Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Rennes-le-Chateau & A Twilight Encounter

Rooftops of Rennes-le-Chateau

Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is a friend of J's. He still lives in the Languedoc and gives talks and guided tours of the area. His prodigious knowledge of the history, geography, literature and mythology of the area means that he is frequently sought out by
researchers who are writing books or making films and documentaries.

With Henry's backing and encouragement, J and her husband, who sadly died a few years ago, started the Saunière Society, named after Bérenger Saunière, the priest at Rennes-le-Chateau (from 1885 - 1917) who suddenly became extraordinarily wealthy. When I first became aware of the Society, in the late 1990s, Henry was a regular speaker, drawing large crowds with his charismatic stories of his researches and discoveries in the Languedoc. Nowadays he does not travel so much.  

For most English-speaking readers Holy Blood, Holy Grail was where they first learned about the sudden wealth of Bérenger Saunière and the mystery of Rennes. (Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code acknowledges Holy Blood, Holy Grail as one of its sources.) This story has intrigued many people since then and several books have been written about Saunière and the mystery, some offering theories as to his sudden wealth, some linking him with Cathar treasure, others with treasure buried there when it was known as Rhedae, and said to be the capital of the Visigoth kingdom, or buried by more recent (19th century) rich people of the priestly or royal class, before they fled to Spain because of the French Revolution. There are other theories too, leaning more to religious or spiritual practices.

Inside the church at Rennes: Saint Roch, patron saint of pilgrims

I only know the most basic facts about the place, the priest and the mystery, but I enjoy listening to others who are funds of information about all of them and clearly find it all fascinating. The book that I read (after Holy Blood, Holy Grail) in order to find out more about this particular subject that arouses such interest and emotion, is Vi Marriot's The Fool's Coat.

Clearly written, Vi's book gives you the facts and the story and suggests possible answers to the mystery without wandering off into partisan or over-dramatic speculation and I would definitely recommend it. Available here and also available from Saunière Society,   which has the biggest selection of all books connected with this subject, and many others too.
The Society I should add, has meetings in various parts of the UK, with speakers on an incredibly wide range of subjects. Just to mention a very few of my favourites – Stephen O'Shea on the history of the Cathars, Lyn Picknett on Giordano Bruno and John Dee, Sylvia Franke on the Cathars and the Grail, Geoff Palmer on the history of the slave trade in Scotland and Terry Boardman  who takes the long view on history, referencing the work of Rudolf Steiner. 

The website of the Saunière Society gives details of forthcoming meetings.

Stories after all are what make us as human beings, what fire our imaginations, inspire and enhance our consciousness, infuse our lives with richness and possibilities. 'Who we are' – beyond our bodies, which don't change very much – are surely the stories that we tell about ourselves – to ourselves or to others – stories that come from our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and relationships, our actions, impulses and desires. We are brought up on stories if we're lucky, and continue to be fascinated by them, listen to them, tell our own, share them with others. Whether or not we believe them to be true, that's another matter, but the effect they have on us and our imaginations, that's surely one of the joys of life.


Inside the Villa Bethanie, built by Sauniere in early 1900s

Rennes-le-Chateau – or  Rhedae as it was known then – is said by some to have been the capital of the Visigoth kingdom and if so it must have been an important and significant place, and surely, so I imagined, much bigger than it is now, a small hilltop village. Though the interest of the past few decades has certainly put it back on the map, for treasure hunters of both the literal as well as the spiritual kind.

From the top of the hill at Rennes we looked out across the surrounding hills with the villages and small towns in the valleys. It is impressive landscape, even on an overcast day, the thick grey wads of clouds pacing across the sky.

I was last here 26 years ago. It seemed to seethe then, with a manic energy. Huge banners were stretched across the streets, massive placards shouted to you about 'the secret' – the Church, the priest, the treasure – and you were invited to go and view the films about it, visit the 'terrible' Church, buy the books etc. The narrow streets were packed with people. We did not stay long.

Today, all these years later, there's hardly anyone in the streets, a few visitors only in the church, the Museum with its brand new visitor centre, and the bookshop. J has been coming here twice a year for decades and knows lots of people, the bookshop owner and the owner of the restaurant, Le Jardin de Marie, with its wide terrasse on the top of the hill. The owner, Morgan Marrot – I've known him since he was a little boy, says J – is fun and friendly, full of laughter. 

