The day started hot – even on a motorbike it was sweltering as I passed rolling hillside villages – a distinct air of Tuscany with the imposing summits of the Pyrenees in the blueish-purple heathaze in the near distance – the thermometer was flirting between 37Â°c and 39Â°c and the air coming up from the road was like being in front of a hairdryer on full blast.
Luckily there are some parts of the road that go through shady mountain valleys and avenues of trees that afford at least a small amount of respite from the scorching sun and bone-dry heat.
Fanjeaux in the distance
The gentle hills of the cereal-growing Lauagais region, slowly gave way to regimentally ordered vineyards rippling into the distance, giving a green aspect to the parched landscape.
The road is good, we are heading from Castelnaudary via Limoux and Couiza, an area known as Les RazÃ©s, passing through some beautiful countryside before climbing the steep road that leads to the village of Rennes le ChÃ¢teau, which offers some fantastic views over the Aude valley and the Pyrenees..
The first impression that I got of the village was in stark contrast to the sleepy villages and the stunning countryside surrounding the site – that of a full-blown commercial operation that really, in my view, cheapens the site. I was greeted by a woman outside a wooden kiosk selling tickets for the tourist “train” that took visitors to and from the village and who blew a police whistle every time a car tried to go past the kiosk into the village.
Ok, maybe I exagerrate a little when I say “full-blown commercial”, but it is a bit of shock after the stunning countryside we have passed through thus far.
Entry to the village by all motor vehicles is banned, which must be a good thing given the volume of tourists that come to Rennes – it’s a shame they couldn’t have extended this ban to the jolly little tourist “train” as well, which frankly added an air of theme-park kitsch and tackiness that was completely out of place in this beautiful setting – but once again, my opinion only, and a bit hypocritical as it would turn out.
The road to Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau
I have to confess to taking the train on the upwards journey into the village – due mainly to the fact that my iphone showed it was 39.5Â°c in the shade – roughly 110Â°f – I did walk back down though after having visited all that the village had to offer.
There are bookshops, cafÃ©s and a museum that charges a 4.50â‚¬ entry to the museum and tour of the Villa Bethany, which is a bit of a rip-off, seeing as I had visited the superb British Museum in London, recently totally free of charge (although I did leave a donation).
Cross at the entrance to the village
There has been a lot written about this tiny mountain-top village, from mysteries of vast riches linked to conspiracy theories about the HolyGrail, The Knights Templars, The Ark of The Covenant to the treasure of The Cathares and The D’a Vinci Code.
Some say that it is pure fantasy, others devote their lives to unearthing the mystery that surround the life of the village and its illustrious inhabitant, a certain priest, AbbÃ© BÃ©renger Saunier, weaving legend with tenuous assertions into a fascinating story that attracts both curious visitors and treasure hunters to this beautiful corner of South West France.
The Bugarach Mountain
There are links between Rennes le ChÃ¢teau and the l’AbbÃ© Saunier with St Sulpice Church in Paris, Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, Shugborough hall and Glastonbury in England and even to the Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire who some say visited Saunier in the village.
The story centres around a priest called l’AbbÃ© BÃ©renger Saunier, who took over the religious duties of the small and dilapidated parish church of Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau on 1st June 1855.
When Saunier arrived the church was in such a bad state of repair that the rain leaked through the roof onto the altar and the congregation, it didn’t take long for him to start undertaking repairs and improvements that would today run into millions of Euros.
The question remains shrouded in mystery as to how he was able, in such a small parish, to finance all that he undertook, and it is this question that stokes the fires of conspiracy and intrigue.
The Villa Bethany built by AbbÃ© Saunier
Saunier found two parchments inside a hollow pillar and underwent many voyages to decipher what was written therein, which if we are to believe the many theories, point to either buried treasure or some secrets that the Catholic church was willing to pay dearly to keep secret.
The Tour Magdala housed Saunier’s library
A theory states that he unearthed the buried treasure of the Visigoths who, after the sacking of Rome in the 5th century, returned to their ancient stronghold of Rhedae to hide their spoils that were originally stolen by the Romans from the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – this also fuels another theory that the Ark of The Covenant or The Holy Grail were buried at Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau.
The village was said, although academics dispute this, to have 30,000 inhabitants in the 5th century, but was later destroyed by the King of Aragon in 1170 before being named Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau in 1362.
The ChÃ¢teau at Rennes
The church is a real riddle too, with hidden clues that help fire the imagination of esoterics, researchers and dreamers alike – you may find yourself getting sucked in too.
Entrance to the church
For instance if one takes the initials of the saint’s names in the church, leaving out Mary Magdalene but tracing an “M” of her initial, the word “GRAAL” can be discerned – Graal being French for “Grail”, as in the following illustration.
There is a statue of the devil inside the church, which must be quite unusual in a catholic church – apparently it is a replica of the statue that guarded the treasures of King Herod in Jerusalem, which is another intrigue.
The statue of the devil, Asmodeus, in the church
There is also a statue of Mary Magdalene, whom the church is dedicated to, with a skull at her feet, in fact some of the images in the village are slightly disturbing, including the skull and crossbones, with an hourglass on the door at the entry to the cemetery, which is not at all cryptic in its symbolism of the finite nature of time and what happens to all of us sooner or later.
