Girona – the Old Town
I landed in Costa Brava around midday, eager to have a look around. ‘It seems strange to be here,’ I thought. But there I was. As I waited for my luggage I recounted the events that led me there in the first place.
I flashed back to London and the May Bank Holiday three weeks prior. There were two things I needed to accomplish that weekend; read Patrice Chaplin’s new book, City of Secrets, and arrange my annual spring trip to Rennes-le-Château. The yearly excursion had become a ritual of sorts, some would say an obsession.
By Monday I had finished the book – sailed through it, and began preparing for the interview; an exclusive made possible by my friend Lynn Picknett, who read an advance copy of City of Secrets and recommended my web site to the publishers. That’s how the whole thing started.
The weekend was hectic and I had been unable to book my trip. I was running out of time and feeling anxious. I interviewed Patrice in Primrose Hill a few days later. The conversation was provocative and exciting, despite the fact that I talked too much. We got on quite well, and much to my surprise, a friendship had been seeded. Within a few days I booked my trip, only now I was headed to Girona, Spain, not Rennes-le-Château. The ritual had been broken!
Over the ensuing weeks I reflected on City of Secrets and its extraordinary revelations. I was feeling somewhat sceptical, not a lot, but unconvinced nevertheless. Don’t get me wrong, I never questioned Patrice’s integrity for a second. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that she may have been misled.
The letters, the story, the pictures; they were all being scrutinized in the Rennes-le-Château discussion forums. I wondered if the scepticism was due to the fact that Patrice’s primary source was the love of her life, José Tarres, the alleged custodian of a private Society.
''When lovers and private Societies mix, any number of agendas could be at play,’ I mused.
‘Could City of Secrets be the invisible hand of the Priory of Sion, an organisation I had dismissed as a modern day hoax?’ I wondered. I concluded that travelling to Girona was the only way to sort it all out. So there I was, waiting for my luggage.
Driving through the modern town of Girona can be quite shocking. No secrets there. I arrived at my hotel, tossed my bag, grabbed my camera and headed out. A nearby bridge transported me across the River Onyar and back in time to the Rambla de la Llibersat; a bustling street in the heart of the Old Town, not far from the ancient Jewish Quarter known as the Call.
One of Girona’s many bridges leading to the Old Town
Old Town Girona is as romantic as it is mysterious. Its austere cathedral dominates the landscape and juts in and out of view from the most unlikely of vantage points. I was surprised at how tourist-friendly the place is. The museums are impressive, not to mention inexpensive, and their exhibits are displayed with considerable style, flare and even the occasional swagger.
I visited the Jewish History Museum first, due to its cultural significance and my desire to locate Tarres, a figure I envisaged in a similar vein to Pierre Plantard; only more authentic. I reasoned this was as good a place as any to ascertain his whereabouts; after all, he founded the centre all those years ago.
The Jewish History Museum
‘Do you know where I can find José Tarres?’ I asked the museums Director of Jewish Studies.
‘Who? No, never heard of him!’
‘Really?’ I retorted, refusing to believe her glib response.
The peculiar thing was that Tarres had just finished working the annual Girona Flower Show a few days earlier. Certainly people must know who he is? Was he simply being protected, or was my Spanish that bad?
The City History Museum was a short walk down the cobblestone alleyway so I headed there next. I walked in, smiled and repeated the drill, ‘Sorry to trouble, but do you know where I might find José Tarres?’
I showed them a picture. It didn’t help. They shook their heads defiantly, ‘no’.
Frustrated, but not defeated, I tried a different approach.
‘Do you have any old pictures of the Torre Magdala, the medieval looking tower built in 1851, behind the cathedral – next to the French woman’s house?’
Again, they shook their heads ‘no,’ only this time they looked at each other as if I were mad. I was beginning to think they may be right when the eldest stood up and informed me that the man down the road sells old postcards and photographs. ‘Try him!’ she said abruptly, meaning stop harassing us. And so I did.
Juan Cortez is an amiable man of a certain age. He knew Patrice well and took great pride in showing me a poster of Patrice and her then husband Michael. Cortez recounted stories from past times with zeal. Those were the days! That’s what he was telling me.
Cortez with poster of Patrice and her husband Michael
‘So do you know where I can find Tarres?’ I asked, head down, as I rummaged through endless racks of mildewed old books and faded, torn photographs, trying not to sound desperate or even worse, devious. The question had become my mantra, clearly – sadly!
‘No, but he does,’ Cortez said, pointing at a man about 85 years of age. I was thrilled.
The old boy not only knew where José lived - a village on the outskirts of Girona, but recalled his street address as well!
‘Could he be part of the Society?’ I wondered.
In any case I couldn’t believe my luck. ‘Must not tell Patrice,’ I thought. I knew she was not keen on my meeting Tarres without a proper introduction. Fair enough. But could I resist?
‘That’s great. Thank you,’ I said. I was on a roll.
‘Do you have any old pictures of the Torre Magdala, you know, the medieval looking tower built in 1851 behind the cathedral – next to the old French woman’s house?' Cortez’s eyes lit up.
‘Why sure,’ he said, and over the course of the next 45 minutes my new best friend waded through stacks of musty old paper folders before producing no less than eight different photographs of the Torre Magdala – from several different angles, including one of the French woman’s house.
‘I’ll take them all,’ I said. ‘Yes, the duplicates too please. Pack em up!’
‘Now you have all that I have seen, except for one,’ he said, with an irritating grin on his face.
‘Which one is that then?’ I asked, incredulous that he may own a picture of the Torre Magdala I didn’t.
‘It’s the one in the book you showed me (City of Secrets),’ he said.
