Why does the hilltop village of Rennes-le-chateau in the Corbières attract so many visitors, books, films ?
It began in the 1950's when a businessman decided to open a restaurant in Rennes-le-Château after the second World War. Times were hard and so he put a tape recording, later a video recording, on the tables of the restaurant as a gift to his clients.
The recordings explained that the local priest in the village, Bérenger Saunière, who served there from 1885 to 1917, had discovered a fortune which was – although sources were never revealed – the money hoarded by Blanche of Castille to pay the ransom for her son, Louis IX, who was being held captive by the Saracens in the 11th century. Or maybe he had found the long lost Treasure of Jerusalem?
The story hit the Parisian newspapers and Rennes-le-Château became a hot tourist spot.
To find it, you take the D118 road south from Carcassonne, pass through Limoux and Alet-les-Bains and arrive at Couiza. Once there you cross the river Sals and look for a small sign-post pointing you to the left as you leave Couiza, for Rennes-le-Château. The road winds upwards, with a wonderful new view on every bend, until you reach the village with its church, ruined château, two restaurants, two bookshops (with books in English), and the Domain of Bérenger Saunière, the priest who discovered a fortune.
He arrived at the village in 1885 and started renovating his church. He decorated it with brightly coloured paintings, many, apparently, based on masonic symbolism.
The story of the day he discovered a secret doorway and went down into the crypt, is masked by legend; but he did discover something valuable enough to enable him to build a house and live a lifestyle rivalling the wealthiest minor nobility of southern France.
In 1969 a book was published in French, telling an amazing tale of secret documents with coded messages being discovered by Saunière, of mysterious murders of people who knew the secret, of caches of gold, of adulterous alliances, of links to the Royalty of Europe, of the amazing story that, via the Merovingians, the rightful kings of France, the descendant of Jesus himself was alive and well and living in Paris.