, as Pat led us around the final switchback. As we stepped up onto the mountaintop, we were instantly buffeted by the wind.

We weren’t at the summit, but we were on the ridgeline standing inside a cloud with nary a view of the world below — everything was swirling fog at best, and a wall of gray at worst. Still, we were up there, and that filled my heart with joy. The first phase of the trek was complete. 

Pat leading us the final few steps to the ridgeline of Sainte-Baume.
Pat leading us the final few steps to the ridgeline of Sainte-Baume.

The love of high spots

I wonder what it is that drives some people to see high places and want to be on top of them. John Muir famously said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Less famously he said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” Sir Edmund Hilary, responding to a reporter asking why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, remarked, “Because it’s there.” French alpinist Chantal Mauduit said, “I pursue happiness, and the mountain answers my search.”

Kids will play King of the Mountain or King of the Hill, competitively trying to occupy the highest point, be it on a dirt mound or atop the jungle gym — the existence of playgrounds and jungle gyms shows just how much we naturally like to climb stuff. Wee Tom is perpetually pushing the boundaries of what he can climb, as children often do. Maybe the desire to climb to the top of high points is just hardwired into some of us. 

Me holding Tom atop Buzzard's Roost
Tom’s first summit was less than 5,000 feet, but he seemed to like it.

Although it might make his grandparents shudder just a bit, I try to foster Tom’s desire to ascend instead of supplanting it — taking efforts to explain to the toddler how to climb up and onto things as safely as possible, instead of just telling him to get down. This leads to some bruises and tears, but I still find it odd that climbing is the first motion we discourage in our kids? They begin rolling over and we cheer. They start crawling and we applaud. When they stand up and walk we damn near give a standing ovation. Once they start climbing though, too often we holler, “No climbing!” Even I’m guilty of it, despite my best efforts. 

I was introduced to mountains later in life. In my home state the highest natural point is Charles Mound in northwestern Illinois. At 1,235 feet in elevation, it’s roughly 2,000 feet lower than the elevation of my home in Rapid City, or roughly 1,000 feet lower than the foot of Sainte-Baume. In the last few years they’ve gotten into me, and while I’m not a peakbagger or mountaineer, I have found myself drawn to mountaintops.

Chapelle du Saint-Pilon

There we were, atop Sainte-Baume, though not at the summit. Instead of heading directly to the high point, Pat and Oliver led us to the west on a different trail — the GR98, which runs from Marseille to where it meets the GR9 on Saint-Baume. 

From the spot where we emerged on the mountaintop we would follow GR98 for less than a mile to the Chapelle du Saint-Pilon, or Saint Pilon Chapel. The roar of the wind made it impossible to hear one another without shouting. Visibility came and went — occasionally the air would clear and we could see maybe 100 feet ahead, but more often we walked through the fog 

The Chapelle du Saint-Pilon emerging from the mist.
The Chapelle du Saint-Pilon emerging from the mist.

As it emerged from the mist, the chapel didn’t look like much — a small, simple box of rough-hewn stone — but stepping into the open vestibule provided a much-appreciated respite from the blustery wind. It was one of the few spots we would find any break from the wind until Clarissa and I descended back into the tree line hours later. 

The chapel is the spot that legend says Mary would come to daily, perhaps carried by angels, in order to be closer to God when she prayed. It’s considered part of the Sanctuary of Sainte-Baume, along with Mary Magdalene’s cave. 

Like the church in the cave and the Chapel of the Parisiens, this structure was ravaged during the French Revolution. It was rebuilt post-revolution, and then renovated between 2015 and 2017 in an effort that involved a helicopter airlifting equipment to the location, as well as twelve pallets of Espeil stone pre-cut by craftsmen. What appears to be simple, stacked stone is actually thoughtful construction — even the roof is made of cut stone. 

Here is a view of the chapel taken on a much nicer day. Photo by Remi Jouan, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Here is a view of the chapel taken on a much nicer day. Photo by Remi Jouan, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The chapel is separated from the open antechamber by a locked gate — no doubt protecting the statue of Mary Magdalene inside, especially after a temporary statue was damaged by vandals in 2020. 

