French village prepares 'to be spared the 21-12-2012 Maya apocalypse'

A small French village is preparing to cope with an invasion by the international media for a momentous event that, if it happened, they would be unable to report.

The story too big to handle is the predicted end of the world. And Bugarach, in the Pyrenees, has become the centre of attention because internet chatter suggests a nearby mountain will be spared the apocalypse.

The dire warnings are based on an interpretation of the Maya calendar that sets tomorrow as the day a planet hurtles into the Earth.

This date is the winter solstice of the northern hemisphere and also the climax of the calendar's 5,125-year "long-count" cycle.

It is not clear how many adherents of the Maya culture, dating from the Mesoamerican civilisation of the pre-Columbus Americas, actually believe Armageddon is looming. The Maya themselves died out in the ninth century; much later students of their civilisation appear responsible for the doom-mongering.

But among the wilder tales that have circulated online, the flat-topped Pic de Bugarach, which stands 1,230 metres high, conceals a giant unidentified flying object that aliens will use to whisk fortunate relics of humanity to an unspecified place of safety. There they would prepare for their role as the pioneers of a new age.

If this sounds the stuff of pulp science fiction, it has been repeated often enough to ensure vast interest.

In Bugarach, village dignitaries have taken the consequences seriously.

The mayor has asked French administrators for help in preventing the village being swamped and lobbied successfully for a broad ban on access to the mountain until Sunday. People without bookings to stay locally will be discouraged.

In the meantime, astute residents have decided they may as well cash in. Reports say visitors are being charged €15 (Dh73) for a bottle of local spring water, €3 for a small chunk of rock from the mountainside and extravagant rates for renting rooms or camping plots.

In one of a number of jaundiced reports on the phenomenon, the French version of Slate current affairs website mocks the "absurdity of the media circus". It notes that Bugarach became a focus in the absence of any obvious "headquarters, end of the world" with the number of journalists accredited to the town hall already exceeding the population of just under 200.

This conjures images of camera crews gathering to await updates as earnestly as if covering yet another summit on the euro crisis. Slate did not add that the presence of print journalists, working for newspapers due to be published the next day or later, may, strictly speaking, be unnecessary.

Bugarach, or its peak, is one of a select few locations around the world that are meant somehow to escape the worst tomorrow.

This month, The National highlighted the Turkish town of Sirince, where hotel bookings have reached record proportions, leading some locals to believe there may be need for emergency shelters if the number of visitors proves excessive.

However much conventional theological and scientific thought rejects the doomsday scenario, the approach of December 21 has undoubtedly captured attention internationally.

London's The Daily Telegraph reported panic buying of candles and other emergency items in China and Russia and soaring sales of survival shelters in America.

Its Rome correspondent cited a front-page headline in the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, offering the qualified reassurance: "The end is not nigh - at least for now."

More optimistically, Father Jose Gabriel Funes was quoted by the paper as criticising "pseudo-prophecies" and insisting it was "not even worth discussing the scientific basis of these claims".

Meanwhile, in Bugarach, restrictions were placed from yesterday on access to both the village and the mountain, with 150 police on duty to deter visitors. The mayor, Jean-Pierre Delord, told the British press he was making an appeal to the world: "Do not come to Bugarach."

The mayor knows that some may have bought the right to stay. A popular French trading website has carried several advertisements offering rooms or camping land at premium prices.

One, using the pseudonym Gascon Crouzat to market €1,500-a-night accommodation (or €400 to camp) on the slopes of the Pic de Bugarach, told the French newspaper Le Depeche du Midi: "I have a very rare asset in the eyes of some, the land of immortality."

With so many people at least wondering whether the world's days are numbered, and those of a nervous disposition reported to have developed genuine concerns, the US space agency Nasa felt the need to put matters straight.

"The world will not end in 2012," an article on its official website confidently states. "Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than four billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012."

Nasa is adamant that just as a calendar on a household kitchen wall "does not cease to exist after December 31", the Maya calendar will not cease to exist 10 days earlier. "This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then - just as your calendar begins again on January 1 - another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar."