Rennes-Le-Château is a small hilltop village in south-western France. This commune in the Aude department of the Languedoc region is about five kilometres to the south of Couiza. A commune is the lowest unit in French administration, equivalent to a civil township in USA. A department in France is a subnational administrative unit between the commune and the administrative regions.
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Rennes-Le-Château Through The Ages
Rennes-Le-Château was once a prehistoric encampment and a Roman colony later. It was a part of the Septimania during the 6th and 7th centuries. It came under Visigoth control during 500-600 CE.
A medieval castle dating back to 1002 once existed in this little village. But no remains of it exist above ground. The ruins one can still see are of castles from the 17th and 18th centuries. These castles played a critical role in the battles between the Catholic Church and the Cathars. These castles also guarded the explosive border with Spain.
Visitors today can see how the modern architecture blends with the traces of prehistoric occupation. The Roman temple and the structures bear testimony to the period of Roman colonization. This blend makes Rennes-Le-Château different from other villages in the region.
The Breathtaking Scenery
Rennes-Le-Château is a scenic beauty. Serrated ridges, rocky limestone plateaus with large underground caves and deep river gorges form the terrain of the village. Seen at a distance are the Cevennes Mountains on the north-eastern side of the village and the Pyrenees Mountains on the south.
The hilltop location means the village offers a spectacular panoramic view of the region around. The wooded hillsides and the clear blue sky above add to the picturesque beauty of the place.
The historic tower of The Tour Magdala hanging over the valley below is definitely the first site to visit. The local priest Berenger Sauniere built the tower to use it as a library. It is worth climbing up the spiral stairs inside for the enthralling view from the top. Its name has now been changed to The Tower of Mary Magdalene.
Only a few paces away is the still active Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. With a history of several reconstructions, the earliest traces of the church date back to the 8th century. A church on the ruins of the earliest version got built in 10th or 11th century. The Romanesque pillared arcades on the northern side of the apse bear testimony to that.
This church survived in poor conditions till Father Sauniere renovated it in the 19th century. The total renovation, including repairs of the presbytery and the cemetery, happened over 10 years from 1887 to 1897. Father Sauniere’s account books and the receipts that still exist reveal that he spent 11,605 Francs for the renovation. That translates to about 4.5 million Euros in contemporary terms.
During the renovation, Father Sauinere added the Latin inscription that translates to: “This is a place of awe. This is God’s house, the gate of heaven, and it shall be called the royal court of God.” The first sentence is above the front doors. The rest of the inscriptions are the arches of the two front doors.
Another addition during the repairs was the statue of the devil holding the vessel of the holy water. This is an unusual statue to have inside a church, but the nearby St Vincent Collegiate church in Montreal also has a similar statue.
The presbytery is now the Berenger Sauniere museum and a tourist attraction. The Villa Bethany that Sauinere built as his residence has a private glass chapel attached to it. Located at a photogenic location, this is also a place that you must visit as a tourist.
Other Interesting Sites
For the botanically inclined and flower enthusiasts, there is The Garden. It includes Father Sauniere’s relaxation spot and his personal collection of flowers.
You must not miss the Carolingian Knight’s Stone that Sauniere discovered in 1887. There is also the original Carolingian Altar Pillar to see.
The Mystery Of The Hidden Gold
Rennes-Le-Château’s modern claim to fame is enshrouded in conspiracy theories and the mystery of the hidden gold that Sauinere is supposed to have found. Sauniere’s sudden spending ability, the source of which he refused to reveal to his Bishop, lie at the root of these theories and hidden treasure tales.
Noel Corbu, who owned the local hotel in Rennes-Le-Château, first started spreading these stories. Dan Brown’s bestseller Da Vinci Code riveted world attention to the mystery. Now this once obscure French hilltop village attracts a large number of tourists every year. Plan a visit. You may not find the gold, but Rennes-Le-Château will certainly not disappoint you otherwise.