The day after tomorrow, on BBC 2, there will appear a film called “The Shadow of the Templars”. I shall watch it with more than passing interest, for not three weeks ago, in response to a kind invitation from Dan Air [*], I rose very early one morning to fly to the south of France to visit what I understood to be the most important of the film's locations. That subsequently I understood very little else about the object of the exercise, was not, I hasten to say, due to over-indulgence in the ‘vin du pays’ (though, since we were in the department of the Aude, the opportunity was great), but to the fact that the story which purports to be the film's inspiration is so tortuous as to make all the intrigue of Byzantium seem by comparison to be as simple as a child's jigsaw puzzle.
“Are you with me?” Henry Lincoln, our guest lecturer on this French occasion, as well as the writer and presenter of “The Shadow of the Templars”, would ask now and then, as he bravely strove to explain the “historical” background. By his audience of three London journalists, united in professional scepticism, the question was largely taken as a rhetorical mannerism that required no answer. The man from the Financial Times was far gone in incredulity. The man from History Today had early on abandoned all hope of conducting a sound, academic enquiry. As for myself, having glimpsed again from Rennes-le-Château, the focal point of the “Templars” mystery, the glorious country of the Pyrenean foothills in the idyllic autumn weather that blessed our visit, I had been painfully reminded of intentions long since formed yet never fulfilled; intentions of returning to the Aude to wander about on foot, exploring town and village, church and castle (relics of religion, atrociously persecuted; ruins of heresy atrociously supplanted), in this fascinating region. Visigoths, Saracens, Crusaders, Templars, Albigensians: their comings and goings in this one-time borderland of implacable Islam and merciless Christendom have left echoes far louder than those of the much-famed troubadours.
As the long-suffering Mr Lincoln lectured away – over whatever meal or manuscript, tomb or tower happened to be before us in Montpellier, Carcassonne, or Rennes-les-Bains – about code and ciphers, about cryptic carvings and illustrations, about a penniless priest of Rennes who became a millionaire and consorted with a prima donna, about a treasure that the priest may have found and that may yet exist, and a host of mysteries that have still to be explained; as all this flowed over and about me, I kept thinking of a possible itinerary for my walk; about whether I would take a one-man tent, or depend upon whatever other accommodation I might find. “Are you with me?” Mr Lincoln would say, and if I had answered, and answered honestly, I would have been obliged to confess that I was not.
But we were one and all with him in his satisfaction at a luncheon that, soon after our arrival from Gatwick, we had in “Le Petit Jardin” in Montpellier. We matched his scholarly experiments with the good white wines of the Minervois and Limoux, and the good red wines of Corbière. We shared to the full his investigations of a certain sausage that was part of the hors d'oeuvres for our dinner in Carcassonne.
Well out of season, as we were, these were occasions of quiet, unhurried enjoyment. There were times when we were warm in the sun, but often there was an undeniable nip in the air, and we readily descended from the breezy heights of Rennes-le-Château, near Limoux, and Mr Lincoln's fanciful hypotheses, to the warmth of the cavernous, yet welcoming Hotel de la Terrasse at Rennes-les-Bains. Though the days were blue and gold, the evenings were dark and wild, and inside the fortifications of Carcassonne's justly famous, though to architectural purists infamous, “Cité” (we spent a night there on our way from Montpellier to Rennes) it was easy to imagine that we had already been invested by winter. Overall was the good, cosy, country smell of woodsmoke.
Later, in the restaurant-hotel La Mourrachoune at Mouans-Sartoux, near Antibes, I was to sit before a noble log fire after lunch that had been little short of exquisite; yet when I did so I thought nonetheless fondly of the humbler miles to the West.
Though I may have lamentably failed our readers in an attempted elucidation of the mysteries surrounding Rennes-le-Château, the Templars and all their (and Mr Lincoln's) works, I have at least this much of substance to report: in the opinion of the man from the Financial Times, the new Editor of that admirable publication History Today and myself (not to mention Mr Lincoln, a gentleman from Dan Air and another from the French Tourist Office in London who had come along to see fair play) one may still, in general, and price for price, wine and dine vastly better in France than in Britain.
There were, we decided, no academic ifs and butts about THAT. French autoroute charges might be outrageous, the persistence in rural parts of the French preference for a bolster instead of pillows might be barbarous; but when it came to the inner, rather than the mobile or the reclining man, France still took the honours. Fine French wines (as opposed to ‘vins de pays’), it must be noted, have a tendency to be even more ruinously expensive over there than over here; but, since one may find plenty of wines of more modest pretensions at wholly reasonable prices, one's suffering need not be great.
So as I say, I shall be watching the box on Tuesday next. I only hope that as well as revealing some of the intricacies of the labyrinthine yarn that Mr Lincoln and his film have to tell it shows something also of the immense beauty of the land in which the mystery is set. And as long as the research entails investigation of the kind from which I have so recently returned, the sleuths may count me in – anytime.
[*] Ways and means
Mr Henry Lincoln intends accompanying groups to Rennes-le-Château and to Cathar castles in the region on May 24th and 31st next year. The tours will last seven nights and eight days. The cost will be about £265 inclusive, with half board.
Romanic Tours and Dan Air: Bilbao House, 36-38 New Broad Street, London, EC2M 1NH. Tel: 01-628 7875.