The French Connection

THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN

This week I thought I would introduce you to the Magic Mountain or the Pic de Bugarach which is close to Rennes-le-Chateau . The mountain is a bit of a geological freak in that its upper layers are considerably older than the lower ones owing to some upheaval of the Pyrenees way, way back in time. This gives the mountain its other name – the Upside-down mountain. The rock is limestone and a network of underground caverns and a river have occupied the hearts and minds of numerous believers in hidden worlds and magic going-ons for several centuries.

Pic de Bugarach

Pic de Bugarach

Most recently is the belief that the mountain provides a vast underground parking lot for alien spacecraft. According to the Mayan Apocalypse prophecy our world as we know it was to end in December 2012. That I missed the event is entirely due to my own lack of responsibility. However, those in the know (and more responsible), knew that some nice aliens would be on hand to airlift anyone on the mountain to safety. Between January and July 2011, the farming village of Bugarach (pop.200)received an influx of over twenty thousand visitors anxious to stake their place in the queue. Reports of strange rituals and men creeping around in white dresses emerged and the village made headlines in worldwide media.There was talk of a mass suicide and eventually after a government inquiry, the police blocked off access to the mountain. I don’t know if there is still a queue of hopeful emigrés waiting to hitch a ride.

Go back a bit further in time and we arrive at the story of Daniel Betex, a Swiss and a respectable security guard by day and explorer/truth seeker in his spare time. He was interested in the Medieval Cathar sect and fossicked about on the mountain, digging in to its secrets. He found a blocked entrance – possibly the gateway to the centre of the earth. He opened up the entrance and found the underground river with some sort of “mandmade” quay and other stone structures. But who lived and worked there? Betex then started to explore the basement of the ruined Chateau de Bugarach which, along with the village has Cathar associations, (those pesky Cathars – they get everywhere!) However, in the bowels of the chateau Betex found stones with carvings showing a container on a stretcher. Let’s not jump to conclusions but…does the Arc of the Covenant come to mind? No? Well not for me either. Yet it did attract the attention of Israeli general, Moshe Dayan and the Mossad (Israel secret service).

Chateau de Bugarach

Chateau de Bugarach

In 1988, Betex became really, really excited and wrote to a colleague about a fabulous deposit. Of what? A pile of fossilsed Woolly Mammoth poo? Who knows? He wrote to a colleague that he only needed four or five more days and then “you will be fabulously rich”. Alas, three days later the poor man was dead and his fabulous deposit died with him. Naturally there are questions about his death and different causes attributed. An interesting side point is that the French authorities concreted over the basement of the chateau where Betex had found the stones and refused to give permission for his work to be continued. All I will say is that in my experience the French are not particularly health and safety conscious.

The mountain is shrouded in mysteries as well as mist. It is said to give off a strange energy which I, being an insensitive soul, cannot say I noticed. Yet planes are not allowed to fly over it since it makes their instruments go haywire but being practical as well as insensitive I wonder if magnetism might not be the culprit rather than a bunch of aliens protecting their parking lot. Down the centuries, stories and legends have accumulated. There are some said to have secret knowledge about the secrets of the mountains but being secret, no-one actually knows of what this secret knowledge comprises. That’s the problem with secrets isn’t it?

But what an inspiration it has been to authors, particularly to French writers such as Gaston Leroux, George Sand, André Malraux and many others. Not forgetting of course Jules Verne with “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Clovis Dardentor” in which he wrote about a secret entrance leading to an underground world where a mythical race lived. More recently, the mountain and, I guess, its history is thought to have provided Stephen Spielberg with the inspiration for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Perhaps it will prove an inspiration for one of the stories in my next book but I can’t say because it’s a secret.

Chateau Roquefixade

The country side around where I live is dotted with ruined castles built on and within natural high outcrops of rock and escarpment. This is Cathar country and these strongholds played an important role in protecting and sheltering the members of the persecuted sect.

In the 13th century the north of what we know today as France went to war with the south in a crusade against this sect – a crusade that lasted for nearly half a century. The ostensible reason for the crusade was the extermination of the Cathar sect which had a strong following in the south at every level of society. When Pope Innocent III’s personal legate, Peter of Castelnau was murdered (allegedly on the orders of Count Raymond of Toulouse whom he had just excommunicated) he launched the crusade offering all who participated indulgences (pardons for sins committed) as well as the property and lands of the heretics. This set the scene for the invasion of this southern part of France (the Languedoc) with Simon de Montfort, a northern noble leading the charge for wealth, land and titles.

The crusade was typified by small-scale skirmishes, bloody guerrilla warfare and, more significantly, sieges against both the large fortifications of e.g.Carcassonne and Narbonne but also of the remote and relatively inaccessible hilltop fortifications that were dotted all over the surrounding countryside. One such is the Chateau at Roquefixade just a few kilometres from where I live. Built high up on a cliff overlooking the village and using the natural rock and fissures of the site, the chateau dates from the early 11th century. The current ruins are later than this.

