BUGARACH, France – The rocky mountain of Bugarach, rising just over 1,220 metres in the Corbieres Mountains, in one of the poorest and least populated areas of France, has long attracted hikers and nature lovers who like to wander its gentle slopes in search of rare species of orchids.
But in recent years, the mystic beauty and remoteness of the mountain has lured another, less common variety of hiker. Residents call them “the esoterics,” people who believe that the end of the world is coming – don’t forget to mark your calendar – on December 21, 2012.
In December, the mayor of Bugarach, a tiny village at the foot of the mountain in the southern district of Aude, alerted the local authorities after he read on Internet forums that believers in the apocalypse planned to take refuge here in 2012.
“Some websites in the U.S. were selling tickets to come here,” said Jean-Pierre Delord, the mayor. “We are 200 locals; we don’t want 2,000 to 3,000 utopians showing up in Bugarach.”
Some French and international websites devoted to the apocalypse claim that the mountain of Bugarach is a sacred place that will protect them from the end of the world. Some even believe that, on doomsday, they will be spirited away by a group of aliens who live under the mountain. The date in question is when a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close.
A local innkeeper, Sigrid Benard, who offers rooms only in the summer, said she had received numerous calls from people wishing to reserve rooms and caravan homes from the beginning of December 2012 to the end of January.
Many here, including the mayor, do not want to see Bugarach transformed into a safe haven for those he called “apocalypse believers and lunatics.” They point to an increasing presence of “esoterics,” who settled in Bugarach around the year 2000 and who are also attracted to the tranquillity, the low price of real estate and the history of the area.
“Those people belong to a New Age circle of influence,” Delord said. “Today, they do business on pure fables; they build inns and organize collective therapies.” One of the esoterics is a former teacher named Jean. With a wise look and linen pants in winter, he resembles a neo-hippie. He recently settled in a yurt in the forest near Bugarach with hopes of building what he calls “the civilization of the heart.”
“The apocalypse we believe in is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another, a new spiritual world,” Jean said, refusing to give his last name because of the increasing local controversy.
“The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering,” he said. Bugarach is “one of the major chakras of the earth, a place devoted to welcome the energies of tomorrow.”
For other people around France, Bugarach is not just a quaint village with a mountain.
“We all know that aliens are there for thousands of years,” said Paul Ponssot, the owner of a Paris-based bookstore specialising in esoteric literature. “They may be the forces who will help us get through 2012.”
In the little town, even the most pragmatic visitors acknowledged the special atmosphere of the place, silent and vibrant.
“Bugarach is like California in the ‘60s,” said Didier Gromaire, a social worker from Chambery who spent three months in Bugarach last year. “Things appear more clearly here; when you arrive, you feel that this is the beginning of a new life.”
Bugarach and its surroundings still bear significant traces of medieval religious sects and orders, including the Cathars, who built remarkable castles nearby.
A few kilometres away sits the village of Rennes-le-Chateau, whose supposedly hidden treasures have inspired many international authors, including Dan Brown, author of “The Da Vinci Code.”
The peak of Bugarach has long been called “the sacred mountain”; geologists say that soon after the mountain was formed, it exploded and the top landed upside-down. The mountain is also said to have inspired French authors like Jules Verne in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Several reports circulating on the Internet even suggested that former President Francois Mitterrand visited the peak by helicopter, that there was often a halo of cloud shaped like a spaceship around the summit and that planes never flew over the mountain because of supposed magnetic waves.
“People built an entire myth around the magnetism of the mountain,” said Jean-Luc Lamotte, 60, a retired businessman who owns a house nearby.
Some residents say that they sometimes see parades of people, their arms crossed in an X shape, climbing the peak with figurines of the Virgin Mary in their hands.
Cristina Breiner owns a guesthouse in the nearby village of Rennes-les-Bains. She was recently brought by a friend to a meeting of local esoterics.
“They dress like ordinary people and strongly believe that someone in the sky is sending them messages,” Breiner said.
Mayor Delord is trying to figure out how to curb new influxes of utopians in the area, especially with the apocalypse coming. In a country where the government lists at least 30 movements preaching the apocalypse, the mayor’s concerns are not abstract.
“If it happens as in Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,”’ Delord said, “it would be necessary to call in the army.”