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The hill-top village of Rennes-le-Château


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A reader interested in a book making a reference to Rennes le Château will have a hard time choosing among the more then 100 books offered only by on this subject. Of course the best known are: "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, "The Sion Revelations, Inside the Shadowy World of Europe's Secret Masters" by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, for the more pragmatic Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" and of course Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" - that even though does not make any direct reference to the village it is still related to it by the names of some key character names like Jacques Sauniere and a man called Le Bezu (a nearby Cathar Castle called Le Bézu).
Situated atop of a 500m high hill above the Aude river valley, the mysterious tiny village of Rennes-le-Château - population 90 - was inhabited since prehistoric times. During roman occupation it was an Oppidum and later in the 5th century AD a Visigoth settlement. In the 8th century AD the name Rhedae, as the capital of the county of Razès, is first mention by one of the counsellor of the Frankish King Charlemagne to designate the settlement that becomes later Rennes-le-Château.
During the second millennium AD the little town falls little by little into oblivion. That is until the end of the 19th century when the priest Bérenger Saunière single-handedly brings international fame – and nowadays 20,000 tourists every year - to this corner of the world! Everything starts in 1885 when Sauniere is named abbot of Rennes le Chateau. At his arrival, finding the church little more than a ruin, he decides that it urgently needs renovation. For renovation money Sauniere finds a donor in the person of Countess de Chambord who gives him 3000 gold francs around 10,000 Euros in today’s money. With this money the restoration begins in 1887.
While restoring one of the poles that was supporting the altar - altar that was dating from the Visigoth’s times -Sauniere and his workers find a drawer containing some scrolls and some relics. The restoration work continues uneventful for two more years when the abbot asks the workers to dislocate a specific tile that was dating since Merovingian times (between the middle of the 5th century AD and the middle of the 8th century AD). When the tile was removed two things captured the attention of the workers before they were rapidly sent away and later replaced by other workers. The first thing was that the tile - known now as Knight’s Tile and visible nowadays in the village museum - was on its reversed side entirely engraved, looking like it was placed initially on its wrong side. Underneath this tile they caught a glimpse of a chest full of shining objects - objects that, they were later told by the abbot, are nothing more than copper coins.
This discovery marks however the turning point in Berenger Sauniere’s life.
The villagers start to notice strange things like seeing the priest during the night in the local cemetery, while the restoration of the church takes new proportions with the construction of a new garden and a new chamber in front of the church and with rich decorations including painted glass and statues and a strange holy-water stoup supported by a ...daemon (it is rare however not a unique feature in the churches in France)!
The restoration lasts until 1897. In the same year the abbot buys some land and builds the famous Tower of Magdalene (a neo-gothic structure with some interesting characteristics like: 22 steps ascend a spiral stair case to the top of the Tour Magdela, July 22 being the Feast Day of Saint Mary Magdalene, the window of the tower points directly to a cave called:"Magdeleine’s Cave") where he sets up his library, and also Villa Béthanie, a Renaissance style house where the priests entertains remarkable guests with expensive feasts. Sauniere starts to collect books and stamps, there are parcels from all over Europe coming to his address, to travel and spends inordinate amounts of money.
However this lifestyle in strident contrast with the little official income of a small village priest does not escape his superior Monsignor de Beauséjour, who decides to investigate but does not receive any cooperation from Sauniere. The Bishop accuses the abbot of trafficking of the Mass and decides on a disciplinary move of the defendant to the parish of Coustouge. Beauséjour is faced again with the refusal of Sauniere to be moved, this one preferring to resign - he gives in his resignation on February 1st, 1909 -than to move away from Rennes le Chateau!
The death of Berenger Sauniere is also surrounded by mystery. On the 17th of January 1917, while in his library, he falls victim to cerebral attack. Feeling his end near he asks for the abbot of the neighboring village of Couiza to take his confession. The story wants that the abbot, whose name was Rivière, spent a long time inside the room of the dieing Sauniere and left the confession in a distressed state!
Sauniere dies in the early hours of 22(again 22)! January 1917. With his death the secret of his sudden enrichment is to remain forever under the seal!
The mystery of the treasure of Rennes le Chateau - if it really existed! - is still unsolved. The ink does not cease to run: it was the Visigoths famous gold obtained from the pillage of Rome, or the treasure of the Templars, it was the Holly Grail or the Cathar Holly Grail, or the treasure that some aristocrats of the region hid during the French Revolution, or maybe the fortune of the Blanche de Castille – mother of the French King Louis IX known as Saint Louis
The enigma is heightened further by the mysterious death - a crime never solved - of the Abbot Jean Anotoine Maurice Gélis the priest of the village of Coustaussa, a village situate across the Sals valley from Rennes le Chateau (and the location of a Cathar Castle). The priest, a friend of Sauniere, was brutally murdered during the night between October 31st and November 1st 1897- "All Saints Day" in France - in his home. He was later found during the investigations that followed to possess large sums of money – incompatible with his revenue as a modest country priest - money kept everywhere in the house and that were not stolen.
Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.". And while the theories abound in explaining the sudden wealth of the once modest country priest, there are other voices - some well documented - that try to bring a matter-of-fact view on the situation.
There are some who claim that the whole story is the brainchild of Noel Corbu, the man who bought the abbot estate after his death. Corbu opened in 1955 a hotel named l’Hotel de la Tour in the Villa Bethanie and in order to attract clients concocted the whole story. These claims go further and explain that the troubles that Sauniere faced, his trial and forced resignation, were due to his trafficking of Masses - receiving money even for Masses he could not perform - but also to his anti-republican attitude, his opposition to the secularization of the society by the French Republic (he was temporarily divested of his duties between December 1885 and July 1886 for preaching against the Republic). The symbols he adorned the church reflect his political attitude and his opposition to the Government.
While the truth will probably be never known , Rennes le Chateau offers even to the most pragmatic visitor not only interesting historic sites - the Church of Saint Marie-Madeleine and its gardens, the house of the abbot Sauniere – frozen in time - now a museum, the Magdala Tower and the Villa Béthanie - but also the beautiful scenery of the Haute-Valléé de l’Aude.
Some 9 km east of Rennes-le-Chateau, in the valley, near the village of Rennes les Bains a strange rock shaped in the form of an armchair and called "Le fauteuil du diable" - the evil's armchair - attracts also the curiosity of the tourists.
The rock, as well the brook that flows nearby, were probably used by pagans in various religious celebration. The place was Christianized by engraving on the seat the sign of the Christian PAX (which probably does not prevent different cults members of worshiping here!).
Near this "devil's armchair" one can find the "Roches Tremblantes" or the trembling rocks - a group of stones placed in an improbable balance that are however quite stable and do not shake anymore!

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