On the Road with The Da Vinci Code
|What lurks beneath the Louvre's mighty glass pyramids? According to The Da Vinci Code, it's ancient secrets; in real life, it's an underground mall. (photo: Rick Steves)|
By Rick Steves
What do Paris and Milan have in common? Breezy fashions, massive cathedrals, inspired masterpieces, tired tourists, and a new movie. If you're a fan of The Da Vinci Code and are heading to Paris or Milan, you can visit some of its most-talked-about sights. Of course, two of the biggest — Paris' Louvre Museum and The Last Supper in Milan — are must-see destinations, with or without the Code.
As millions of devoted readers know, much of The Da Vinci Code is set in Paris. Several tour companies, such as Paris Walks, have put together walking tours based on the book to satisfy tourists' curiosity. Allow about two hours and $16 for the experience (see www.paris-walks.com for more info).
First on the Code's sightseeing list? The Louvre's Grand Gallery, where curator Jacques Saunière, who was astonishingly productive while dying, left a number of cryptic messages. His murder sets off the hunt, as the protagonist Robert Langdon and police officer Sophie Neveu follow clues hidden in art, history, and religious lore to solve the murder as they track the Holy Grail.
Dan Brown also sets other scenes at the Louvre, including the room displaying Leonardo's Mona Lisa, where Langdon and Neveu find clues; the Arc du Carrousel, where the crime-solving duo drive off into the night; and under the Inverted Pyramid in the underground Carrousel du Louvre — which in real life functions as a shopping mall.
The Louvre is Paris' artistic triumph, where you can not only visit Mona, but also wave hello to the curvy Venus de Milo and other masterpieces not mentioned in the Code. Save time by buying your Louvre admission ticket from the self-serve ticket machines instead of standing in longer lines at the ticket windows. Tickets cost $11, but are discounted to $8 on Wednesday and Friday evenings, when the Louvre crowds thin out and you can imagine Langdon and Neveu roaming the halls in search of evidence.
Cashing in on the mother lode of The Da Vinci Code, the Louvre recently added a new $13 audioguide tour called "Step Inside The Da Vinci Code," geared to a broad audience, with the fictional Bezu Fache (the gruff French police captain in the book) narrarating the tour.
The Da Vinci Code includes a scene on Paris' famous Left Bank, in which one of the book's baddies chases down a "keystone" that will reveal the Grail, supposedly located in St. Sulpice Church.
But a better reason to visit St. Sulpice is to see and hear its intimately accessible organ. For pipe-organ enthusiasts, it's one of Europe's great musical treats. Current keyboardist Daniel Roth continues the church's long tradition of welcoming guests in three languages while playing five keyboards at once. Every Sunday morning, the door to the organ loft opens after the 10:30 Mass, allowing visitors to scamper like little sixteenth notes up and up to see Roth perform the next Mass. You'll have 30 minutes to kill before the organ plays. If you're late or rushed, show up around 12:30 and — as someone leaves — you can slip in, climb up, and catch the rest of the performance. (See www.danielrothsaintsulpice.org for concert dates.)
The crime solvers of The Da Vinci Code dip down into Italy, specifically to Milan's Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It's here where Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper has inspired viewers for centuries. But because of the hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code — which asserts that Mary Magdalene is depicted in the painting — tickets are booked at least a month in advance, so plan ahead.
To make a reservation, book online at www.cenacolovinciano.org (which beats calling 011-39-02-8942-1146 from the States to get a busy signal). Admission costs $10, including the reservation fee. Only 25 tourists at a time are allowed in — every 15 minutes for 15 minutes — to commune with The Last Supper.
You probably won't see Mary in the painting, but you won't see much of Jesus either. Because of Leonardo's experimental fresco technique, deterioration of the mural began within six years of its completion. The 21-year restoration project (completed in 1999) peeled away 500 years of touch-ups, leaving a faint but thrilling masterpiece.
While The Da Vinci Code may be a good read, it's light on accurate history, since Dan Brown took a lot of creative license in his storytelling. Still, tours and independent travelers can enjoy the Grail trail. With a stellar sightseeing lineup that includes the Louvre, St. Sulpice, and The Last Supper, it's easy to do. Case closed.
This article appeared earlier in Rick's syndicated nationwide column. If you'd like to get your travel tips fresh, contact your local newspaper and ask them to start running the "Rick Steves' Europe" column weekly (distributed by Tribune Media Services).