After another fine breakfast I cycle north to Couiza. I wonder if the ungainly man in the flip-flops ever caught up with Gilles. I turn off to Rennes-le-Château. Between tree-clad hills, past a high, ruined château. And then I enter an enclosed plateau, a gentle concavity of meadow and woodland, with Pic de Bugarach at its centre.
Rennes-le-Château It is a sharp climb up to Rennes-le-Château, a village of fifty people perched on the side of the bowl of hills that enclose the plateau; it reminds me, the enclosed bowl, of Lasithi in Crete. I park my bike, and head for the church. I pass the inevitable war memorial. A population in 1914 of under 200, a military-age cohort of maybe forty: and twelve names. Made more poignant by their enamel photographs: one might be a debonair member of the félibrige; one looks like a criminal. The others are made anonymous by their uniforms.
The church of Mary Magdalene is a small, simple Romanesque building with a tile roof. Dilapidated in the nineteenth century, it was restored by the curé, Bérenger Saunière. Between 1887 and 1897 he spent far more than his stipend repairing roof and walls, and decorating it throughout. By the door is the font, supported on the shoulders of a crushed, angry and very red devil. Inside, the arches and window recesses have been decorated with pretty patterned tiles, with the floral and geometric patterns and pastel shades of the period. The walls have many garishly-painted statues of saints. The plain, rustic chapel has been made into a neat petit-bourgeois haven.
Then from 1897 to 1905 Saunière spent twice as much again on building the Villa Bethania (Bethania was Mary Magdalene’s home village), designed and built in art nouveau/arts and crafts style, with Mucha wallpaper, large gilt mirrors, and a piano. The story is that he set up home here with his housekeeper. He added an orangery, where he entertained lavishly, a promenade along a belvedere, and a tower in Troubadour style, the Tower Magdala, where he had his library. Whereas the chapel is prettily suburban, verging on kitsch, the house, orangery and tower make an attractive ensemble, a perfect estate-in-miniature, with on one side of the belvedere a sheltered garden, on the other stunning panoramic views over the bowl of the plateau to the hills. I imagine, going from house to orangery and along the promenade to the tower-library, a middling-successful artist of the time, or a self-educated, self-made entrepreneur.
Summoned by the bishop to explain this expenditure, Saunière refused to say, and resigned. He built a chapel next to the house, and continued to say mass. He died in 1917, the mystery unsolved. His housekeeper fell into debt, a businessman settled her debts, and inherited all when she died. In 1950s he turned the villa into a hotel, and the tower into a dining room. He started the tale that Saunière had discovered parchments leading him to the lost treasure of Blanche of Castile, a tall tale to interest his guests. From this grew the story that Saunière had taken the parchments to the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, where they were decoded, and revealed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, had children, and founded the Merovingian line. To keep this quiet, the Church paid Saunière handsomely. While in Paris, he bought a copy of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, and met and probably had an affair with Emma Calvé, opera singer and occult adept.
Eventually it emerged that the priest had in fact set up a business selling masses for the dead, far more than he could ever say, a scam. This explained why the postman had been delivering mail by the sack-load, containing the money sent to pay for the masses. The expense of the restoration had been greatly exaggerated – for example the many new statues, rather than being finely-wrought unique pieces, were literally plaster saints, bought from a maker of church requisites in Toulouse, and never fully paid for. But by then the stories had begun. Within a generation it had developed into the full-blown conspiracy theory of The Holy Blood and Holy Grail, in which a (non-existent) secret society, the Priory of Sion, has defended, for 2000 years, the blood-line (the sangreal, the sang real, the holy grail) of Jesus and his wife, Mary Magdalene against the Catholic church. Among those persecuted for that defence were the Cathars, and the Templars. The story was most entertainingly presented in The Da Vinci Code. The result was a visitor boom in which 100,000 visitors were coming each year, dozens of groups and websites.