‘The one with Roger Matthieu standing next to the Torre Magdala. I have the original at home on my wall. It’s not a small photo you know.’
‘Fantastic,’ I thought. ‘I’ll take that one too!’
Sadly, although understandably, the photo was not for sale.
I left Cortez’s shop feeling quite chuffed. I sauntered up the cathedral’s 90 steps with minimal panting, passing the spot where Patrice and José were photographed over 50 years ago.
Girona cathedral today, and when Patrice and José were young
The cathedral is amazing. Its nave is the second widest in the world and its paintings and sculptures amongst the most exquisite in Spain. Perversely, the one image I could not get out of my head was a painting of the Last Supper by Perris de la Roca– circa 1560. Not only did the painting portray the figure seated next to Christ as a woman, but it depicted her in an alarmingly suggestive sexual context. Either that or she’s dropped her fork.
The sexually suggestive Last Supper – Girona cathedral
I headed for the cloisters in need of fresh air. My mind was now fixated on the French woman’s garden. The site once boasted the Torre Magdala, the tower that inspired Bérenger Saunière to build the Tour Magdala in Rennes-le-Château, or so Patrice argues. This is where I was headed next, after the cloisters.
However as I walked across the nave my eye caught the image of two towers embedded in the darkness of a chapel dedicated to Saint Michael. ‘Now that’s interesting,’ I whispered under my breath.
Two towers – Girona cathedral
With my mind completely absorbed by the twin towers and their significance in Patrice’s story, I entered the cloisters and stumbled upon a tomb depicting four towers!
Four towers – Girona cathedral cloisters
Clearly it was time to visit the French woman’s garden and put my overactive imagination to rest. I walked to the back of the cathedral. From there I could see the House of the Canons, written in Latin above an arched entrance to the garden. I followed the winding stone track past the entrance and up the hill to the door of the French woman’s house and walked inside.
House of the Cannons
Entrance to the House of the Cannons
(the entrance to French woman’s house is next on the left)
At once my phone rang – it was Patrice. ‘How’s that for serendipity?’ I thought. We discussed pleasantries before focusing on the finer points of French woman’s garden.
The French woman’s garden
The Torre Magdala had been in the far left corner of the garden (pictured above). To its right, along the ruined wall was the French woman’s house that Patrice had visited in her youth. The barren gravel landing on the lower level is where a large palm tree once stood. This is where José dug up the Sun Stone; an artefact of considerable importance to the Society’s Grail rituals.
The Sun Stone, which Patrice has seen on multiple occasions, has since been moved to Perpignan, France. I had my theories about what it was doing there, but more work was required before I could say with any certainty.
Separating the upper and lower level of the garden is a Well with a tormented-looking sculpture designed by Tarres’s wife, Pia Crozet. Patrice would have me believe that Cozet was equally tormented. ‘Was it a self-portrait?’ I thought. This is the Well the Society used for Grail rituals. Accomplished initiates were able to enter the well and view the stars above - during the day…
Sculpture marking the once larger Well where rituals were performed
(the French woman’s house was immediately behind the statue)
‘Can you see where the tower was – the vertical masonry on the wall, near the corner?’ Patrice alerted me to the remains of the Torre Magdala, as identified by an archaeologist. The ruined buttress on the stone wall is all that remains.
Remains of the Torre Magdala
I walked to the back of the garden and up the steps. I was eager to have a closer look at the platform that led to the Torre Magdala. Much to my surprise, the stone walkway was largely intact.
Images of the Torre Magdala walkway: then and now
I measured the former tower’s orientation using the photos I had just purchased and the surviving masonry as a guide. Having previously measured the tower in Rennes-le-Château, I was astounded to discover that the angle of the Torre Magdala matched exactly, as if one was a copy of the other. But then again why was this surprising? Allegedly, they were!
Compass reading: Aligned with the former Torre Magdala wall;
pointing in the direction the tower structure (not turret) faced
Much cynicism has been levied at the alleged similarities between the Torre Magdala in Girona and the Tour Magdala in Rennes-le-Château. ‘There are towers like those all across in Europe,’ the sceptics argued. Personally I was not so sure, given the evidence:
- The towers had the same name.
- Their design is virtually identical.
- Patrice has produced letters linking Bérenger Saunière to each, and the signatures have been certified by experts.
- The towers have the same orientation.
- Initiates in both cities fanatically measured each tower: Jean Cocteau in Girona and Alain Féral in Rennes-le-Château.
But nevertheless, sceptics dismissed any similarity out of hand, highlighting other towers, such as one in Italy, as examples of how common these structures were. ‘Is that the best they can do?’ I thought.
Rennes-le-Château scepticism had just eclipsed Rennes-le-Château gullibility. And both frustrated the hell out of me.
Patrice continued, ‘You’re standing on the Black Cemetery now. This is where the priests of Girona were buried for hundreds of years. That’s why the Society chose the spot. It’s charged.’
‘Where?’ I asked, ineptly.
‘All around you, on either side of the wall you’re standing on!’
‘And to your right, off in the distance is the old Jewish cemetery of Montjuïc. This is where José hid the ritual artefacts until he became worried that treasure hunters or archaeologist would dig them up by mistake.’
Today, the once-sacred Jewish cemetery is an affluent Girona housing development.
View of Montjuïc Hill from the Torre Magdala:
The Jewish Cemetery where José hid artefacts for Grail rituals
I decided to call it a day and walked back to the hotel. Although my mind was buzzing I collapsed on the bed, too tired to unpack. I fell asleep as my head hit the pillow and began to dream. Then the phone rang. ‘Had I dreamt that?’ I thought, groggy and disorientated. It was Patrice; she said, ‘There’s somebody you need to meet.’