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Crusaders on track of the Da Vinci code

g and compass

The Advertiser, Adelaide Australia

Crusaders on track of the Da Vinci code

A best-selling work of fiction has sent thousands in search of a dubious `truth' reports BEN ENGLISH in London


ANY Australians wandering around the St Sulpice Church in Paris last week would have beheld an intriguing sight.

Deep in the candlelit gloom of this vast domed monolith, Wallaby captain George Gregan had gathered with several of his Test teammates.

But the skipper was not searching for divine assistance on the rugby pitch.

Rather, he was joining a pilgrimage that is growing faster than any religion ? The Da Vinci Code crusade.

Inspired by the publishing phenomenon of 2004 ? Dan Brown's whodunit thriller of religious riddles ? fans of The Da Vinci Code have flocked to sites mentioned in the book.

In the process, they have spawned a mini tourism industry, stretching from Milan to Edinburgh, that is proving almost as lucrative as the book sales.

In the French capital, where the Wallabies staged their own ad-hoc tour, The Da Vinci Code tourists line up at The Louvre. It is here that the murderous opening scene of the story is set.

Some would say the prices charged by the dedicated tour guides are equally criminal.

A seven-day Da Vinci Code theme tour with lodging at the sprawling 15-bedroom Baroque castle Chateau de Villette ? another key location in the book ? costs a party of 12 $70,000.

Hostess Olivia Hsu Decker, the California real estate agent who owns the chateau, says not only is the program good value (it includes breakfast and a four-day "intensive" on the book), it is good diplomacy.

"This is a phenomenon, a spiritual healing that is bringing Americans back to France," she says. "It's also telling the world the truth about the most dramatic cover-up in history."

That last point is highly debatable.

Historians have widely dismissed Brown's grand conspiracy theory that the Catholic Church has presided over a 2000-year secret that Jesus survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene and had children whose descendants became French kings in a bloodline that survives to this day.

The author borrows freely from the myths and stories about freemasonry and the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks who protected medieval pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem in the 12th century.

Factual errors in the book annoy Brian Nicholson, the verger ? or protector ? of the medieval Temple Church.

Located on the banks of the Thames, it is another landmark from the book that has seen a 50 per cent increase in visitors. "I think churches may well take exception to the book's economy with the truth and representation of the church," Mr Nicholson said.

"The fact that worries me more than anything is that particularly people from the States take what is in the book as 100 per cent fact.

"I had one woman insist quite angrily that this place was built as a shrine to Dan Brown's book. I couldn't convince her it was built 800 years before the author was born."

Mr Nicholson admits voluntary payments by visitors have soared, but insists that has as much to do with the relocation of the donation box to a bowl in the middle of the church.

THERE is similar exasperation at St Sulpice, where a sign has been pinned up stating: "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple."

St Sulpice rector Paul Roumanet says he found the book amusing and credits it with lifting attendance by more than 30,000 a year. But he is worried the assertions about Jesus and Mary Magdalene are "untrue and injurious to Christians".

But controversy over the book ? it has inspired more than a dozen books attacking it ? appears merely to have added to its popularity.

In America, where sales have hit nine million, this is seen by some as confirmation that the pedophilia scandal that has plagued the Catholic church has sent its public esteem plummeting to the extent that Rome's servants are seen as viable mass-market villains.

Nobody is worried about truth or controversy at Rosslyn Church, 11km north of Edinburgh. Here, a doubling of visits to an expected 80,000 for 2004 is helping fund vital refurbishment of the historic chapel.

AS The Da Vinci Code books walk off the church gift shop's shelves, the nearby Ye Olde Original Rosslyn Hotel is enjoying an unprecedented boom.

"We're looking at putting on extra staff to cope with the lunchtime trade," beamed owner Grahame Harris.

In London, there's no less cashing in.

For just $592, a guide will drive you to the key sites, including Westminster Abbey and The 12th century Temple Church in a seven-hour tour, admission prices not included.

"It's a seven-hour tour with your own private guide, so we have found people have very much enjoyed it and seen it as good value," said British Tours Ltd's Amanda Williamson.

"You can also do a three-hour Da Vinci Code tour for just $414.75."

Alternatively, a return tube ticket between Westminster Abbey and the Temple Church costs about $5, with a further $15 for entry to the Abbey.

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