Stars of the film version discover crucial evidence in the Louvre's Grand Gallery.
Given all the excellent reasons to visit Europe—Big Ben, the Champs-Élysées, St. Peter's Square—I have to ask myself this: Does finding the exact spot where a fictional albino psycho supposedly murdered an elderly goddess worshiper in a best-selling potboiler really measure up?
For legions of Da Vinci Code fans—who have been snapping up package vacations and day tours built around Dan Brown's deliciously readable thriller—the answer is an emphatic "Oui!" Ticket sales at the Louvre, where the page-turner opens, surged 9 percent last year—growth the museum's general administrator attributes largely to the book. Visits to Scotland's tiny Rosslyn Chapel, where the novel wraps up, have tripled since its 2003 publication. These numbers are expected to get another boost with the May 19 release of director Ron Howard's big-screen adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou.
FIRST STOP: PARIS
I'm standing in the Louvre midway through Cracking The Da Vinci Code at the Louvre, one of a handful of Da Vinci–related day tours offered in Paris, gazing at Leonardo's luminous Virgin of the Rocks, a crucial prop in Brown's narrative. Instead of soaking up its beauty, however, I am preoccupied by how large it is—six feet tall, 31/2 feet wide, and surrounded by a massive frame. How did Brown's heroine ever hoist this behemoth from the wall to use as a shield, as she does in chapter 30? Was she bionic?
Ah, that is but one of Brown's many goofs, says guide Ellen McBreen, a hyperarticulate, Harvard-trained art historian, noting that the same character also threatens to put her knee through the canvas, when the work is actually on wood. But McBreen wants us to stop sweating the small stuff. "If you read the novel as history, you're in trouble," she says. "If you read it to find out what's interesting to you in history, that's good."
The desire to share in the experience with a novel's protagonists, to walk where they walked, has proved to be quite strong. There are now dozens of tours based on well-known books, including the Harry Potter tales by J.K. Rowling and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (See "The Plot Beckons" on page 50.)
McBreen uses Da Vinci to compress the Louvre—35,000 artworks spread over 645,000 square feet of gallery space—into a short survey of Brown's marquee themes, from depictions of Mary Magdalene to gender ambiguity in Christian painting. She even dips into a collection of Greek statues to illustrate the Western tradition of goddess worship. "Everything here has a story to tell," she says, then proceeds to explain the hidden meanings in each object we see over 21/2 heady hours. "All these things that go on and on for room after room, they're all encased in a very complex story." Just not, she makes clear, the same pulse-quickening story that Brown tells.
To date, The Da Vinci Code has spent more than three years on the New York Times best-seller list, and in case you're one of the half dozen or so literate humans who haven't climbed aboard this roller coaster, here's a synopsis: Robert Langdon, a Harvard "symbologist," and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu rush to the Louvre one night to find Neveu's murdered grandfather spread-eagled in the Grand Gallery. With his blood he has drawn a clue on his belly, and with invisible ink he has scribbled another on the floor. This sends the pair tearing off on a scavenger hunt through western Europe, decoding messages supposedly embedded in works of art. Langdon and Neveu find themselves in a race with the albino and the diabolical Teacher to nab the Holy Grail. As they search, they uncover evidence of both a centuries-old cult called the Priory of Sion and a shocking secret at the root of Christianity.
Preposterous? Oh, absolutely. But Brown cannily based his thriller on some genuinely provocative historical questions. You want to break the ice with a London cabbie? Bring up Da Vinci and treat yourself to a stunningly erudite monologue on Jewish marriage traditions. Feel like making chitchat with a marshal at Westminster Abbey? Mention Da Vinci and bond over that "jolly good read." Or you could just drop by Paris's somber Church of Saint-Sulpice. I couldn't for the life of me find the floor tile that Brown's albino smashed in his mad search for the Grail (perhaps because no albino ever smashed a floor tile in Saint-Sulpice?) but I spent several minutes studying a crabby sign posted by the rector: "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of [a] pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place . . . 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 Sion.' "
"We have guides who are snooty about doing The Da Vinci Code," says British Tours' Henrietta Ferguson, who leads Da Vinci-centric trips around London. "But if that's the only way to get people into Westminster Abbey, I say let's do it!" An ebullient blonde who can discuss Daniel Defoe as easily as she talks about Dan Brown, Ferguson leads private tours—to the stark, lovely Temple Church where Langdon squares off against the albino, to St. James's Park where the Teacher disposes of an accomplice—that are all-day whirlwinds punctuated by gusts of animated chatter. "A few years ago Americans kept telling me you've got to read this book, you've got to read this book, blah de blah," she says. "I read it in 15 hours, stopping maybe to clean my teeth and have a sandwich." When Ron Howard came to scout film locations two years ago, he hired Ferguson to show him around. "I didn't mention Happy Days," she says. "I'd heard he doesn't like that."
It is difficult—and depressing—to imagine that anyone would visit London and not head for West-minster Abbey, but Ferguson says it happens; she has encountered tourists who only wanted to visit Hard Rock Cafes. This is truly disheartening, for there are few spots on earth more entertaining and outrageously strange than the Abbey. You may go in thinking you only want to eyeball Sir Isaac Newton's ornate sarcophagus, where Neveu and Langdon find a sinister message, but you will soon discover it is impossible to tear yourself away before two hours have sped by. If not more. Every nook is crammed with tombs, effigies, plaques, stained glass, and busts, all in an insane, exhilarating mishmash of styles. Indeed, Ferguson refuses to let tourists miss anything. "It would be a sacrilege," she announces crisply. "You've got 1,000 years of English history here, and it's got to be done."
She seems almost sorrowful pointing out Brown's mistakes, including the fact that he ostentatiously sends Neveu and Langdon into the Abbey through a metal detector—"now present in most historic buildings in London," he writes with sham authority. In fact, there are no metal detectors here. "It's kind of sad," Ferguson says. "How difficult would it have been to check those little things?"
OFF TO SCOTLAND
The Abbey may be unusual, but for sheer weirdness few structures can compete with Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel. Local tour outfits offer popular Da Vinci expeditions to Rosslyn in summer, but even on a bone-chilling January weekday the drafty 90-foot-long church outside Edinburgh is jammed with visitors. "This has been some year!" Rosslyn's director, Stuart Beattie, wrote in his winter 2005 newsletter, citing the challenge of accommodating thousands of pilgrims "coming along with their copies of The Da Vinci Code." Indeed, some worry that the unprecedented influx may alter one's experience when visiting the fragile 15th-century structure, and Beattie has mentioned plans for limiting access.
For now, though, Rosslyn—where Langdon and Neveu conclude their mission—remains open to all, and it is well worth braving a frigid Scottish morning to experience this marvelous oddity. Its every interior surface is carved with fantastical and macabre images, from the Dance of Death reliefs that adorn an arched doorway to the more than 100 depictions of a leering pagan Green Man, as well as cryptic inscriptions such as: "Wine is strong, the King is stronger, Women are stronger still: But the truth conquers all."
One can only hope. The place suggests mysteries The Da Vinci Code will never help a traveler unravel. After a week following in the footsteps of Brown's characters, I have not come away with an enhanced appreciation for the blockbuster novel. But I am in awe of the extraordinary and enigmatic places it has taken me.
Photography courtesy Sony Pictures
This article was first published in May 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For more information on travel to Europe, visit AAA.com/travel or visit an AAA branch.