Whilst exploring the Aude department, I accidentally stumbled across the village of Rennes-le-Château. Reading the astonishing history of Father Bérenger Saunière and his mysteriously gained fortune in my guide book, was enough to lure me there for a visit. Just like the other 120,000 visitors that drive up the winding road each year in the hope of revealing some of the enigmas of this small hilltop village.
Arriving at Rennes-le-Château, Chéri and I parked our car for 2 euros for the day at the parking lot right at the entrance of the village. I was quite eager to climb the steps up to the village to discover the story of Father Bérenger Saunière. This initially poor parish priest installed himself in Rennes-le-Château in 1885. Soon enough, questions arose over how he could have gained enough of a fortune to make costly renovations to the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine and its presbytery. People believed that he had stumbled upon some sort of treasure while doing the renovations. Chéri and I started our visit by going into this Mary Magdalene church. It felt kind of exciting to enter such a historic place with hidden messages engraved in the stones.
Allegedly, the only person that Father Saunière shared his secret with was his faithful housekeeper Marie Dénarnaud. His treasure gave him enough resources to buy additional land. He also built a beautiful villa called Villa Bethany in the renaissance style for him and Marie. It now hosts a museum- le Domaine de l’Abbé Saunière- which you can enter through the presbytery next to the church. The museum tells you more about Father Saunière’s story through information boards (also in English) and scale models. It also hosts some of the original objects that may have contained the treasure, like the Carolingian Knights’ Stone and altar pillar. You can enter a part of Villa Bethany and its private chapel, which is decorated with vivid stained glass renovated in 2003.
Besides the villa, Father Saunière added a beautiful garden to the estate in Rennes-le-Château. Here, you will find the emblematic Magdala Tower, constructed at the same time as Villa Béthanie in 1901. This Gothic Revival style tower served as the priest’s library and office. The museum ticket also gives you entrance to the garden where you can climb up to the panoramic terrace at the top of the tower. Gazing over the Bals des Couleurs valley, gave us a breathtaking view of the legendary Pech de Bugarach and even the Pyrenees.
Although Rennes-le-Château is only a small village with less than 100 inhabitants, Chéri and I spent an interesting few hours exploring it. Father Saunière died in 1917, and Marie Dénarnaud took the secret of his treasure to her grave in 1953. So, to this day, it is uncertain what his find was. Was it a religious artefact or a pot of gold coins? Whether or not you believe in Father Saunière’s treasure, the truth is that the enigma he created still attracts many people to the village. His story has also appealed to the imagination of many writers (more than 700 books!) and filmmakers, of which Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code might be the most well known. His character Jacques Saunière reminds me a lot of Abbot Bérenger Saunière… I’m already re-reading!