Friday, August 08, 2014

Rennes-le-Château: The Saunière Museum

Trip to Aude: Day4
We woke up the the sound of birdsong at the Lavaldieu. Blandine was most annoyed. She finds nothing romantic about birdsong. She also finds nothing romantic about waking up in terror, several times at night, to the sound of ivy scraping against the window pane in the wind. She also finds nothing romantic in me finding romantic the things that wake her up. Blandine likes her sleep.
But she did find romantic the leisurely breakfast on the lawns of the Lavaldieu, gazing up at Bugarach enveloped in the clouds, the birds hopping on the lawn, and me hopping in and out of the breakfast room to get her toasts and things from the 100% certified organic breakfast buffet. At least we were agreed on that.
After breakfast, we hopped back into the car to drive over to Rennes-le-Château, to explore it in greater depth than had been possible the previous evening.
What mysteries awaited us, in this most mysterious of places in France?
The very first conundrum hit us right in the car park of the Saunière  Museum. It was this dark, circular stone tower, with an arrow signboard planted in front of it. The signboard carried the enigmatic letters: W C

What did it mean? Was it a code? The hard nosed skeptic would have said it pointed the way to the public toilets. But did it? Nothing is as it seems in this dark village. I went over to the pissoir indicated by the sign. It was leaking. It was dirty. There was a pool of water on the floor. It looked like a third-world toilet, the sort we have back home. A third-world public toilet in the midst of la belle France? Something did not add up here. I sploshed around in the water, but could find nothing in the short time available to me. I peed and left.

Jokes apart, the very first fascinating object you see in Rennes-le-Château really is in the car park of the Saunière  Museum. It is this prehistoric carved stone, which archaeologists believe had been used for human sacrifice in Neolithic times.

And if you think I'm still pulling your leg, here is a signboard that says so, in English French and German (click to enlarge). 
Of course, this had nothing to do with why I was here. The reason I had come to this tiny, otherwise insignificant village, dragging a very unhappy and reluctant Blandine in my wake, can be explained in two words: Dan Brown. And another three words: Da Vinci Code. And four other words: Holy Blood Holy Grail.
Frankly, I am not a huge fan of Dan Brown or Da Vinci Code. I'm not being a literary snob; historical thrillers are just not my cup of tea. I prefer my fiction to be humor, mostly of the Wodehousian variety. But I did read it from cover to cover. Being some sort of novelist myself, I just had to read the most successful bestseller of all times, if for nothing else than to find out what made it tick. It did not impress me much. But it did intrigue me enough to read the non-fiction book on which it was based, Holy Blood Holy Grail. Now that did impress me. That kind of book is right up my street. While historical fiction leaves me cold, I am a sucker for straight-up history books, especially ones that claim to be 'investigative history'. There is no better way to pass a lazy afternoon than to read pages and pages of bizarre claims, wild theories and allegations of dark conspiracies stretching back to the dark ages.
Now, every sentient being on this planet has read Da Vinci Code, including my dog Chikoo. But only about a quarter as much have read the book on which it is based. So for that submerged three-fourths, I'll provide a short summary, otherwise you'll simply not get the joke.
Dan Brown only mentions Rennes-le-Château in the passing, but this place is central to Holy Blood Holy Grail. The history of Rennes-le-Château stretches back to prehistoric times (if in doubt, refer the execution stone above). It was also known in Roman times. There was even a Cathar castle here, which was razed during the Cathar crusades, like the other castles mentioned in previous posts. But the village really shot into prominence in the 19th century, when Father Bérenger Saunière moved in as the parish priest. He started secret excavations around the church, and one fine day became extraordinarily wealthy (at least, by the standards of a village priest). He started all kinds of restoration works in the church, and built himself a fancy house beside the church. Questions began to be asked about his source of wealth. There were rumors he had found hidden treasure while digging around the church. At one point, he was investigated by the church, and asked to step down as the parish priest. He died in debt and obscurity, fighting court cases. It was after his death that the conspiracy stories started, fueled by his housekeeper. She claimed he really had found hidden treasure. But what treasure? There were theories that he had found treasure hidden by the Cathars, the Merovingian kings, the Knights Templars... the theories got wilder and wilder... he had found the lost arc of the Jews, he had found the Holy Grail (the cup Jesus drank from on the eve of the crucifixion), the blood of Christ, the bones of Christ... until finally, the wildest theory of all, proposed by Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. They claimed Saunière had not found treasure at all, as the word is commonly understood. Instead, he had found evidence that Mary Magdalene, the most prominent female disciple of Christ, had come over to South of France after the crucifixion. That she and Jesus had married shortly before the crucifixion, and that she was carrying the child of Christ. And the descendants of that child had founded the 5th century Merovingian dynasty in France. And that the source of Saunière's wealth was in fact the Vatican, who were paying him to shut up. Dan Brown took this theory and spun out of it the most successful bestseller of all times.
Anyhow, with this background, you now know why I had dragged Blandine moaning and grumbling to this remote village on a hill. There are three main attractions for the conspiracy tourist in Rennes-le-Château: The Saunière Museum, the Saunière Home -- the one that he built with his secret wealth, and the Church of Mary Magdalene -- where he did all his digging.
First up, the museum. I'll tell you right away that I detest museums. They usually disappoint me, and this one was no different. But there is no way to avoid this museum. To get into the Saunière Home, you have to go through the museum, paying the entry fee as stipulated on the door.
I'll cover the home and church in future posts, but here are pics from the museum:-

These are life-size replicas of the carved gravestones that Father Saunière had allegedly dug up in the church. The obscure markings on these stones are at the core of all the conspiracy theories. The conspiracy investigators tie themselves into tizzy thinking up wilder and wilder explanations for the alleged codes on these stones. The reason these stones are so disappointing is that they are all replicas. The originals are kept under lock and key at a secret location, to keep off crazy conspiracy theorists. Now, seeing the originals... that really might have been something exciting...
Other than these replicas, there is nothing else that is concrete in this museum. They have some of Saunière personal effects and books on display, and the church regalia he used in his service:-

And there is this rather grim tableau of  Saunière with his hosekeeper in Saunière's original home, before he became suspiciously wealthy and built the fancy one:-

Tomorrow: the Saunière Home and the Church of Mary Magadelene.

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