Wednesday, October 27, 2004

'Da Vinci Code' Fanatics Digging Up the Dead

`Da Vinci Code' Fans Besiege French Village in Mystery Quest

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- There's profit in things that go bump in the night,
though for the mayor of the devil-infested French hamlet of
Rennes-le-Chateau, it's the dynamite going boom that has him tallying the
mysteries evoked in Dan Brown's bestseller ``The Da Vinci Code.''

``They set off explosions at all hours and climb over the cemetery wall to
dig up the dead,'' says Mayor Jean-Francois L'Huilier, whose mountain
village of 112 people atop the Valley of God in southwestern France has
become a Mecca for fans of novelist Brown's bestseller.

``It's a remarkable book, but I'm afraid the world has entered a period of
imperceptible folly,'' says the former French paratrooper turned
politician. ``And that's why I had to exhume the corpse of Berenger
Sauniere.''

Just who or what the devotees of the novel are trying to dig up in
Rennes-le-Chateau remains a lucrative bone of contention.

Local innkeeper Andrew Usher, whose Hotel au Coeur de Rennes serves as the
assembly ground for gravediggers and ghost busters from as far away as
Japan and Argentina, says ``The Da Vinci Code'' is the most successful
installment in a line of some 500 books and numerous documentary films
that orbit around a renegade Catholic priest named Sauniere.

The cleric arrived in the village in 1885 and spent the next 26 years
resurrecting a ruined 11th-century church dedicated to the Magdalene.
Above the door, he chiseled the message: ``This Place Is Terrible,'' and
then erected a life-size statue of a devil wearing a green toga while
balancing a holy-water font on his horns.

Shades of Rocky Horror

``It's right out of `The Rocky Horror Show,''' is how Usher explains the
cobwebbed house of worship to his guests.

L'Huilier says the impoverished priest became inexplicably wealthy.
Alongside the tiny church, Sauniere, who died in 1917 at the age of 65,
built a luxurious villa and a lavishly appointed tower from which he
corresponded with banks in Paris, received French financial newspapers and
surveyed the Valley of God below while sipping rum with his housekeeper
and the priest from neighboring Rennes-les-Bains.

In September, L'Huilier moved Sauniere's body from the village cemetery to
a fortified mausoleum in the garden of the refurbished villa. It now costs
three euros ($3.83) to visit the site, one euro to view the Valley of God
through a telescope installed by the Rotary Club and five euros for a
bottle of Cuvee de Rennes-le- Chateau, a red wine with a photo of Sauniere
on the label.

``Sauniere's devil and Brown's book have been marvelous for the economy,''
the 43-year-old Usher says. ``In 2003, we had 80,000 visitors to the
region. It's not yet Halloween and we've already topped 100,000 visitors
for the year.''

Conspiracy Theories

Valley of God merchants such as Usher say the money-spinning mystery of
Rennes-le-Chateau -- now in its 2,004th year -- is a creepy yarn that
``The Da Vinci Code'' last year detonated into a $20 million local
industry. The novel is the gory tale of a Harvard University professor who
discovers a Vatican conspiracy to cover up the marriage of Jesus Christ to
Mary Magdalene and his fathering of an ancestral lineage observable on
paintings that hang in the Louvre.

For the past 77 weeks, ``The Da Vinci Code'' has reigned supreme on 42
fiction bestseller lists globally, selling more than 9 million hardcover
copies and generating an estimated $225 million in retail sales in the
U.S. alone for its publisher Doubleday Broadway, a division of Random
House Inc., which is a unit of German media company Bertelsmann AG,
according to Constance Sayre, director of the publishing-industry
consulting group Market Partners International in New York.

``The book has a lock on the international market,'' Sayre says. ```The Da
Vinci Code' is a huge business.''

The book has been a commercial phenomenon, L'Huilier says, transforming
the crumbling village into a boom town for those seeking, among other
things, proof that Christ moved there with his family and that Sauniere
discovered and then hid the evidence.

Not for Sale

``The south of France always has been popular for foreign visitors,'' says
Marie Marselli, a broker who handles property transactions in the Valley
of God area at Cathare Immobilier, a real estate agency named after a
heretical medieval sect.

Since ``The Da Vinci Code'' was published in the spring of 2003, Marselli
says her agency has been inundated with international inquiries from
people seeking to purchase land in the village. ``But it's a small place
and there's no property for sale,'' she says.

The surplus of supernatural resources in Rennes-le-Chateau for centuries
has drawn paranormal tourists to the ancient Roman garrison outpost. There
are precisely 19.5 million gold francs ``spread on the mountain by the
devil,'' according to an oral history assembled by villagers and
transcribed in 1832 by French travel writer Labouisse-Rochefort.

Slaughtered Knights

The treasure story was rejuvenated in ``Southwestern France,'' an 1890
guidebook by Augustus Hare that recounts Vatican-backed French troops
laying siege to a Templar stronghold in nearby Montsegur in 1244.
Slaughtered along with the knights were 50 ``perfects,'' priests who
rejected all sacraments and maintained that Christ didn't die on the
cross.

