It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views,
discovering unexpected connections between our starting points…
the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen,
although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view
gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.
~Albert Einstein, 1879 – 1955
For the final destination of our trip to southwestern France, my husband Tom and I had saved the mother lode of mythical lore, the fountainhead of legends. With great curiosity, Tom and I drove dead south alongside the tumbling waters of the River Aude, past Alet-les-Bain, reaching the town of Couiza, the launching pad to Rennes-le-Château and Cathar Country.
Snaking along a series of hairpin turns headed skyward, we eventually pulled into a large parking lot, where signs indicated that visitors needed to walk the rest of the way to the commune. We took a short-cut on a well-trod path through the woods and emerged just below the cluster of the couple of dozen buildings that crown the mountaintop and constitute the village.
As we trudged around a curve in the dusty road, a banner proclaimed “Remember, happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It depends solely on what you think—Buddha.” It proved to be the first of several pieces of Buddhist art we saw, with statues of the fat-bellied Eastern teacher visible in gardens, windows and shelves of the local bookstore.
It was only late morning, but our stomachs were growling, and we were happy to see the wrought-iron gates of a garden restaurant open. We sat in the sun and shared a big plate of cheeses and pate. The courtyard was rimmed with leafy trees and strewn with small tables, all of which were dressed in bright yellow table clothes imprinted with a paisley design. Hanging on the wall was a red banner sporting the outline of the Cross of Toulouse in gold.
The image was ubiquitous throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon region, found on flags, in stone, as jewelry, within stained glass, even as graffiti. While technically a feature of the coat-of-arms of the Counts of Toulouse during the Middle Ages, the distinctive shape had come to symbolize the Cathar resistance during the Albigensian Crusades.
The Cathars were Gnostics, and their beliefs are thought to have come originally from Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire by way of travelers as they journeyed along the trade routes. The movement had flourished in the Languedoc region in the 12th and 13th centuries. Occitan or langue d’oc is a Latin-based Romance language in the same way as Spanish, Italian or French; it is from this tongue that the region gets its name. Catalan is a language very similar to Occitan and there are quite strong historical and cultural links between Occitania and Catalonia.
The restaurant occupied one quadrant of the mountain top, with the Church of St. Magdalen and its property encompassing the other three-fourths of the plateau. From the threshold of the La Table de L’Abbe, we looked across a small lane at the sprawling stone buildings in warm peach hues, offset by the deep greens of pine and shrubbery. Religious statuary bejeweled the building’s walls.
Above the front door of the church was an inscription: Terribilis est locus iste or, “this is a place of awe.” Entering, Tom and I both had a visceral reaction to the figure greeting us in the dimly-lit chapel—a sculpture of a truly evil-looking devil served as the stand for the holy water stoup. Above him, a flock of angels in pastel robes had puzzled expressions on their faces, and one held her hand to her head in a posture that spoke of being overwhelmed. In the opposing corner, across a black and white checkerboard floor, was a statue of Jesus, in the same pose and with similar garb as the horned monster.
I later read an interpretation of this decorative scheme as representing the Cathar dualism, with the opposing forces of good and evil engaged in a spiritual game of chess. The Cathar sect believed there existed within mankind a spark of divine light, which had fallen captive to the prison of the material world. The path to spiritual liberation meant breaking those enslaving bonds, a gradual process accomplished in a unique way by each individual.
True to its introduction, the chapel did indeed fill me with awe—but it was not a place where I would have sought comfort. I was glad to move on to Villa Bethania and more earthly affairs. The Renaissance-style villa was the home of characters whose activities were said to have threatened the very foundations of Catholicism and inspired a pantheon of conspiracy theories. The Abbe Berenger Sauniere and his housekeeper Marie Denaraud, both born in the mid-19th century, went to their graves with the secret of the fabulous wealth that afforded them a lifestyle at odds with their rural, mountain village existence—not to mention any holy vows taken. The pair built and lavishly entertained in their less-than-humble abode, complete with two adjacent Neo-gothic towers and a park with fountains.
Out of the mystery of the source of Sauniere’s riches, others have woven a web of intrigue, stringing together the descendents of Jesus and Mary Magdelan, the Priory of Scion, the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, among other enigmas. Rennes-le-Chateau figures centrally in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and references to the village are woven throughout Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
Tom and I agreed to wander at our own pace, a common pact we made given my penchant for following where my photographer’s eye took me. My mind swirling with the myriad mysteries that seem to intersect in Rennes-le-Chateau, I saw a sign for an artist’s exhibit outside an old building, and decided to take a look. The works of two painters were on display, striking renditions of the dramatic countryside, in very different styles.
Climbing a narrow staircase, I met Jill Ghis, one of the painters. She told me that she had left western France and moved here two years ago, quitting a teaching career to paint full time. I asked what had attracted her to the area.