Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A French village of myth and mystery

In the secret business of hunting for treasure, many have come searching for the hidden riches of Rennes-le-Chateau, a village about a 90-mile drive from the Spanish border that has become the setting for a kind of Gallic "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Spouting theories involving everything from the Holy Grail to extraterrestrials, the treasure hunters have been known to abandon jobs and family to come here because of their passion — or, as others would say, their delusion.

Even though no treasure has ever been found, not even a candlestick, the earth around the village has witnessed cave-ins from tunneling hunters. For years, small hillside explosions were common as the seekers resorted to dynamite.

Now, when you walk into the village, a sign warns: "Digging is forbidden."

"I think we are the only village in all of France with a sign like that at its entrance," said Mayor Alexandre Painco. "There are not many places like it. We attract all different types of people."

The village of fewer than 100 people, most of them farmers, was forced to build a large parking lot just outside the town walls to accommodate the 150,000 visitors who come every year to learn about its famous mystery and wander winding streets with old stone homes dating to the 8th century.

The mystery goes back more than 100 years. At the end of the 19th century, Rennes-le-Chateau's parish priest, Francois Berenger Sauniere, shocked his neighbors by suddenly spending a fortune renovating the town church and building elaborate gardens, a villa and a neo-Gothic tower, still standing today. His meager salary could not have accounted for the spending, but his strange behavior — digging at night in the village graveyard, and talk of hidden parchments he discovered — seemed to hint at an explanation. As common belief has it, he had discovered treasure.

It wasn't until the 1950s that word spread more widely of the old priest's unaccounted wealth, the source of which he had refused to divulge when asked by church superiors in Paris who suspected he was soliciting money to say extra Masses, in violation of canon law. One villager's account led to another, and a legend was born.

But faux-historical novels about the Sauniere mystery did most of the heavy lifting in the building of the legend. They wove in explanations linked to the area's rich history, which includes 2,500-year-old Celtic and Gallic tribes; heretical medieval Cathar priests and warriors, believed to have hidden treasure of their own; conquering and gold-pillaging Romans; their tough-skinned Visigoth successors, who kept a capital city in nearby Toulouse; and early French monarchs.

Children here grow up learning how these kingdoms, and perhaps their own ancestors, carried back booty from Jerusalem and Rome.

The Dan Brown bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" draws inspiration from the mystery: Its opening chapter is about a Frenchman named Sauniere, who is killed for secrets about the location of the Holy Grail.

Philippe Marlin, local editor and bookstore owner, says it is no wonder there are so many legends about Rennes-le-Chateau.

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