Rennes-le-Château is a French municipality (commune) located in the Aude department in the Occitania region. The territory’s location is on the Corbières massif, in its western part, 18 km from Bugarach peak (le pic de Bugarach).
This is a place with a rich history. Dinosaurs invaded 70 million years BC, as evidenced by a 10 km museum in the town of Espéraza.
The Romans occupied Gaul during the II century but their domination was beneficial for the current department of Aude; they built thermal baths near Rennes-les-Bains (13 km from the town), which today have become a famous spa center.
Rennes Castle had been a place of invasion since the 5th century. Visigoths, Franks, and Crusaders all fought against the Cathars and left footprints still visible in the castles and churches of Rennes-le-Chateau and neighboring towns.
There are the ruins of a medieval fortress belonging to the Templars (Order of the Poor Knights of Christ) a few kilometers southeast of Rennes-le-Chateau.
There are also the ruins of the family residence of Bertrand de Blanchefort, the fourth great masters of the Order in the middle of the XII century near the town.
A road passed through Rennes-le-Chateau, along which pilgrims used to go in the old days; it connected Northern Europe with Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
However, Rennes-le-Château gained international fame thanks to one of the priests who lived in the parish in the late XIX and early XX centuries; it was father Bérenger Saunière. He was the central figure of the conspiracy theory associated with the Holy Grail, the treasures of the Templars, various religious documents, allegedly compromising the modern Christian church.
Literature used many elements of this theory later, in particular, in Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”.
The priest was an obstinate young man, had an athletic physique and was independent with sometimes rebellious looks. His name is associated with several stories that compromise his reputation. However, all this did not stop him from winning his parishioners’ love. It is known that he did not miss the opportunity to show care and attention as he tried to help the neediest with money.
Sauniere not only renovated the town church from 1885 to 1917 but also acquired the adjoining land and built La Villa Béthanie, (a magnificent Neo-Renaissance building) at the entrance of which is located the abbey chapel of Sauniere. The building is located in the Saunière Abbey (L’Abbé Saunière).
The Abbey is a 10-minute walk from Rennes-le-Chateau.
Here was built the Magdala tower (la Tour Magdala); it is a symbol of Sauniere Abbey, a building in the style of the Gothic revival.
The famous Glasstower (la Tour de verre) is also here.
Passing to the abbey’s territory, you can see the magnificent greenhouse and the Sauniere winter garden. You can admire the famous rose garden and relax in the shady garden in summer.
Tourism, sights and Church of St. Mary Magdalene (Sainte Marie Madeleine)
The church probably dates back to the 11th century. The Counts of Razes (comtes du Razès) chapel was initially in its place; it was the feudal estate in the south of France on the border with Spain.
The church suffered greatly during the religious wars. Sauniere decided to restore it, and he discovered “strange parchments”, a pot of gold coins and a pierced skull during work in 1887.
It is worth paying attention to the church porch; there is an inscription: “Terribilis este locus iste”. The translated inscription means: “This place is horrible”. However, historians believe that the horror word probably means strength, greatness, power.
At the entrance on the left, there is the devil, supporting a font with holy water, crowned with four angels, with the “par ce signe tu le vaincras” inscription, which means “you conquer evil with your faith”.
The church’s decoration is full of “disturbing details” that one can interpret in different ways. All the church’s elements seem to have an unsolved secret…
They inscribed the building on the historical monuments list in 1994.
One question remained unanswered: where did Sauniere find such a lot of money to build all of the above buildings?
Carcassonne Abbey began an investigation in 1909 and they required Sauniere to provide a financial report on the parish status. Saunière said that he received all the funds from the “repentant sinners” whom he managed to set on the right path.
However, Sauniere had to pass a spiritual test by decision of the abbey. The obstinate priest defiantly rejected this claim. They removed him from office for this, but not for long. Sauniere appealed to the Vatican, they dropped all charges and reinstated him in his former clergy.
Sauniere spent the rest of his life in poverty. He died in 1917. They reburied his body in a special sarcophagus to protect him from vandals in September 2004. The Rennes-Chateau cemetery has been closed to the general public since then.
This story has become a topic for numerous journalistic investigations not only of the French media but also of foreign ones. An influx of tourists began to enter the city since the late 1960s. The town’s municipal council decided to open a museum dedicated to the Sauniere abbot (le Presbytère).
Cuisine and restaurants
The town has the three most visited restaurants where you can try homemade and classic French cuisine: L’Antre temps, Le jardin de Marie, and La reine du Château.
There are many small boutiques and souvenir shops in the city. The most interesting of them is the researchers’ bookstore (La librairie des chercheurs), the Abbey souvenir shop, clay shop (selling ceramics).
How to get to?
Distances by car:
From Biarritz (tolls): 4 h 21 min (423 km) via A64
From Dax (tolls): 4 h 12 min (389 km) via A64
From Nantes (tolls): 6 h 42 min (703 km) via A10 and A62
From Bordeaux (tolls): 3 h 49 min (363 km) via A62
From La Rochelle (tolls): 5 h 24 min (540 km) via A62
From Toulouse: 1 h 39 min (121 km) via A61
From Carcassonne: 52 min (45.0 km) via D118
From Monaco (tolls): 5 h 26 min (539 km) via A8 and A9
From Nice (tolls): 5 h 14 min (517 km) via A8 and A9
From Marseille (tolls): 3 h 50 min (360 km) via A9
From Avignon (tolls): 3 h 8 min (286 km) via A9
From Montpellier (tolls): 2 h 23 min (198 km) via A9 and A61
From Béziers (tolls): 1 h 46 min (137 km) via A61 and D118
From Perpignan: 1 h 37 min (91.8 km) via D117
From Narbonne (tolls): 1 h 28 min (107 km) via A61 and D118
From Andorra (tolls): 2 h 31 min (125 km) via D613
Area: 14.9 sq. km
Population: 78 (2019)
Coordinates: 42° 55′ 41″ N, 2° 15′ 48″ E
Languages: French, Occitan
Time: Central-European UTC +1