Perched on a hilltop high above the Valley of God sits the tiny village (population 26) of Rennes-le-Chateau. There is not much of note: one single-laned main street, a restaurant with no stars. A four-minute stroll will take you from one end of the village to the other. What brings tourists here in droves is an enduring mystery, and now, an association with one of the biggest selling novels of all time, "The Da Vinci Code."
You won't find the name of the village in Dan Brown's book, but the village and the novel share a central idea — that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child, and the proof of their relationship was somehow concealed in this ancient village.
It was a local fable — a kind of ghost story told about some of the weird goings-on in the town — until a book, published in 1967 by a noted French prankster, brought the tale to historians and conspiracists intrigued by the question of the Holy Grail.
Andrew Usher is an innkeeper in a nearby valley town. His hotel is a kind of staging ground for those fascinated by the village. "The first book was written about 30 years ago," he said, "and since then, there have been books based on books based on books based on books."
At the center of the enduring mystery in the village is a priest, Father Sauniere, a local boy who arrived penniless in the village in 1885. As the story goes, he found something — perhaps gold, perhaps documents detailing the genealogy of Jesus' family — that changed his life … and certainly changed his standard of living.
Jean Luc Robin lived in the priest's house for six years. He's just written his second book on the village and the priest. "What Sauniere found I have no idea because I've never had it in my hand," he says. "But one thing is sure: From the moment he found them, he was not the same man. He was totally disturbed."
Whatever Sauniere found, assuming he did find something, seems to have brought him a patron — Robin's new book offers his own theory — who provided him with the equivalent of millions of dollars to renovate the crumbling local church and build himself a very attractive villa and extensive gardens. His library was housed in a crenulated tower, constructed overlooking the expanse of the valley, and named in homage to Mary Magdalene.
"He left evidence among the church, among the properties. He tries to leave messages to those who are able to understand, to those who are able to cope with the news," says Robin. "All that evidence goes more or less in the same direction, and around Mary Magdalene."
"This site has been inhabited for thousands of years," Mayor Jean Francois L'huilier said during a stroll through the garden built by the priest. "Its history is linked to the great pages of religion: Aryanism, Christianity, Catharism. In the 21st century, it will be Dan Brownism."
The mayor presides over a growing enterprise; the burgeoning village tourism trade is now worth more than $20 million a year, with much of it going to the surrounding region. "In Rennes," he says, "when you solve one mystery, you unearth another one."
When Father Sauniere died without revealing his secrets, villagers were convinced he had taken the location of a treasure, the source of his inexplicable wealth, to the grave with him.
"Everybody imagined they had a treasure under their house," says the mayor. "People were digging, it's true."
When Robin moved into the priest's house, he discovered passages and galleries that had been excavated below the gardens during the years when the house was empty. Fearing the house would collapse down the hillside, he filled more than a dozen of them. "The problem is people dig holes, but they don't fill them up," he said with a laugh. "If you go out into the woods to pick wild mushrooms, you will find big holes everywhere."
There was so much digging that the mayor banned all excavation, for fear that the village's foundations could be undermined. The village cemetery is locked to all but family members. The body of the priest, who died in 1917, had to be re-interred, under concrete, after treasure hunters repeatedly disturbed the grave. But there is on-going scientific research using ground-penetrating radar, an attempt to map underground galleries, and treasure hunters still frequent the surrounding fields and woods.
Some arrive with complicated formula derived from sacred geometry. Some hire small planes to overfly the area, looking for undiscovered ruins in a region rich with history and medieval debris. Some have employed dynamite. Others have tunnelled under village flower beds. A few, seduced by the promise of gold, have given up everything. One, hermit-like, lives in isolation in a trailer on the side of the hill.
As hard as they search, most go away empty-handed but not disillusioned.
"They always have an explanation for it," says Robin. "An earthquake has blocked the entry of the grotto; a flood has washed it away."
A recent guest at Usher's inn was devoted to his treasure hunt. "He stayed for a month," he says. "Very mysterious; wouldn't let the maid into his room, diagrams up all over the wall." So what happened? "He left," Usher says with a shrug. "I think he went to New Zealand. Obviously any story like this is going to draw eccentrics to it."
The mayor would rather his guests revel in the mystical — that they feel what he calls "the power" of the site. But he recognizes the attraction of treasure. A former military officer, he says he is a pragmatist, recognizing that where there is wealth without a visible source, there will be stories.
Some villagers, many of them elderly, shudder when they think of the coming congestion of the summer, the publicity generated by the book, and now, the movie. "If tourists come in even larger numbers," says Mayor L'huilier, "we'll have to make new rules and regulations. We had 150 busloads last year. If all of a sudden we have 300 or 400, we will have to think again."
Usher isn't as concerned.
"Any publicity is good publicity," he says. "The more people read 'The Da Vinci Code,' there is a percentage of those who will go on to read 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' and the other books based on the true mystery. So it's going to be good for me."
Tipping his head back, cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted, "Keep it rolling. The treasure is here somewhere guys. Come and find it."
The 21st-century treasure may be in those tourist dollars. Underneath the church bells, the sound you hear is the ringing of cash registers.