When Olivia Decker bought a French chateau south of Paris five years ago, the San Francisco real estate agent had no idea it would play a central role in a bestselling novel.
But today the Chateau de Villette has moved onto the tourist map as curious travelers trace the sites described in Dan Brown's hit novel, The Da Vinci Code. It is to the chateau that Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, the protagonists in the fast-paced novel, flee after eluding police in Paris.
The runaway success of the book has spawned dozens of tours to sites in Paris, London and Scotland that are mentioned in the novel, which is to be made into a film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.
Chateau owner Decker and the Beyond Boundaries company have organized a tour that includes a five nights' stay at the Chateau de Villette with all breakfasts and two dinners, visits to all book locations in Paris, lunch at Paris' legendary Ritz Hotel, a shopping-restaurant trip and an evening session to discuss the book and its messages.
The cost is $4,500 per person _ but then, the participants will be staying in one of the chateau's 19 bedrooms. There are also 21 bathrooms and a chapel. The chateau can be visited only on arranged tours or by renting the entire estate _ for $7,000 a day.
Among other companies, Paris Muse and Museum Pass offer tours of artworks within the Louvre that tie in with the book, and Fodor's publishes an excellent do-it-yourself online guide to many book-related sites in Paris.
Tours in London visit the Temple Church and Sir Isaac Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey; fans who continue on to Scotland study the symbolic sculptings at Roslyn Chapel.
For Decker, the association with The Da Vinci Code began in 2000. She said Brown's art historian wife, "Blythe called one day and asked to come here to do research for the book." Decker consented, but was not at the chateau when the author's wife visited.
Blythe Brown's research must have been quite thorough, though, because most of the book's scenes laid at the chateau match its layout. Visitors can see the marble spiral staircase mentioned in the book, as well as the richly furnished drawing room where the fictional Sir Leigh Teabing meets with Langdon and Neveu.
In the chateau's old stone barn several hundred yards from the mansion is a loft reached by ladder, where an important discovery is made in the novel.
But sites related to the book aren't the only reason to visit the 17th century chateau.
Floor-to-ceiling windows in its elegant octagonal Grand Salon provide a stunning view of the fountain and statue-lined cascade that rises up the hill behind.
The barn houses a true rarity. "This is one of only two 12th century wine presses still in existence in France," Decker said, pointing to a huge wooden contrivance that occupies much of the barn's ground floor.
Elsewhere in the chateau's 220-acre grounds are several carved sphinxes and a large obelisk from Egypt, and there are gardens designed by the noted French landscape artist Le Notre.
While Brown's descriptions of the chateau mostly conform with reality, that is not always true with other places mentioned in the book, despite the author's claim that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
In fact, a former Parisian who read the book found a number of factual errors in it.
""Brown places Versailles northwest of Paris when it is southwest," said Sidonie Sawyer, who now lives in Miami. The author also describes the American Embassy as being a mile from the Hotel Crillon; it actually is directly across the street.
First stop for Da Vinci Code fans here is the Louvre museum. The murder of the museum's curator, Jacques Sauniere, sets off a code-littered search for the Holy Grail.
Sauniere's body is found in the Denon wing's Grand Gallery, which is an impressively long, parquet-floored passage lined with stunning artworks, among them several by Leonardo da Vinci.
Two of the latter paintings play major parts in the book. Coded messages lead the protagonists to the Mona Lisa and the Madonna of the Rocks. Brown places them close to each other in the Grand Gallery, but in fact they are quite far apart. This year, however, the Mona Lisa, always besieged by hordes of camera-clicking tourists, will be moved to the Salle des Etats, quite close to the Madonna.
Some of the novel's action in the Louvre takes place in an office that a Louvre spokesmansaid does not exist, and Brown has protagonist Langdon throw a tracking bug out the window of the men's room onto the bed of a moving truck. The men's room on this floor has no window, and even if it did, it would require a prodigious heave to reach the nearest road.
Perhaps nettled by such inconsistencies, Louvre officials have taken a standoffish attitude toward the book.
"We do not comment on works of fiction," the Louvre's Agnes Basset said dismissively. She said she didn't know how many book-related tours come through.
Similar frustrations with The Da Vinci Code apparently have nettled the pastor of Paris' massive Church of St. Sulpice, where another important scene takes place. Father Paul Roumanet has put up a sign that reads, "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent bestselling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple."
But like the Louvre, which overflows with famous works of art, the church is worth visiting for reasons other than tracing book sites.
The Marquis de Sade was christened in this church, and Victor Hugo was married there. Just to the right as one enters, three huge Delacroix paintings occupy an alcove. One of them, Jacob Fighting With the Angel, reportedly was author Ernest Hemingway's favorite.
Most intriguing is a thin brass strip called the Rose Line that is embedded in the floor of the church. Marking the precise path of the sun's light on the solstice, it leads to and runs up the church's most unusual feature, a 30-foot obelisk dating to 1745. This is where, in the book, the monk Silas smashes the stone floor with a 6-foot-tall brass candlestick in his search for the Holy Grail.
Guide Catherine Aubin, a Parisian who is working with the tour company Beyond Boundaries, adds an interesting dimension to her Da Vinci Code tours: Aubin relates the ways many artists wove political statements ("code messages") into their paintings. In the Louvre, she points out such messages in Leonardo da Vinci paintings as well as in the 24 Rubens' paintings of Louis XIII, every one of which, she said, is politically charged.
As to the authenticity of the claims made in the novel _ that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that the Catholic Church wrote women out of religious history and that the supersecret Priory of Sion existed, among them _ readers will have to decide for themselves. In any case, taking a Da Vinci Code tour is a intriguing way to see some of Paris' attractions.
Jay Clarke is former travel editor of the Miami Herald.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Several airlines have connecting service from Tampa to Paris from many U.S. gateways.
TOUR COMPANIES: A number of companies offer Da Vinci Code themed tours. A guided half-day tour in Paris will cost about $135. Tours that include trans-Atlantic flights and tours in both France and Great Britain may cost $3,000 or more per person. Here are some of them:
+ Beyond Boundaries; call toll-free 1-800-487-1136; wwwbeyondboundariestravel.com.
+ Paris Muse, 011 33 6 73 77 33 52; www.parismuse.com.
+ Museum Pass, www.museumpass.com.
+ Paris Through Expatriate Eyes, (415) 388-4956, www.paris-expat.com.
+ Sacred Journeys for Women, toll-free 1-988-779-6696; www.sacredjourneys.com.
+ Affordable Tours, toll-free 1-800-935-2620; www.affordabletours.com.