Several friends join us for lunch here. We sit inside as it's a little chilly. The food is marvellous and the scent of the wood-burning stove brings back so many good memories of other times I've spent in the south of France.

View over the surrounding countryside from la Tour Magdala in Rennes

In the evening, back in Alet, I go for a walk on my own, one of the GR routes which follows the river for a while though the trail is high up, with a view overlooking it.

On both sides of the path the steep hillside is thickly wooded. The clouds have almost cleared and the evening is fine. The path crosses over a bridge – underneath it is the railway bridge, which soon disappears into a tunnel in the mountainside and below that, is the road and the river Aude.


There's a small tower-like building beside the path just before it crosses the bridge. I imagine it has something to do with the railway. It's cream coloured plaster wall is painted with red graffiti – OCCITANIA, LIBERTARIA!  it announces.

I don't want to be out walking in the dark, so I follow the trail for about an hour then turn back. The evening is turning dusky, mysterious, the mountains in the distance, deep green against the pinkish sky. 

On my right, on the steep slope between the path and the river, I hear a rustling sound, quite loud. It continues, as if something is trampling along a parallel path among the trees and bushes. I stop and listen. And then suddenly, only a few metres in front of me, a dark stocky shape jumps across the path and immediately disappears uphill into trees and undergrowth on the other side. 

A wild boar! It's the first time I've ever seen one. What a gift!

Thursday, 16 June 2016

French Weather - Le Temps qu'il Fait

Alet-les-Bains, Languedoc, France

Every morning the abbey bells would ring at 7 am. The first morning they woke me up. After that, I was already awake, anticipating their reassuring sounds, as if they were the morning itself, the signal for life to start moving and rejoice in the new day. Silenced during the night, because of complaints from local people, by 7 am they were uncontainable, bursting out of confinement, throwing off the covering of sky, the 7 ringing notes followed by a carillon, fêting the morning, the light, the bird-song, the sounds of the river Aude.

But there was not much movement in the village – an occasional car or motor scooter, a few residents walking small dogs on leads.

The café opposite the abbey didn't open till 8.30 so sometimes on my own, sometimes with C, I walked round the village, with its ancient walls and leaning, timber-fronted buildings, before having morning coffee and croissant, then heading to l'Evêché, where J and L were staying, in the opulent building with its creaking wooden floorboards, carpeted in the middle, and that very French smell of ancient sun-warmed wood, polished with beeswax and laundered, dried and cosseted by time.

C expressed surprise that his French was not as good as he thought it was. I was not surprised that mine had sunk to my mind's floor like sediment, needing reviving, cajoling, persuasion. Attention, that magical key. Like the church bells, it prods, startles, revives, rejoices you. It breathes life or at least allows breath to flow, stimulates movement, desire, the exhilaration of limbs moving along paths, movement of light and shade, convinces a drooping flower-stem to straighten, like the rose I brought back from Rouen. Hunched over after travelling 24 hours overland in my bag I thought it had expired but after I placed it in water, after a few hours, its thick green stem had straightened again.

Sitting outside l'Evêché, under a massive copper beech tree, we would plan the day. Where we would go, who we would meet up with and where – most importantly in France – we would have lunch.

C and I, at the camping-site next to the Abbey, were always up first. L, still jet-lagged from her flight from California, appeared last. J was always already sitting under the tree drinking coffee, by the time C and I arrived. I consulted the weather on my tablet. It was not the best. For several days, skies were grey and one day it rained heavily, though only for a while. But it was not nearly as bad as in the north, which was experiencing devastating floods. From the north, P emailed me. You've chosen an interesting time to come he said, fuel shortages, demonstrations, strikes and floods.

I come here at the same time every year and it's always hot and bright sunshine. I've never known it like this before says J.


But we were in France. We'd not experienced any difficulty in getting petrol. So what if the skies were grey, the clouds bunched and rolled, parted briefly then fused together again, messengers from the north, bringing their rumours of swamped cities and villages, fields, rivers turning into lakes and people evacuated from their homes. Our river was peaceable. The mountains surrounded it, wooded and comforting. We were lucky.

Overlooking Alet-les-Bains

Our first outing would be to Rennes-le-Chateau.