In London, the end of the world is only a bus ride away: Just hop on the 328 going south from Golders Green, and take it all the way to World's End. Now a highly desirable district of Chelsea, the area around the western terminus of King's Road once marked the edge of the city -- or, as Cockneys of yore cockily maintained, the edge of the known universe. Hence the name of a popular pub formerly on that location, which perpetuated the terminus of civilization, even as London grew exponentially.
Like the edge of the British capital, the real end of the world is a moving target, prophesied countless times, but never actually materializing. Not yet, anyway. There are those who believe this time will be different, that the rapidly approaching end of the 13th and final baktun, or cycle, of the Mayan Long Count calendar on Dec. 21 will really end it all.
We'll have to wait until the 22nd for the next doomsday date to start gathering steam, but meanwhile, an interesting phenomenon has taken shape: The end of the world is intersecting with the map of the world. The impending advent of the Mayan apocalypse has added a few places to the already crowded field of apocalyptic topography.
This time around, location scouts for the end of the world have decided to snub Chelsea. Instead, they've scared the bejeezus out of the good citizens of Bugarach. That southern French village counts only 200 permanent residents, but that number may swell to thousands on Dec. 20, the presumptive eve of destruction.
The town, on a hillside 50 miles north of the France-Spain border, is dominated by the eponymous Pic de Bugarach, a solitary peak known as the "upside-down mountain," as its top layer is older than the lower ones. That freak of geology has piqued the interest of hippies ever since the 1960s, recently crystallizing in the belief, held by several, if not dozens of, people, that the mountain houses an alien spaceship that will save them when the end comes. It must be said: The Pic does sort of resemble Devils Tower in Wyoming, the central location in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- the daddy of all friendly alien abduction movies.
Whether the 4,000-foot mountain projects "energy," as certain New Age adherents claim, is less measurable than the recent rise in local property prices, the increase in visitor numbers, and the flood of reports of strange goings-on in the woods surrounding the village, including processions of half-naked ramblers climbing up the mountain ringing bells. In fact, the French authorities are so spooked by the occult attraction exerted by the lonely mountain that it has decided to cordon it off in the days surrounding Dec. 21.
Perhaps they're right to be spooked. The upside-down mountain has attracted religious dissenters since, well, heretical Cathars founded Bugarach in the 13th century. Less than 10 miles to the northwest lies Rennes-le-Château, another focal point of esotericism. Perhaps best known as a central location in the novel The Da Vinci Code, treasure supposedly found in Rennes provides clues to the real nature of the Holy Grail -- the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, intertwining with that of early France's Merovingian kings.
The French government agency monitoring religious cults, Miviludes, is keeping a close eye on events in and around Bugarach, anxious to prevent mass suicides à la Heaven's Gate, the sect that chose death in order to migrate to the spaceship hidden behind the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet. Prevention may be the best cure, but it's unclear why a cult would go through all the trouble to try to save itself from the end of the world only to then commit suicide. Unless, of course, the world's stubborn refusal to end proves too much of a disappointment.
Ewan Munro/Flickr; ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images