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Pilgrimage of the Da Vinci code-breakers

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Pilgrimage of the Da Vinci code-breakers By Nic Fleming

(Filed: 07/08/2004)

Edna Smith was doing a brisk trade in the Rosslyn Chapel gift shop yesterday. Among the popular staples of silver Celtic jewellery and souvenir videos being snapped up by eager tourists, one item in particular is helping to swell the coffers.

A dozen copies of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, a novel rapidly becoming the holiday read of 2004, had been sold by lunchtime, Mrs Smith reported. It is not, however, just takings from the paperback's £6.99 cover price that are bringing in much-needed funds.

Last month a record 9,029 people visited the 15th century chapel in its tranquil location on the edge of the Esk Valley, seven miles south of Edinburgh - a 96 per cent increase on last year.

A quick straw poll of visitors yesterday was enough to confirm that the dramatic increase is largely thanks to the growing legions of Da Vinci Code devotees making pilgrimages to the setting for the blockbuster's final scenes.

The book's effect does not stop there. Nearby hotels and restaurants are having to take on extra staff to cope with the surge in business.

Other locations in the novel are also benefiting. The Temple Church in central London has seen a 50 per cent increase in visitors. Guides at Westminster Abbey and the Louvre in Paris are frequently asked for directions to spots chosen by Brown as backdrops for his pacy thriller.

The novel follows the adventures of Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor who is asked to help to solve the bizarre murder of a renowned curator of the Louvre.

He and Sophie Neveu, a young and of course attractive French cryptographer, embark on a quest that requires deciphering riddles, codes and anagrams, some of which are contained in Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous works.

Central to the story is the notion that for 2,000 years dark powers in the Catholic Church have hidden the secret that Jesus married Mary Magdelene, they had a child, and their bloodline survives to this day.

The author borrows freely from the history and mythology of freemasonry and the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks who protected medieval pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem in the 12th century.

The book's worldwide sales have passed the 10 million mark, of which almost eight million were hardback, making it the best-selling hardback novel ever. In Britain, sales have reached 538,000 in four months.

A steady stream of visitors entered Rosslyn Chapel beneath a warm sun yesterday morning.

Several said they had made the trip specifically to see if the features of The Da Vinci Code existed in real life. Gordon and Teresa Gibbons from Vancouver were there as part of a week-long holiday in Scotland with their daughters Katie, 12, and Kiara, 10.

Mr Gibbons, a pension fund manager, said: "We both read the book last month. We were originally going to spend our whole week's holiday in Edinburgh, but we enjoyed The Da Vinci Code so much that we decided to make a detour."

Mrs Gibbons, a teacher, said: "I wanted to come and see the carvings that were in the book. It's not that I believe the Holy Grail is here, but I learnt so much from the story."

Stuart Beattie, the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, is grateful for the stream of extra visitors because funds are needed for a big renovation programme.

Graham Harris, the owner of the nearby Olde Original Rosslyn Hotel, said: "I have been here 31 years and I have never known this level of interest. I'm having to rethink staffing levels. I know it's down to The Da Vinci Code because the customers have told me so."

Some 330 miles away, the fortress-like 12th century Temple Church sits in a sleepy courtyard at the centre of a maze of narrow alleyways and passages on the north bank of the Thames in central London.

Built by the Knights Templar, it is modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Before the Da Vinci Code effect, the round church, one of only three surviving examples in Britain, averaged 200 to 300 visitors a day.

The Rev Robin Griffith-Jones, whose official title is Master of the Temple, estimates that visitor numbers have increased by about 50 per cent.

The verger, Brian Nicholson, whose duties include showing people around the church, has got used to being asked questions relating to the sequence towards the end of The Da Vinci Code that features the church.

The Rev Griffith-Jones said: "The effect has been extraordinary. The number of Americans has doubled in the last 12 to 18 months.

"The first few times the verger was asked enthusiastically whether he had read the book, being a sensible man, he assumed they were talking about the Bible. Now, of course, he knows the sacred text being referred to is in fact The Da Vinci Code."

Further Reading:

In Focus (Bro. Tom Hanks, etc.)