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Hunt for 'Code' clues in France

By Jim Bittermann
CNN Senior Correspondent

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"Code-heads" have been queuing up for the Louvre.
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VILLETTE, France (CNN) -- It is a dark and stormy night. Yet at the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, there isn't a single self-mutilating albino monk in sight.

Along the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, not even one dead curator sprawls on the museum's famous parquet floor.

And in the hayloft of a chateau outside Paris, the secret listening post just isn't there.

Yet even if they can't find all the details mentioned in the book, fans of "The Da Vinci Code" seem to have an insatiable need to link the fiction to reality -- especially at the Louvre, where the opening murder scene takes place.

Jacque le Roux, an art historian and Louvre tour guide, happily sets straight the implausibilities in the murder mystery -- including one in the first paragraph, where the victim is described as a 76-year-old curator.

Everyone knows the mandatory retirement age in France is 65, he says.

"The curator of the museum gets killed near the main gates of the gallery," le Roux says. "They say as well that he closes the security system with an iron gate. ... There is no iron gate but a wood door. It's the possibility that is fun for us to show during the tour."

Still, he does not disparage those now known as "Da Vinci Code" tourists.

"There is no bad reason to come to the Louvre," he says. "To us it is interesting as well, because we can start a conversation and discuss other things.

"They spend more time in front of the paintings and they try to spot details, symbols -- basically what the painters wanted to tell them, rather than what they wanted to show them."

But across town at the Church of St. Sulpice, where the novel's mad monk uses a candle holder to murder a fictional nun, the church fathers are not so upbeat about the additional attention.

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No mystery about its stained glass, church says.

They felt obliged to put up a sign explaining that the brass strip running across the floor is not a pagan astronomical device and that, contrary to the narrative, no secret society spelled out its intitials on the church's stained glass.

"It says a lot of things that are not true, and I am annoyed that it says at the begining of the book that everything that is historic, cultural is accurate," says St. Sulpice historian Michel Rouge.

"Most are not true -- expecially about what it says about this church."

Some people view the book as an attack on Christianity itself.

The book supposes that Mary Magdaline was the lover if not wife of Jesus, that the couple had a child who founded a blood line of the kings of France, and that one of the fastest growing movements in the church, Opus Dei, is populated with plotters and assassins.

At the Opus Dei headquarters, scene of yet another murder in the novel, officials are not amused -- and have taken to inviting "Da Vinci Code" tourists in for damage control.

"It is of concern because although it's a novel and one doesn't want to overreact, it does have a pseudo-academic disguise, and therefore things that are presented as facts are unusually damaging," says Opus Dei spokesman Andrew Soane.

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The book has sold 600,000 copies in France since April.

Another factor that has caused Catholics in particular to take a work of fiction so seriously is the novel's huge popularity on both sides of the Atlantic; 600,000 copies have been sold in France alone since it went on sale in April.

"I think the deeper spiritual question here that the church really has to ask is, how is it that they have a hard time getting people to come come to church on Sunday, but millions and millions of people are ready to plunk down $35 to pick up a hard copy of 'The DaVInci Code,'" says National Catholic reporter John Allen.

"What that indicates is that there's a tremendous spirtual interest, a tremendous hunger out there that, for whatever reason, institutional Christianity does not seem able to satisfy."

What is clear is that the passions of the "Code-heads," as they are called, run deep.

At the Chateau de Villette near Paris, American owner Olivia Decker discovered months after "The Da Vinci Code" came out that her 185-acre property figures notably in the book.

And while up until now she has only rented the place out for a few high-end filmmakers and high-rolling tourists, she too is getting into "Da Vinci Code" tourism, sharing her 18-bedroom home with tourists for $55,000 a week.

"That is the whole week, meals included and a seven-night stay, a visit to Monet's Garden and other locations," Decker says.

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"There is no bad reason to come to the Louvre," says le Roux.

For Decker, the book is popular because it puts ancient mysteries in simple language and poses a different view of Christian teachings.

And, she says, its popularity is just beginning.

She has already been contacted by a movie company planning to shoot a screen version of "The Da Vinci Code" in and around her chateau.


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