The oldish bourgeois French visitors wander around, interested, but uncomprehending of the wide-eyed belief of the Anglo-Saxons, of all the books and dvds in the museum shop. To them, the story of a cunning priest who makes money with a religious scam and sets up home with his housekeeper is a standard trope.
As I stroll along the village street, past the well-stocked New Age bookshop, I pass three examples of those drawn to such places. First a brisk, bearded man, walking with jerky, clockwork movements, waving his arms, talking to his newly-arrived friends with a clipped certainty, ‘the water had been this high,’ reaching up, ‘you could clearly see the mark,’ talking about Noah’s flood. He has it all sorted, everything interlocks in a closed-ended schema – a truth – in which all things have the meaning he ascribes to them; to entertain doubt would be to put at risk the edifice of his system that makes the world make sense. Any doubt is trumped by reference to a yet higher level of conspiracy, ‘they don’t want you to know the truth’. Then I pass the studio of a woman spiritual artist, whose work is full of angels, swirling lines, and the colour mauve, and whose vision through her work is ‘to inspire, uplift and comfort’. And at the edge of the village is a dilapidated house, its shutters hung with every sort of thing, bits of wood, a horseshoe, a wooden clog, flowers, stones, clay figures, feathers, hanging like fetishes. Through the window I see a chaos of stuff, a world in which everything might have meaning, so must be hoarded (for the one thing you throw away may be – will be – the key to it all and be lost forever), who, because he dare not discriminate, is gradually losing to chaos: because every thing might have meaning, nothing does.
I sit and drink coffee, staring at my blank notebook, my head a jumble of thoughts. Except, no. I had expected, here, in this village, a resolution of the complication of ideas and information that have been sparked into vividness by my journey down the Meridian. Instead as I sit, without thinking, all that, and the incontinent buzz of unconnected but forced-to-connect notions and facts in this place (like the chatter of impish whispers at Glastonbury) has disappeared. As if the winds have returned to Aeolus’ bag. Leaving … This place. The little church where, under a barrel-vaulted ceiling (I would paint it blue and spangle it with stars), among plaster saints (the Magdalene, two Antonys, Luc, Germaine, Roch. Follow their lives), with a red devil who may be the dionysian, the demiurge, the maker, the seething source of creativity, one may engage with the everyday religious. And the little villa, both aesthetic and charming, a place of beauty and domesticity. The glass orangery, both observatory and accumulator. The belvedere, a path across emptiness, and the edge of the breathtaking view over the wide expanse within the circle of hills, the shield of the plateau, at its centre the omphalos of Bugarach (remembering Beauvais and, far back, Corfu and my first sight of Greece). The library tower (like Beckford’s above Bath), its spiral staircase winding up and down through levels of learning. It is the setting for a way of life, a way to live. The dreamed place in which everything – everything – may come into being. The emptiness waiting to be inhabited. The flask of expression. The alembic of transformation. Or, rather, of realisation.
And then, as if the muted sound has suddenly been turned up, as a gaggle of Da Vinci Code enthusiasts chatters in, the sack is opened once more around me, and it is time to go. I seek out, as I walk to my bike, the reassuring sight of the Pic.
Pic de Bugarach. The ‘ach’ is soft, as in ‘vache’. A hard plosive beginning, a soft sibilant end. As the hill, isolated and precisely-outlined, is a clear presence, trailing a mystery. Rising 600m from the plateau, it is one of those hills, like Uluru, Parnassos, Glastonbury Tor, Mont Saint-Victoire, whose separateness and shape draw and hold the eye. It imposes its presence, demands attention. And perhaps the need to find meaning. It is, for me now, on this first acquaintance, a peak not to be climbed but to be circumnavigated, not, this time, to set foot on but to examine from outside. Of some places you say – what is this? Of others you say – what does this mean? It’s one of the latter.