The chapel provided us sanctuary from the weather, and on one of the stone benches that line the small vestibule, Pat and Oliver unpacked our lunch. Clarissa and I have done a lot of hiking together. How much?

French snacks
Although not the lunch we enjoyed in the chapel, this is a similar lunch we enjoyed the previous day.

… Honestly, I can’t even calculate the mileage. And we usually carry snacks along the way. CLIF Bars are a staple, as are Pop-Tarts and cheese sticks.

But Oliver and Pat do things a bit differently, and I marveled as the spread came out of Oliver’s backpack. Prosciutto, pancetta, speck, and other cured meats were met by camembert, brie, and goat cheese. Next came the baguette, peaches, and Oranginas, which are one of the best beverages in the world, if you ask me. 

I don’t know if this is the typical French way of doing trail snacks, or if this is more of a Pat and Oliver thing, but either way, they’re definitely onto something. We would have shared with anyone that came along — the chapel is public space, after all — but the rough weather gave us a bit of solitude. We passed some other hikers coming and going, but they were few and far between, and none would arrive during our brief stay at the chapel. 

Onward

Finishing our lunch, we retraced our steps to the east, where the GR9 led back down the mountain, or continued on the ridge. Here we parted ways with Pat and Oliver who went back down the trail to Maison Rouge, where we would meet them after our hike to the summit. We continued east, headed for the first of Sainte-Baume’s summits, the Eagle’s Yoke.

We continued to be battered by wind and rain, and circled by mist and fog. Very quickly we came to a Celtic cross standing along the trail.

Wade by Celtic Cross on Sainte-Baume

Long-fascinated by Celtic history and culture, I interpreted this as a positive sign for our journey. I’ve yet to identify its purpose on the mountain, however. Is it a memorial of some kind, a marker of specific significance? Or is it just another indicator on the trail, albeit an elaborate one? Perhaps it’s a marker showing where the GR98 terminates? I wasn’t able to find out from anyone at Maison Rouge, and I haven’t been able to turn up any information since I returned home. What I do know is that it was a pleasant little surprise, significant to me; the mountain giving me a little love along the way, perhaps.

The trail has some tricky spots, but was far from treacherous overall — were it not for the fog and wind, we would have moved more quickly on the route. But in the weather, the rocks were slick, visibility was poor, and it was difficult to stay on the trail. It was marked, but the markers were small and easy to miss in areas where we couldn’t see far ahead of ourselves.

It was cold and wet, it was challenging, it was uncomfortable, and I loved every minute of it. I’m not a person who is driven by a challenge, I’m not particularly competitive, and I’m not a tough guy. But I loved the freezing rain, the driving wind, and the blinding fog. Something about the whole scenario made me feel… Primal. Grateful. Strong. 

It made me feel truly and deeply alive. 

Wade and Clarissa braving the wind and the rain.
Braving the wind and the rain.

Even when the wind increased in intensity, howling at us as it drove the sleet against us, stinging our faces, I was happy to be there. We huddled next to some brush that had grown up in the rocky soil, and shielded ourselves from the cold and the biting ice. I laughed. Clarissa, a little less enthused at the situation than I was, looked over as I guffawed. Despite the discomfort, a smile came to her face too. We were still having fun. It was the kind of fun that you have when things aren’t fun, but that’s fun nonetheless.

We took this opportunity to reassess. The wind had gotten stronger, and we were getting pelted by sleet. Ice was forming on some of the rock, and it was slippery here and there. But there still wasn’t any lightning or thunder. The sky remained a thick, soupy overcast, but it was far from dark and stormy. 

“I feel safe moving forward, but will bail anytime you don’t feel good about carrying on,” I told Clarissa. She didn’t want to bail. Although she didn’t feel the same pull to the mountaintop that I did, she wanted to go on, if for no other reason than to see me satisfied with finally standing on a summit. And she was excited that we could do it together. We pressed on. 

Continuing toward the summit on GR9
Into the mist.

The Eagle’s Yoke

As we continued, the rain and sleet let up. The wind softened, at times, and occasionally the sun almost peaked out from behind the clouds. Almost. We weren’t as cold and we were unconcerned as we turned along the trail and were met with a rock scramble. We needed a little bit of climbing skill as we picked our way along the limestone, taking care not to slip on patches of ice. Then, as we pulled ourselves up onto a boulder, we spied something peeking through the fog.

It was a cross, erected on the summit, marking the Eagle’s Yoke. We finished the climb, surmounted a few boulders, and took turns on the final climb to the cross. Steadying myself on the rock, facing into the wind, and letting out a triumphant shout, I felt extreme joy. I had achieved my goal of summiting a mountain in 2023. 

Wade at the Eagle's Yoke
Couldn’t see a damn thing, but I was sure happy to be there.

I’m told that the view from the Eagle’s Yoke is incredible — apparently you can see Mont Sainte-Victoire to the northwest and if you look to the south you can see the Mediterranean Sea. I wouldn’t know, thanks to the wall of fog that surrounded us, but at that moment, I didn’t care all that much. Yes, it would have been great to see the valley below, but I was just riding the summit high.

Signal des Béguines

Excitement at Eagle’s Yoke was all well and good, but we were only one third of the way done. We still needed to reach the second summit, and then get down safely. After a few more minutes of celebrating, we descended back onto the trail and continued east, continuing to lose the way on occasion as we headed toward the Signal des Béguines, Sainte-Baume’s second summit. 

The top of the mountain is wide at this point, and though the wind picked up again, the visibility improved enough that following the trail became simple. This is one of the easier sections that we hiked atop the mountain that day, and we covered the one mile — give or take — to the Signal des Béguines pretty quickly.

At Signal des Béguines
Adding my rock to the stack at Signal des Béguines.

Here, previous travelers had created a mound of rocks — and we decided that we’d toss one on ourselves while here. 

We’ve been told that the view from this spot is a particularly delightful panorama of the valley below. And once more, our view was limited to the wall of clouds in which we were situated. Would we have liked to experience the view? Absolutely. But you can’t let the lack of a view turn a positive into a negative. 

I wanted to summit a mountain in 2023, and that’s exactly what we did in Sainte-Baume. Sure, the view was nothing but fog, but so what? If the enjoyment of a goal achieved is dependent solely on the view you have when you achieve it, then I urge you to reconsider why you’re chasing that goal anyway.

The return

Having reached both summits, there was just one thing left to do — return to Maison Rouge. We said good-bye to Signal des Béguines and began the hike back. The GR9 continues eastward, but we would not. Instead we retraced our steps, and as the trail dipped downward we entered a section safe from the wind. For the first time in what seemed like all day, I got hot. Removing my raincoat and my hoodie, I walked in just a t-shirt. The sun, still hidden behind fog and cloud, shone just a little brighter, putting a little spring in our step.

We made our way back to the Joug de l’Aigle, scrambled back down the rocks that had seemed so slippery before, and continued going down, down, down. We grew warmer as we went, though still shrouded in fog, until the GR9 returned us back to the Hostellerie. From there we followed some local social trails back to Maison Rouge, where we were briefly fêted by our friends before we grabbed a hot shower and returned to the dining room for some delicious wine and takeout — not a bad way to end a summit day, if you ask me. 

A summary of Sainte-Baume

Over dinner, Oliver asked me how many miles we had covered that way. According to my watch, we hoofed it approximately 12 miles. The elevation gain, though it seemed difficult at times, wasn’t extreme. The foot of the mountain sits at 2,136 feet, and the summits are at 3,766 feet. That’s only an elevation change of 1,630 feet, and the summit is only about 500 feet higher than the elevation at our home in Rapid City. 

Sainte-Baume

I have no illusions that summiting Saint-Baume is comparable to Mount Whitney or Mount Shasta, both of which eluded me in 2023. Nor do I consider this mountaineering in any way. But what I wanted was to stand on top of a mountain, and by the power of my two feet, with my wife beside me, that’s exactly what I did in southern France — I summited the dragon of Sainte-Baume. 

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