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'Code' breakers search Paris for fictional facts

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 2004


They have been spotted prowling the damp streets of Dublin, poring over dog-eared editions of James Joyce's "Ulysses," and crowding outside the gate of Peter Mayles's home in France, brandishing copies of "A Year in Provence."

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Nowadays, new incarnations of literary tourists are descending in droves on Paris, intent on cracking "The Da Vinci Code" by following in the footsteps of the heroes and villains in Dan Brown's bestselling historical murder mystery.

From the shadows of Saint Sulpice Church, parish priest Paul Roumanet looks on indulgently as a knot of sightseers examine a rod of brass inlaid into the flagstones of the ancient floor that plays a key part in the plot. "For many of them it's a nonreligious pilgrimage," he says. "And lots find it hard to understand that the book is fiction."

Few who take the various "Da Vinci Code" tours of Paris these days can fail to spot that the book blends fact with fiction. But as they explore the line that separates the two, they are feeding a boom in the literary corner of the travel market that seems to soothe a postmodern malaise.

"It is the existential doubt that people have about modern experience" that drives them beyond the covers of a book to the places that inspired them, says Phil Cousineau, a writer and filmmaker who himself leads literary tours to Europe. "You can read a book or see a movie, but you're not quite sure it's real until you've been there."

Ellen McBreen, a Paris-based art historian and tour guide agrees. Following a book, she says, "gives travel more depth, and everybody wants something that feels more real and more authentic, even if, ironically, it is based on fiction."

Ms. McBreen runs lively but academically rigorous tours of the Louvre, where Mr. Brown's book opens, examining the evidence for the book's thesis that the Holy Grail was not a cup, but actually Mary Magdalene, the bride of Jesus, who bore his children and carried his bloodline, which ran to the early kings of France.

McBreen starts her tour outside the museum by a Napoleonic triumphal arch, so as to recall Napoleon's quip - quoted in the book - "What is history, but a fable agreed upon?"

"The idea that there is no absolute historical truth, that it depends who is writing the history, is a bit unsettling but exciting to a lot of my clients," she says.

In ages before such relativism became accepted, pilgrims followed only in the footsteps of saints. Today, suggests Mr. Cousineau, travelers also seek out the haunts of artists and writers in order to satisfy "the urge to take things to a deeper level, because so much of life is superficial and vicarious."

There is no more luxurious way to escape the superficial and vicarious while seeking out the secrets of "The Da Vinci Code" than to stay at Olivia Hsu Decker's 17th-century chateau outside Paris.

A week there, including breakfast and tours of all the spots mentioned in the book (including the Ritz Hotel, of course) will set a couple back $6,900. But they will have the satisfaction of being part of the plot: the Chateau de Villette appears in the book as the home of an eccentric English expert on the Holy Grail.