Roquefixade Chateau

Roquefixade Chateau

The ascent to the castle is steep and winds around through tussocky grass, scrub and rocky outcrops. Nearing the summit and the castle itself there is just a narrow path roughly hewn from the rock. A hair-raising vertical drop on one side to the valley below waits for the unwary. Once negotiated, this path leads to the remains of the original stone gate tower and on into the lower court (yard) of the castle.

Roquefixade - gateway to the court

Roquefixade – gateway to the court

The view from the ruins is breath-taking. The valley of Lesponne with its small villages nestled in green fields stretches out below; beyond the valley, the D’Olmes mountains and the chain of the High Pyrannees poke their snow-dusted peaks into a clear blue sky.

The valley below Roquefixade

The valley below Roquefixade

This chateau and its village played but a small role during the crusade. It is known that one of those involved in the murder of the papel legate sheltered here with his family and the village is reputed to have had many who followed the Cathar teachings. Other than this and, in comparison with its neighbour – Montsegur castle perched on an even more inaccessible peak- Roquefixade had a relatively quiet time.

Following the fall of Monsegur and the end of the crusade, Roquefixade became the property of the French king and one of a chain of castles across the region to keep an eye on the activities of the count of Foix, the ruler of an independent county in the south (France was still not completely unified at this time). The castle survived until Louis XIII, in 1632 spent a night there on his way to watch an execution in Toulouse, after which he ordered the castle’s destruction. It does seem rather ungrateful of him.

roquefixade from the village

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MYTHS AND LEGENDS

I’ve been delving into mysteries, myths and legends this week in search of new material for a second book of spooky stories. It appears I’m surrounded by them (mystery, myths et al, that is) and they all centre on one tiny village atop a 1500ft hill not many miles from here in the Languedoc – the village of Rennes-le-Chateau. You would think that nothing much ever happened in this ancient hilltop village hidden in the clouds from the valley below but you would be mistaken.

Rennes-le-Chateau

Rennes-le-Chateau

Treasure – Secret Geometry – Coded Documents – The Merovingians – Knights Templar – Cathars – The Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah – maybe even the secret of my lost waistline – they all find a place in the history of the village depending on your own favourite theory.

Perhaps the most well-know of these mysteries concerns Berenger Sauniere the priest of the village who, in a strange turn of fate soared from rags to riches almost overnight at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Berenger Sauniere

Berenger Sauniere


He bought land, built himself an estate including the Tour Magdala which he used as a library and the Villa Bethania, restored the church and filled it with ecclesiastic artifacts, stained-glass windows and the perplexing “benetier” (water basin) held up by a remarkable devil.
Benitier

Benitier

All these works were carried out in the name of his housekeeper Marie Denarnaud.

When called to account for his increased wealth and other actions, he havered somewhat claiming the money came from donations. He was charged with simony (taking money for masses that were never given) and suspended from duty. Nevertheless he continued to live in Rennes as a free-lance priest. The village council complained about other un-priestly activities such as, along with his housekeeper, digging up graves at dead of night. It is claimed that he found coded documents which, when decoded, showed X marking the spot of a lot of lovely loot and this was the source of his wealth.

After his death, his housekeeper sold the estate to a wily hotelier, Noel Corbu, promising him that when she was about to breathe her last she would reveal a secret to him that would make him both rich and powerful. Alas the workings of fate. A few weeks before her death Marie had a stroke or seizure leaving her bereft of both voice and the ability to put pen to paper. The secret died with her. The hotelier, nothing daunted – well perhaps just a little – used the story of hidden treasure in a remarkable PR coup. His new restaurant – the renovated Villa Bethania – was in need of customers so he used the story to draw in the punters – even going so far as to record the tale (with suitable dramatic embellishments) for his new customers to hear. He took the line that the hidden treasure was that belonging to Blanche of Castille – the Spanish wife of Louis VIII. From these beginnings the Treasure story snowballed bringing treasure hunters from all over the world to the little hilltop village.

Whose treasure? Theories abound. Was it the Visigoths loot (Rennes-le-Chateau was the centre of the Visigoth kingdom);how about Cathar treasure smuggled here after the fall of the last Cathar bastion Montsegur; could it be the booty of the Knights Templar brought to the village before they were all killed off? Who knows?

However what I do know is that local history provides rich pickings for a writer whether presented as fact or fiction. Since Sauniere’s time a catalogue of popular books have fallen from the presses, fact and fiction, culminating in Dan Brown’s best seller “The Da Vinci Code” with around 80 million copies sold.

Oh why, oh why didn’t I get there first?