On this rainy spring morning, the Pic de Bugarach in southern France is completely shrouded in mist. But though the peak, at 4,000 ft., is invisible today, its rugged outline is known all over the world. Hundreds of websites are claiming that after an apocalypse on December 21, 2012, only the small village of Bugarach, at the foot of this rocky citadel, will be left standing.
Apart from the free publicity, one of the first effects of the end-of-the-world prediction was a boost to the village's real estate market. "Fifteen houses are currently for sale. I have been mayor of Bugarach for 34 years, and I have never seen this before," says Jean-Pierre Delord. The prices asked are four to five times higher than usual.
Not a day goes by without someone asking for information about Bugarach, located in the county of Aude, and about its capacities for accommodation and supplies. "Everyone knows that there might be snow and freezing temperatures in December, and that sleeping bags might not suffice. So people call us to rent rooms and ask us to stock food for them for the last two weeks of 2012," says a local saleswoman from behind her stall filled with foie gras and sausages. "We always tell them no," she says, visibly exasperated by all the "lies" circulating on the Internet.
The mayor of Bugarach is also worried about this planetary publicity, which has been attracting more than the usual number of esoteric-workshop organizers (who charge exorbitant prices), therapists of all types, survivalists counting down the days left to go, and New Age followers meditating to connect to the cosmos. Some of them stay in the youth hostel owned by Sigrid. Originally from Paris, she rather approves of the groups who discuss mysterious matters behind the closed doors of the conference room she provides. "They are very nice, calm clients. I have never had any problems with them," she says.
Dressed in white, these peculiar tourists can be seen strolling around the town or taking refuge in the nearby caves for long contemplative retreats. Some of them gather in supposedly magical sites, and others attempt to climb the Pic de Bugarach. The automatic counters installed in the mountains are showing record numbers of hikers: 10,000 last year, and an estimated 20,000 this year. In some cases, lack of training has proved lethal. Two weeks ago, one of these hikers reached the peak only to succumb to a heart attack. "The end of the world came earlier for him," says the mayor with a touch of irony.
But Delord does not hide his concern about the possible consequences of his town's extraordinary renown. Several months ago, he contacted the Council, the police and Miviludes (the Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances), a French government agency that monitors potentially dangerous sects. The town is under guard.
This is because the apocalyptic prediction is only the latest in a long line of crazy theories about Bugarach. "This place is bubbling with activity!" admits the mayor. It seems there are a hundred reasons to come to this town in the middle of nowhere. Ufologists often visit, convinced that the peak is a garage for UFOs. None has ever sighted a vessel here, but believers say this makes sense because they travel so fast. Other visitors are eager to benefit from the magnetic waves emitted by the "magic mountain," and find its "vortex," or the secret passage towards a lost civilization. And yet others come looking for a treasure that an abbot is supposed to have hidden more than a hundred years ago.
Around a year ago, yurts started springing up in the middle of the forest, inhabited by tree huggers wanting to go back to a more community-based way of life through Indian singing and nonviolent communication. They don't think that the end of the world is near ... just the end of our world as we know it. Hippie clothes and dreadlocks now mix with perfectly white togas. But Bugarach is also attracting nature lovers who simply come to enjoy the great outdoors, and they have accessories of their own: backpacks and hiking boots.
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