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Media circus performs at French 'doomsday' village of Bugarach

Patrick Aventurier / Getty Images

Camera crews from all over the world continue to work Friday beyond 11:11 a.m., the time the Mayan apocalypse was supposed to occur in Bugarach village, France.

BUGARACH, France — The peacefulness of the Sals River Valley at the foothills of the Pyrenees in France belies its violent, enigmatic history. Once the place of ancient marauding Visigoths, its small villages were also home to the mystical Cathars and to the protectors of the cloth, the Knights Templar – both eliminated by inquisitions and despotic rulers.

Roughly two years ago, the peace of this land was broken once again by strange rumors surfacing online about Bugarach Mountain, a rocky beacon presiding over the landscape.

According to some reports, the peak of the mountain conceals an alien spaceship. Other sources say it is part of an alien space-time portal. The origins of the UFO stories have been difficult to trace, but have generated a response bordering on hysteria. Under normal circumstances, probably, such bizarre claims would have slunk away unnoticed or been relegated to the crazy bin. But, as they say, timing is everything.

For years, doomsayers warned that the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the Maya timekeeping system, which culminated on Dec. 21, would also signify the end of the world. In recent months, the UFO story has taken over the public imagination. Instead of being passed off as nonsense, Bugarach and its "resident UFO" became star European players in a global doomsday pantomime. And when it was announced that the regional authorities were calling in police and paramilitaries to prevent cultists from ascending the peak on doomsday, the village became the center of a media storm — a different kind of pantomime altogether.

Driving into the village on the morning of Dec. 19, a number of elements met the eyes: telltale blue uniforms and police vans peppering the sides of the roads, smoke rising languidly from stone chimneys, the looming figure of Bugarach Mountain. Other sights included columns of SUVs and satellite trucks snaking their way along the country roads. Roving packs of groomed-yet-rugged types with press passes and hungry looks were busy claiming positions within cordoned-off areas in the village.

No sight of cultists, or for that matter, anything more otherworldly than a mass of waterproof jackets and the hardened boots of teams waiting for their scoop. Soggy fields bordered with caution tape were reserved for vehicles, and over the course of the day the fields became emblazoned with acronyms and company crests, resembling an army of knights from different royal houses, awaiting battle.

In advance of the Dec. 21 supposed Mayan apocalypse, rumor-mongers spread the word that a peak near Bugarach, a picturesque village in the French Pyrenees, would be the only place on Earth to escape destruction. When authorities announced they were calling in police and paramilitaries to prevent cultists from ascending the peak on doomsday, the village became the center of a media storm.

Optimism reigned for the two days leading up to the eschatological event. Reporters heartily greeted each other and rival camera crews were sportingly scoped out. At dinner, the catch phrase, "Where are you from?" echoed around as different teams sat side by side at long tables, rubbing elbows and even sharing a bit of rustic bread. A cacophony of tongues filled the room. Outside, the village remained strangely empty.

Dawn breaks on Dec. 21 in Bugarach. Where are all the hippies? A Dutch producer mutters: "Maybe they’ve already crossed through the star gate." Most likely, they’ve been chased away.

"Anyway, who the heck would want to ride to another planet with this bunch?" NBC News overhears a French cameraman saying to his sound technician as he looks around the square.

Guillaume Horcajuelo / EPA

An unidentified woman speaks to journalists in the village of Bugarach in southern France on Dec. 21.

The few locals venturing out in the open are either bemused and vague, or are capitalizing on all the attention to make some cash — steaming croissants and chai tea are sold at a makeshift stall. The clientele? Dutch, French and Japanese TV crews. A young video artist from Switzerland takes a photo of a photographer taking a photo of reporters.

"This is very postmodern," he laughs. "This is the new story."

From time to time, rogue civilians break the fatigue that's setting in. A man arrives carrying a placard with the words, "The black stone of Bugarach." In an instant, he is mobbed by TV crews. Later, an angry resident shouts at the throng. Lenses swing and snap wildly.

Author Henry Lincoln accuses the media of creating and hyping the story.

"You’re doing it," he told NBC News. "If you would leave us in peace, nobody would be yelling about the end of the world and flying saucers coming to Bugarach."

Fair enough, this once sleepy town has been invaded. Neither by UFOs nor by extremists of any sort, but rather by dogged pursuers of what has proven to be an elusive story.

At what point does a reporter abandon a story? "Let’s get out of here. This is embarrassing," a correspondent states flatly.

Almost reluctantly, engines begin to start.

Guillaume Horcajuelo / EPA

Two men dressed in tin foil stand in the village as authorities block access to the peak of Bugarach in southern France on Dec. 21.

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