21. Rennes-le-Chateau


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May 10th, 2011
21. Rennes-le-Chateau

One of the reasons for being in this particular region is to spend a bit of time touring the country of the Cathars…… the romantic history of the Knights Templar and the very intense history that was all happening around here in the middle ages.

It is Sunday, so – off we go on the early coach-train to Couiza. Though thickly forested hills and small church-steepled towns and villages, it’s a sightseeing trip of its own.  The coach sets us down at a central cafe in Couiza, where for the price of a coffee the owner calls us a taxi. Up the hill for 4,5 kms along a winding road, and suddenly at the top we come to the ancient hilltop village of Rennes le Chateau.

The village has a magnificent setting, the view from a small car park at the top of the hill is breathtaking, one can even see the distant peaks of the Pyrenees. In the old days the town formed one link in a chain of frontier lookouts or hill forts between Spain and France. Various historical studies concluded that there could have been more than one treasure hidden here for various reasons. Queen Blanche of Castile came past, fleeing the Saracens with a mule-train carrying her huge dowry – and left with a much smaller mule-train. Tales of a hidden tunnel connecting the church and the castle. The Cathars and the Templars in their turn both apparently hid objects of sacred significance (which would have been things like altar-pieces and reliquaries). There was even a story of Roman gold, plunder from some campaign of ancient times, cached in the limestone caves nearby.

The tumbledown chateau at Rennes. Legend has it that treasure is hidden somewhere beneath it.

The castle itself is ‘private property’ and no visits are allowed, which was a bit of a surprise (and disappointment). It is in considerable disrepair, one of its towers clearly crumbling, roof tiles dislodged on another. But a small satellite dish is sticking out of a ground-floor window and there’s an unkempt veggie garden, evidence of current occupation. What a huge waste of a mediaeval castle in such an historic spot and perennial tourist magnet.
For here is where a strange events took place, the source of an internationally famous mystery. Before all that, it was once an ancient Visigoth town called Rhedae, overlooked by a hill fort which was then taken over by Romans etc., and much later became a stronghold of the Cathars. At various times the entire town was razed to the ground, and nothing remains of it but some low stone ruined walls around the foot of the hill. But the modern-day attraction to the place was ignited when the 18th century Abbé Berenger Sauniere arrived to take over the parish in what was then an impoverished and obscure village perched on the top of the crag with its bare and tumble-town little church and its couple of hundred inhabitants who scratched a living rearing sheep. A few years later, the curé (priest) was rolling in dosh, had rebuit and adorned the church, built himself a very smart mansion next to the presbytery, a private library and greenhouse with a magnificent view over the valleys below, and started holding lavish dinner parties. He became well connected with politicians and the regional aristocracy, and dished out largesse all over the place, including gifting dowries for the local lasses. All this on the small earnings of an obscure village curé?

Father Sauniere's little church

The little church, which is at the epicentre of the mystery, was easy to find, and there was the phrase carved in stone, in latin above the door: ‘This is a place of terrible things (awe), and should be called the royal court of god’. Inside there were the 12 colourful wooden saints (and a holy water font held up by a scary looking devil). The old presbytery adjoining the church has been turned into a museum. Exhibits and photographs and some artefacts are on display, detailing the history from early times to the more recent fortunes of the town, the priest and the tall tales.

Stone inscription above the apse: 'Here be terrible things..."

The story is that Abbé Sauniere discovered a vast treasure of some sort while carrying out some early renovations to the little church. He never did let on, even to his jealous superiors in the church, and he died with the mystery intact. Several learned books were produced after years of study, diggings and research by various scholars, and several conspiracy-type theories emerged. Even the modern novelist Dan Brown (argh) has used the mystery and conjecture that surrounds the little church of Rennes-le-Chateau. Of course the legend also has it that the treasure was so vast (and of religious significance) that Sauniere couldn’t spend it all or get rid of it without risking arrest, so – he HID IT AGAIN, leaving clues and cyphers behind. This is mostly why thousands of visitors every year come to the village and church, looking for clues. The legend was encouraged and embroidered upon at some length by a local restaurant owner – good for business as you can imagine.
I found a little piece of the church masonry on the ground under the eaves, and have pocketed it, for luck!

PIano melodies, a toot and lunch. In background, church on left, top of chateau on right

After examining the curious little church, we found not treasure but a friendly little restaurant a little further uphill. It had a terrace garden with tables under a spreading chestnut tree (in flower). Cassoulet was on the menu but we were not tempted! Instead I had a little goat’s cheese covered in honey and warmed to melting point, served with crusty bread and some local rosé wine. James had the ‘croque-monsieur’, i.e. French version of a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.

Fromage de chevre au miel, with some nice rose wine du pays d'Oc

There was a pianist tinkling away in an expert manner, and a small card on the tables explained that he would play one’s favourite tune on request – donations welcome. It also said he was a long-term visitor, an English ex concert-pianist with a string of CDs and a couple of Royal command performances on his CV. And indeed it was very pleasant to be serenaded while lunching in sun-dappled shade and speculating on whether treasure could be found right under our feet. Later a rather lovely soprano arrived to sing for us. From our table we could see both the church and the towers of the castle, which suggested that the area we were sitting in must have been fortified at some point too.

The crumbling towers of the chateau at Rennes-le-Chateau (in background)

Roses are out everywhere, the broom is in bloom and the countryside looks more like early summer than spring. Lovely ride back through the rural landscapes and vineyards, to Carcassonne.

The next being our last day, we took advantage of more sunshine to visit the mediaeval castle itself, a fortified fortress-within-a-fortress.

Carcassonne: View from the keep, of the outer and last-ditch fortification, you can see the drawbridge

Opting for the audio-guide, we wandered, fascinated, around the restored castle, its keep and rooms and battlements. Not everything has been restored; there are whole floors missing in the ‘living’ section of the castle. But there is a scale model of what the entire complex looked like before the castle fell into disrepair and the townsfolk started using the place as a handy cut-stone quarry.

Courtyard inside the castle - once here were stables etc.

Incredibly, there was no well ensuring a water supply inside the castle until after the defending cathars were beseiged by the king’s men and had to give up. After which, the king had one dug in the central courtyard. Doh……!

Veiw along the battlements to 2-tier drawbridge tower and beyond to the keep and treasure house

1 Comment

  • Keith Grenville

    01 Jun 2011

    Wonderful to enjoy and appreciate your travels vicariously. Your impressions of Florence and the pictures had me salivating as it has always been one of my finest places to visit, as you know, and I must think about a return visit – maybe next year.
    Your photographs are great, even the ones with James glass in hand, and Jan you definitely get 15 out of 10 for your writing. I feel a travel book coming on and you have the title as well – ” Handbags, Knockers, this and that”. Enjoy!

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