Statue of Mary Magdalen with a skull at her feet
Skull and Cross bones at the cemetery entrance with hourglass.
Entry to the cemetery – skull & crossbones and hourglass
There are other strange images in the church, especially the plaques depicting the stations of the cross, which are odd, including :
- A child clad in Scottish tartan (maybe a reference to Rosslyn)
- Pontius Pilate wearing a veil
- St Roch showing his wounded thigh (much like the albino monk in The D’aVinci Code
The Rich carvings and carved oak confessional
The parchments that he found contained two coded messages:
“This treasure belongs to Dagobert II, King and to Sion and there he is dead”
“Sheperdess no temptation that Poussin Teniers hold the key peace 661 by the cross and the house of God I complete this daemon guardian at midday by blue apples”
Now I won’t go into this too much, but the first refers to DagobertII, King of the Francs in the 7th century and a Merovingian King (in fact the word for Holy Grail in French can be interpreted two ways; Saint Graal as in Holy Grail or Sang RÃ©al or Royal blood).
The second interpretation points to the fact that Jesus or his brothers, accompanied by Mary Magdalene arrived in Gaul shortly after the crucifixion and settled in the area of rennes Le ChÃ¢teau to found the Merovingian dynasty of French royalty.
This gives birth to the theory that Saunier was blackmailing the Catholic church with the secret that would destroy both the church and the majority of European Royal houses, were he to expose what he had found.
The second encrypted message points to the painting by Nicolas Poussin of “The shepherds of Arcadia” and to the painter “David Teniers” – it is stated that Saunier found a stone sarcophagus not unlike the one depicted by Poussin, which was still visible until it was destroyed for some unknown reason – there are also hidden messages, as one may now be expecting, within the paintings of Pousin and Teniers.
Ther reference to the Blue Apples relates to the image that is portrayed by the light shining through the main window at noon on January 17th (coincidentally the date of the death of AbbÃ© Saunier and the feast of St Antoine), which forms an image of blue apples on the wall of the church just for a minute or so.
Ruined tower below the village
Just to keep up the Indiana Jones theme, there were three corpses found shot dead and buried in Saunier’s garden, along with other strange occurences:
- The Priest Jean-Antoin-Maurice Gelis, who became a paranoid recluse, allowing only visits by his niece to bring him food was found battered to death by a set of fire tongs and 4 swipes of an axe, the murderer ransacked the house but took no money, leaving the body of the priest with his hands crossed over his chest as if in prayer.
- NoÃ«l Corbu, who looked after Marie DÃ©narnaud, the housekeeper of the AbbÃ© Saunier after her stroke, was killed in an horrific car crash in 1953 that some suspect was not an accident.
- Saunier died from a heart attack on 17th January 1917 – some say that the coffin was ordered in advance.
bas relief plaque on a village house
There are strong beliefs, backed up by solid research, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene are both buried in a cave near Rennes Les bains, only 4 kilometers from Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau – did Saunier discover the burial site along with other members of the family that could compromise the church?
Was Saunier a member of The Priory of Sion?
Did he discover the Visigoths treasure, The Cathare treasure or The Knight’s Templar’s treasure?
Did he discover a rich seam of gold underneath the church?
Ruins and cypress trees at the foot of the village
The jury is still out on most of this but the fires of intrigue and mystery are being stoked daily.
Another more sober theory is that AbbÃ© Saunier was fiddling the masses he celebrated, for which he was being paid – in fact towards the end of his life he was being investigated for this and for the out-measured wealth that he had amassed to be able to finance his projects.
One thing is for sure, he was buried almost as a pauper… he had always shared his secrets with his loyal housekeeper, Marie DÃ©narnaud, who, in turn promised to divulge the secrets on her deathbed.
AbbÃ© Saunier confessed, as all Catholics do to receive absolution for his sins, on his deathbed, to AbbÃ© RiviÃ¨re, who was so shocked by the revelations that Saunier exposed that he refused him absolution and the last rites.
What could have been so shocking to warrant this?
Some indeed, hint that Saunier was an agent of Sion.
AbÃ©Ã© Saunier’s Grave over looking the Pyrenees
Marie DÃ©narnaud had a stroke just before dying in 1953 which left her paralysed and unable to speak.
Apparently she was able to communicate a few mumbled words to NoÃ«l Cornu, saying that the people of Rennes le ChÃ¢teau were walking on gold and they didn’t even know it, that there was enough gold to feed them for a hundred years and still have plenty left.
Sundial on a house in the village
As you remember, Cornu, himself died, or was killed in 1953…
Taking the last words of marie DÃ©narnaud on face value, one can see today, with the volume of tourists coming to this tiny village in The Aude department of South West France, that they are in fact tapping into their own little goldmine.
Do go and visit, see for yourself and be taken under the magic spell that is Rennes Le ChÃ¢teau – even if you feel that this is a lot of nonsense just look around you at the beautiful countryside – I’m sure you will feel that it is worth the visit.
The gardens of AbbÃ© Saunier are a really nice place to sit in the shade overlooking the Pyrenees and the Aude valley and to ponder on what is around you, and perhaps what is beneath your feet.
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