I cycle towards it for an hour, along the Meridian. Past the Templar castle at Bézu. Ahead is the Cathar citadel of Puilaurens. It is midday, I cycle under the high sun, in the still heat. I keep wetting the cloth under my hat to keep my head cool. The rest of me, adjusted now, looks after itself. Across the hollow of the plateau, through meadows and woodland, past a few fine houses, but also the modest, put-together properties of installés. Still, forty years on, they come. I climb slowly past two young men, long-haired and slim, stripped to the waist, brown, rebuilding a wall. It could be me and Richard in 1976. One calls out, ‘on descend, bientôt!’ ‘Merci’. I do. And then climb again. So it goes.
I cycle towards it. It just gets bigger. It is called ‘the upside down mountain’ because the rock strata were inverted in the uplift of the Pyrenees; the higher you climb, the older it gets. A story developed that the Pic, being hollow and containing a spaceship, would be the one place to survive the Mayan apocalypse on 21 December, 2012. Thousands came. The road curves round, so the shape of the Pic keeps changing, giving me more information, and provoking more questions. It is mesmerising.
And then it turns away. Or rather the road bends away. It is behind me, I feel its gaze on my back as it recedes, its voice, ‘well…?’
The road rises, I climb out of the enclosed stillness, and descend towards Quillan, towards the dashing river, into the world.
Musing I return to the Centre, have lunch, and snooze. Then I sit outside, in the shade. No one is around. All is still in the drowsy heat. Although energised by the humming of the turbine, the rushing of the river. My head is filled with the vision of Pic de Bugarach. I imagine the Pic as the base chakra, the root from which the spine of the Meridian springs, the rope thrown up in the rope trick, the snake rising from the basket … Through the empty afternoon, sitting first at the outdoor table, then lying cupped in the high green hills, at last stepping from stone to stone by the leaping river, I play in my head frames from the film of my journey, vivid as the songs of skylarks ascending and descending.
In the valley of Rennes is ‘an immense geometrical figure indelibly marked on the ground,’ writes David Wood, a pentagram inside a circle, a pentacle. Within it is a place where ‘the imperceptible gleam of the memory of our origin marks the portal through which, with courage, the mind can pass into the void of eternity and enlightenment.’ The five-pointed star is the Pythagorean sign of perfection, the quintessence. It is the Gnostic passport to the kingdom of light. It is the endless knot, an in-out journeying around an unreached centre. It is the device of Gawain, the first grail knight, and ‘no character in the whole of Arthurian romance undergoes such metamorphosis as Gawain’; as an alternative in the Tarot to the suit of dishes it becomes the grail. Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who died at Carcasonne was said to be the model for Parzifal, the grail knight who failed to ask the question that would have saved the Fisher King. It is the sign of Venus (the apparent motion of the planet in the sky inscribes a pentagram), it is the lover’s knot, its flower is the rose. In The Romance the Rose the god of love pierces the hero with five arrows as he gazes at the rose. The first part was written around 1220 in courtly style; the second part by Jean de Meun, also close to the Meridian, around 1270 is scholastic. It illustrates the triumph of the clerks of the universities and the church over the troubadours of the court, as the Albigensian crusade proceeded; the troubadours fall silent as the crusade succeeds. One tradition has the troubadour voice coming from the Arabic court of Al Andalus. Gerbert of Aurillac followed the Meridian south to Catalonia where he acquired a learning that so astounded them in the north that some said he learned it from the devil. The mosaic at Theodulph’s oratory, of ark and angels, became before my eyes a devil’s head. In their attacks on neoplatonism, the church confused the demiurge – from the Greek meaning creator, maker – with the devil. Gerbert’s other source of power was said to be a magic head he had got in Spain. He studied at Vic, on the Meridian, the sister monastery to that of the monk who witnessed the first burnings of heretics at Orléans in 1022 that initiated centuries of heresy-hunting and Inquisition: Cathars in 1209, followed by Templars 1307, then Protestants, ‘witches’, scientists. The Templars were accused of worshipping a magic head. They had a saying, ‘he who controls the head of John the Baptist, rules the world.’ Amiens cathedral was built to house the head of John the Baptist. The Templars were founded by Godfrey of St Omer. The Rose Line (blood line) was first used for the Meridian by Dan Brown; St Roselin and Saint Sulpice share 17 January as their day. Saint Sulpice was buried at Bourges, and his tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Jacques Coeur of Bourges, the richest man in France, whose wealth came from Arab lands, was said to be an alchemist. Alchemy is an Arabic word. But the alchemy of which Hermes Trismegistus is the master, and Mercury a key element, is aimed rather at refining and transforming the self; the gold is the realised being. Emma Calvé followed the Meridian north to Paris; so did Saunière, to Saint-Sulpice, the Louvre, and Calvé. I first read of la Meridiènne verte in Graham Robb’s The Discover of France, and about alchemists on the Meridian in his Parisians. In The Ancient Paths, he plots ‘The Lost Map of Celtic Europe’. The Celts had a cult of the severed head. He traces the Heraklian Way, Herakles’ path from the sacred promontory at Cape Saint Vincent in Portugal, across Spain and France to the Montgenèvre Pass in the Alps. It crosses the Meridian at Pic de Bugarach. Robert Coon proposed an Eagle Line, from Glastonbury through Shaftesbury to Delphi, the Greeks’ most sacred place, founded by Zeus where the two eagles he released at opposite ends of the earth met. It crosses the Meridian near Beauvais, through the tribal capital of the Bellovaci tribe. The intersection of the Heraklian Way and the Eagle Line in today’s Switzerland creates, with the Meridian, an equilateral triangle …
‘History belongs to the victors, legend to the people, fantasy to literature. Only death is certain.’ ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ And when the fantasy becomes legend, print the fantasy?
For the second time today I wrap my head in a wet cloth. This time to cool the heat generated inside.
After tea and biscuits, I freewheel down to Quillan. 18kph, green smiley face, a little wave.
The evening is gathering, the sky going pink, birds noisy in the trees in the square. I sit in the café, by the window, drink slowly, watch the comings and goings. Although it is the end of June, and a quarter of the homes here are second homes, there are few outsiders around. A white-haired man sits in the corner. He writes quickly in his notebook, looks up eyes far away, deep inside; then suddenly they clear, he sees – I am here, I am here. Is it me? I could buy a nice place here for half the price of my flat in England. There are cheap flights from England to Carcassonne and Perpignan. The bus fare to those towns is one euro. I could work in peace on all my unfinished pieces. Explore the Cathar places, try to figure out what it was really about, follow the shepherds’ paths over to Catalonia, explore the Palaeolithic caves, cycle up the Pyrenean passes …
I think of the radeliers, ‘strapping and well-muscled’, of ‘legendary suppleness’ who guided the trains of rafts down the rushing Aude river. I see the mills along the banks, forging iron (I’m staying at the Forge), sawing timber, fulling cloth. I see the entrepreneur who brings hat-making from the village of Bugarach where it was introduced by local men taken prisoner in the Seven Years War in Poland who learned the trade there. Having wool and water, they recreated the business here. He installs them in a factory that by 1900 is making 135,000 hats a year. It pays for electric lighting, the first in the region, powered by the river. And for the oldest Criterium in France (the street cycle races that take the Tour de France riders round the country), in which the fans can see the stars, from Coppi and Bobet, through Anquetil and Stephen Roche to Joaquim Rodriguez pass close eighty times, as they do battle through their streets. I see the fashion change and hat-wearing decline, the factory close, and reopen as the European manufacturing centre of that symbol of post-war consumerism, Formica. The factory at last closes in 2003. And now?
I pedal slowly back up to the Centre, in a rose sunset, to my dinner of cassoulet. I pass a van with a Guido Fawkes mask at head height in the driver’s seat. Yes, I could live here.
David Wood, Genisis: The First Book of Revelations p4, p275.
Gawain & Green Knight p130.
Peter Esterhazy, Celestial Harmonies.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.