This past weekend, Yvette Monahan published a book of photographs about a rural area in south-central France between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains. At the region’s center is a mountain called Bugarach. Monahan spent a year taking pictures of the mountain and its surroundings, which have a rich mythical history. I was enchanted by the photos in her book, ‘‘The Time of Dreaming the World Awake,’’ when I saw them recently, so I reached out to her and got her to tell me what sparked her interest in this French spot:
I was visiting a friend in the area in 2010 when I first heard the story about the mountain Bugarach. A few months later, back in Ireland, I found myself retelling the stories repeatedly. Bugarach and the surrounding area are shrouded in mystery and myth, and seem to have drawn people toward it for centuries.
The mountain itself is a geological anomaly, since its top layers are millions of years older than its bottom ones, making it an ‘‘upside down mountain.’’ I’ve heard that due to this strange geology, its magnetism is inverted.
The mystery of Rennes-le-Château, a village on one side of the mountain, is quite a tourist attraction and receives thousands of visitors every year. The Treasure of the Templars, the Holy Grail some call it, is said to be housed in one of the Cathar castles that dominate the landscape, usually perched on spectacular rocky outcrops. Regarded as heretics by the Catholic Church, the Cathars were wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade led by Pope Innocent III. When a general asked how to distinguish between Cathar and Catholic, the response was ‘‘kill them all, God will know.’’
Nostradamus and Jules Verne were local to the area. Verne alluded to the mountain in much of his literature, Captain Bugarach was the hero in ‘‘Clovis Dardentor.’’ Bugarach is said to be where Verne found both the inspiration and the entrance for ‘‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.” His books are said to be written in code to protect the mystery of Rennes-le-Château. Verne burned all of his papers at the end of his life to protect these secrets. There were also many tales of President François Mitterrand’s being helicoptered onto the peak, of mysterious digs conducted by the Nazis and later the Mossad, the Israeli secret services. Finally, Bugarach is also thought to be the inspiration behind ‘‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’’ as Spielberg spent time around the mountain.
It is a tiny area in rural France, which adds to the mystery of why it is so rich in such significant histories, stories and myths.