Well, mid-August found me visiting my in-laws in the South of France, they live up in the Black Mountains, about an hour north of Carcassonne, a hair-raising drive along roads that are all hair-pin bend, not quite wide enough for two cars and populated by locals whose driving technique tends towards the "drive as fast as possible down the middle and everyone get out the way" approach. This made for interesting times when driving an unfamiliar rented Renault Twingo - my thoughts on transport for the next visit tend towards 4 wheel drive army surplus Tatra trucks. The in-laws actually live just outside a place called Lespinassiere, 15 minutes up an unmade track in a house called Cavaielle that seems to have been there for longer than anyone can trace, and which was once the centre of a farming hamlet, now overgrown once more by the surrounding forest. A strange and atmospheric place. It is also about an hour and a half from Rennes-Le-Chateau, so, as a Fortean, this was an opportunity I could not miss, and sloped off for a day to visit.
Various accounts of the place tend to give you the impression it's in the middle of nowhere, but in fact it's about 3 miles out of a moderate sized town, Couiza, up more of those barmy hair-pin bends, which swiftly take you to the hilltop with an absolutely breathtaking view over the surrounding countryside. It's clear from the moment you arrive that it isn't an ordinary Languedoc village, as it has car parks at the entrance and a whacking great "No Digging" sign as you enter the village itself, and it is clear that although the place isn't totally taken over by catering for the mysteries tourists, it certainly has had some effect on the place, both good and bad. Whereas an awful lot of places that size don't even have a village shop or a café now, Rennes boasts a couple of pretty decent eating places and quite a number of shops, the downside being that they are mostly mystic tat-mongers, flogging books on charkas and new age CDs which have precisely zero in common with Sauniere et al. There is a fairly on-topic bookshop at the bottom of the village, though, which stocks DVDs of French Fortean symposia as well as a pretty comprehensive selection of the Rennes-Le-Chateau books now in print. However, you get the feeling that, despite the strenuous efforts of the few, any attempt to turn it into a southern outpost of Glastonbury will suffocate under the determination of the rest of the village to get on with real life.
This is helped by the fact that actually, all the key Sauniere sites in the village are grouped round the church and everyone heads straight up there, and very odd it is too in that it all looks fairly normal, but is subtly and decisively off-whack. My mother-in-law who has little interest in the Rennes mythology, but who has a friend in the village said it wasn't that different from a lot of churches in the region, and in a sense she's right, it isn't, the décor is more costly, but similar in nature to many of them, even the devil water stoup is not unprecedented, but it is, of course, in the detail that the strangeness lies, with just about every single element deviating significantly from the official catholic version, but not quite enough to be in open defiance of the church while still conveying, well....something.
When you go there, it is some of the minor things that are less commented on that strike you as interesting and maybe throw a different light on matters - why did Sauniere collect a whole bunch of rocks on his walks, apparently specially selected, and build a Marian grotto opposite the church with them? The statue in it, no longer the original, seems to have had its face burned off at some point. While mystery seekers have built a whole mystic landscape around Rennes, based on Sauniere's clues, perhaps its got nothing to do with the lay of the land, but with the nature of some of the actual geology?
The Sauniere Centre itself, incorporating the presbytery where Sauniere lived and the Villa Bethania next door, built with his mystery riches is fairly entertaining, by turns endearingly amateur, rather ghastly - the famous text "Terrible Est Locus Ist " is definitely in the wrong place, it should be over the door of the centre's toilet - loopily kitsch - there's a litter bin made of a fibreglass cast of a Visigoth stone that is supposed to be important to the mystery and the gift shop sells Rennes-Le-Chateau wine with the Devil's face on the label, and hermetically weird.
In fact it rather reminded me of the Winchester Mystery House, with which it is roughly contemporary (http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/ )- it shares an inscrutable mystic design ethos and art nouveau sensibilities. Bethania has an extravagant Alphonse Mucha room, and the text tries hard to suggest some link to the mystery, even suggesting Mucha's death a couple of days after Gestapo questioning was significant. But sometimes you can have too much mystery, Mucha's death was nearly 25 years later, and any Gestapo interest would have most likely been attracted by his high profile Czech nationalism, rather than links to Rennes. Given that Sauniere had expensive tastes and fancy Paris friends, it is hardly surprising he indulged in the most fashionable designs going for the villa he built to entertain them in.
However, for me at least, some of the info in the guide and around the house highlighted things I'd not seen given much prominence in the books on Rennes I've read before, that it seems likely Sauniere was in this with other priests locally, and the Bishop, that at least one other had significant unexplained wealth, and that they all seem to have either been murdered or died suspiciously after being visited by MIB-style characters. So, rather than one man discovering a secret shared only with his housekeeper, it's more like some sort of local ecclesiastical conspiracy, and one which someone seems to have made a serious effort to stamp out.
Can we ever actually work out what the secret was? Well, given that as far as we know, all who did know died without telling, and that it is fairly certain that at least one of the core documents as we now have them is a fake, it is probable that we will never get to the bottom of whatever was going on in Rennes-Le-Chateau a century ago. However, of all the mysteries doing the rounds, this is one of the few that I'd wager that whatever is actually behind it, it'd be really interesting to know. As a place to visit though, it's definitely a pleasant and fascinating village in which to spend an afternoon, and a baffling symbolic riot to tax the intellect, plus one of the very few places where an authentically fortean mystery is there to be seen by anyone who cares to make the trek.