The Press Room

Tourists get into 'Da Vinci' mode
By Laura Bly
USA TODAY, October 21, 2004

PARIS — Last summer, after American friends warned the Rev. Paul Roumanet that a new novel called The Da Vinci Code was going to cause him "lots of problems," the parish priest of Saint-Sulpice Church decided he'd better pick up a copy.

"I can't really say I liked the book, considering the ideas that it tried to promote," says Roumanet, whose imposing Left Bank church figures prominently in Dan Brown's page-turning tale of Catholic conspiracy and chicanery. "But the author knows how to write a good story, that's for sure."

And, as Roumanet learned, Brown also knows how to spark a tourist phenomenon.

A publishing marvel with more than 10 million copies in print worldwide (an illustrated edition comes out next month, and Ron Howard will direct the film version), The Da Vinci Code has inspired thousands of literary pilgrims to retrace central character Robert Langdon's quest for the truth behind the bizarre murder of a curator at the Louvre. 

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A growing roster of tours revolve around key settings in both The Da Vinci Code and its Rome-based predecessor, Angels and Demons . . . .

The novel's provocative, fast-paced blend of Renaissance art history, clandestine societies and religious bombshells takes shape in European settings from London's Westminster Abbey to the pope's summer retreat near Rome — where a new crop of walking tours highlight locations portrayed in Brown's earlier thriller, Angels & Demons.

But much of The Da Vinci Code action, and acolytes, wind up here [at Saint-Sulpice].

If an already popular destination needed even more sizzle, "this book has provided that very thing: mystery, intrigue, romance," says local writer Barbara Pasquet James. The American expatriate offers two-hour Da Vinci Code discussions over tea at the Hotel Ritz, the gilded Place Vendôme landmark where Langdon, a visiting "symbologist" from Harvard, first hears of the curator's death.

Real-life Harvard graduate Ellen McBreen leads private, 21⁄2-hour "Cracking the Da Vinci Code" art history tours that focus on the life and works of Leonardo da Vinci, along with the history of Mary Magdalene and the concept of the sacred feminine as reflected in the Louvre's collections. They have become so popular that they now account for half the business of Breen's tour company, Paris Muse.

Another American expat turned Da Vinci Code guide, Linda Mathieu of Paris Photo Tours, says she enjoys "seeing people's eyes light up when they talk about the book and the uncovered 'secrets' of the Catholic Church."

Among the tidbits Mathieu dispenses on her three-hour walks: that French film legend Catherine Deneuve lives directly across from Saint-Sulpice Church.

The Da Vinci Code's lofty position on French best-seller lists notwithstanding, many Parisians have been critical, dismissive or both.

A staffer at the Louvre's information desk under I.M. Pei's glass pyramid — which Brown described as a "dazzling synergy of ancient structure and modern method" — says he has no advice for the daily trickle of curious fans.

"After all," he sniffs, "the book is fiction."

Indeed, despite the author's assertion that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate," locals delight in exposing such Da Vinci Code howlers as placing Versailles northwest of Paris (it's actually southwest) and claiming that Langdon's getaway vehicle, the improbably tiny SmartCar, gets 100 kilometers to the liter. (A more typical figure: 19 kilometers a liter, or about 45 miles a gallon.)

At Saint-Sulpice, Berliners Shannon and Stefan Xander are among an estimated 20,000 readers-turned-tourists who've admired the church's marble obelisk. The base of the shaft, which is actually an 18th-century astronomical sundial, supposedly hid a keystone sought by Brown's diabolical albino monk, Silas.By Laura Bly, Paris' Saint-Sulpice Church has been overrun by Da Vinci Code fans.

"We read the book, and we wanted to know what happened here," Stefan Xander says. Not much, according to a sternly worded announcement posted in English and French.

"Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel," it reads, "this is not the vestige of a pagan temple. Please also note that the letters 'P' and 'S' in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, not an imaginary 'Priory of Scion,' " the secret organization that Brown says ordered the formation of the military order known as the Knights Templar.

But the vociferous debate over The Da Vinci Code's accuracy misses the point, says Dan Burstein, author of Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code.

"We have a lot of fun pointing out his errors, but that's all part of the game," Burstein says. "Anything that energizes more people to get into the Louvre and look at these paintings more deeply is valuable."

Adds Burstein: "I've been to Paris 50 times, but I'd never been to Saint-Sulpice. Now, because of the Da Vinci Code, everyone wants to go — and they're getting benefit from it.

"What Brown has done is give people a road map and rekindle a spirit of inquiry."