In place of a welcome sign, the tiny French village of Rennes-le-Château has posted a stern warning against digging, and in case you don’t get the point, they’ve locked the cemetery gates. The residents – all 100 of them – are fed up with people disturbing the tombs of their dear departed, and who can blame them? If you’re thinking the village priest might help protect the sanctity of the churchyard, think again. It was the village priest who started it all, spending moonlit nights excavating the graveyard with the assistance of his young housekeeper (or, according to many, his “housekeeper” wink wink, nudge nudge). But that’s just the beginning of the weird tales about Rennes-le-Château, a place with more inexplicable events and occult mysteries than the Bermuda Triangle.
I had gotten about this far in reading the story when I announced to Rich, “I’ve found the destination for our luggage-free trip.” In preparation for the recent travel experiment in which we journeyed for six days carrying nothing beyond a few essentials tucked into our pockets, I’d been researching dozens of delightful French towns within easy train distance of our Seville home. But none offered the dizzying mix of history, mystery, and sheer lunacy that characterized this tiny village in the Languedoc mountains.
The legends go back two thousand years, but it was the inexplicable activities of the Victorian priest François Bérenger Saunière that brought the village to the attention of the modern world. A young, penniless priest assigned to the ancient village church of St. Mary Magdalene in 1885, he raised a few francs and began much-needed repairs, during which he discovered … something. To this day we don’t know what, but it translated into a lot of cash in Saunière’s pockets; he spent the equivalent of at least several million dollars on lavish parties, Paris fashions for the housekeeper, and curious building projects.
Where did all this money come from? Buried treasure and blackmail material remain the hot favorite theories. Some say he found proof that Mary Magdalene was really married to Jesus, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but was buried in Rennes-le-Château, that the Merovingian kings were descendent from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, that the last known Merovingian king died leaving a secret heir, that the Knights Templar were still protecting the bloodline… If it’s starting to sound familiar, thank Dan Brown, who drew heavily on these tales for the plot of The DaVinci Code. Of course, it gets more outlandish from there, with links to various biblical characters, the Temple of Solomon, the Visigoths, the gnostic Christians known as Cathars, the Nazis, the French resistance, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, and of course, aliens from outer space.
Saunière allegedly embedded clues and coded messages in the flamboyant yet peculiar renovations he made to the church, and as soon as we arrived in the village, Rich and I made a beeline to check them out. We read the controversial inscription over the door, which says in Latin “This Is a Terrible Place.” We saw the holy water font supported by a grimacing demon, said to be a replica of the one that guarded Solomon’s Temple on the Holy Mount in Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed in 587 BC, yet some contend a portion of its riches made their way into the hands of crusaders from southern France, who buried their treasure in or near Rennes-le-Château.
Another oddity was the pair of figures flanking the altar: the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph who, contrary to church tradition, are both shown simultaneously holding figures of baby Jesus. Some claim this is a reference to Jesus having a twin brother, possibly the famous “doubting” Thomas, whose name means “twin.” There are those who say it was Jesus’ twin who was crucified in his stead, although it’s hard to square that theory with the historical Thomas, who was documented preaching in Asia until 72 AD. Of course, if you’re willing to factor in alien abductions and flying unicorns, these trifling logistical issues can easily be explained away.
As you may have noticed, I’m not entirely convinced of anything about this story except that one Victorian priest came into a great deal of money under questionable circumstances. But I loved stumbling upon the juicy, old mystery. As much fun as it is to solve a puzzle, sometimes encountering one that’s deeply baffling is equally satisfying. It reminds us that the world is a much bigger place than we can ever imagine and that our understanding of it – yes, even in the age of Google and Wikipedia – is still in its infancy. Our job is not to map out every corner of the universe but to learn to enjoy the ride, even in the dark and bumpy places when we’re not quite sure where the road is taking us.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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