Medieval historians mostly agree that a handful of knights and perfects
escaped the siege of Montsegur, and it's here where the mystery of
Rennes-le-Chateau begins to ripen.

Usher says some of his guests maintain the heretics fled with the mortal
remains of Christ and the Magdalene. Others suggest they left with two
coded scrolls that showed Christ siring the ancient French ruling family
called the Merovingians. Still others believe the survivors absconded with
the treasure of Solomon or found an underground passageway into Hell.

``Whatever it was,'' L'Huilier says, ``people believe it ended up near
Rennes-le-Chateau and the clues to finding it are in the Valley of God and
inside Sauniere's church.''

Dr. Who in Rennes

The priest remained a popular local ghost character until 1967, when the
French surrealist writer and prankster Gerard de Sede wrapped the entire
package in an adventure novel titled ``The Accursed Treasure of
Rennes-le-Chateau.'' In the book, de Sede uncoils a conspiracy protected
for centuries by a group of fictional guardians called the Priory of Sion.

In 1969, Henry Lincoln, a scriptwriter for the cult U.K. science-fiction
television series ``Dr. Who,'' said he read de Sede's pulp fiction while
on vacation in France. Three years later, Lincoln filmed the first of
three documentaries on the mystery for the BBC history and archeology
program ``Chronicle,'' interviewing art historians such as Anthony Blunt.

Priory of Sion

By the end of the decade, Lincoln hooked up with the U.S. short-story
writer Richard Leigh and the New Zealand photographer Michael Baigent to
collaborate on their 1982 bestseller, ``The Holy Blood and the Holy
Grail,'' originally published by Jonathan Cape. The book is perhaps best
described as a non-academic history that for many legitimized the Priory
of Sion as an authentic institution.

London lawyer Paul Sutton suspects it's no coincidence that the opening
page of ``The Da Vinci Code'' begins: ``FACT: The Priory of Sion -- a
European secret society founded in 1099 -- is a real organization.''

Earlier this month in a U.K. court, Sutton, on behalf of Leigh and
Baigent, filed a copyright infringement suit against Random House Group
Ltd., the U.K. publisher of ``The Da Vinci Code.'' Sutton says that the
suit seeks unspecified damages and an account of the book's profits.

``My clients spent 20 years using all their skill and labor to do the
historical research contained in Brown's book,'' Sutton argues. ``That's
the basis of the lawsuit.''

New Toilets

Back in Rennes-le-Chateau, L'Huilier dismisses Lincoln, Leigh and Baigent
as peddlers of historical twaddle. At the same time, the mayor says the
farrago has enhanced the Rennes-le-Chateau brand.

``The various quests for ultimate truth already have paid for new public
toilets and a parking lot for the tour buses,'' the 56- year-old mayor
says of the economic growth that includes a tapas bar, a mystical
bookshop, a hot-air balloon magical-mystery tour and a shop that sells
plaster busts of Sauniere's devil. ``We have plans to extend the size of
the village down the mountainside to accommodate the interest.''

Much of the curiosity hinges on the four encrypted parchments Sauniere
purportedly found hidden in a pillar while rebuilding the church. Other
aficionados say the area's sulfurous grottos and crumbling castles are
haunted by the wraiths of the Knights Templar protecting their treasure.
Still other enthusiasts hold that flying saucers land atop Mt. Bugarach to
pick up those pilgrims who have decoded the mystery.

`Real Live Alchemist'

``We also have a perfume shop run by a real live alchemist,'' Usher says
of the commercial development that for the past 30 years has fed off the
mystery. ``Now there's a French fellow who makes 6,000 euros a day
operating UFO expeditions. And please, alert people that Christ is buried
beneath Mt. Cardou and not under my hotel.''

For Marcus Williamson, the 39-year-old managing director of London-based
software company Connectotel Ltd. and Webmaster of a site (
http://www.connectotel.com/rennes ) devoted to the village, each of the
fictions contains wisps of truth.

``I've spent 20 years studying the history that Brown ultimately confected
into 'The Da Vinci Code,''' Williamson says. ``I bought a house here two
years ago because I found the facts so compelling.''

Williamson's Rennes-le-Chateau PowerPoint presentation, flashed to hotel
conference rooms across Europe, says the two most important documents,
genealogies of Christ written in 1244 and 1644, are locked in the safe
deposit box of an unknown bank in the City of London.

The other two scrolls mystery hunters say Sauniere discovered can be seen
on many of the 150,000 Web sites devoted to the whodunit, a computer game
called Gabriel Knight 3 and in a series of French comic books.

Bewildered Tourists

Sipping soda in a cafe filled with the clang of bells from a ``Medieval
Madness'' pinball machine, Williamson frets that the story has spiraled
out of control. ``It's like an Internet virus, with thousands of otherwise
intelligent people convinced that 'The Da Vinci Code' is a work of
non-fiction,'' he says.

Indeed, Jacques Le Roux, director of tour company Paris Avec Vous-Culture,
says many of his customers are ``shattered'' to discover otherwise. For
the past two years, Le Roux's company and five other groups have ushered
more than 180,000 people, including corporate clients from International
Business Machines Corp., Armonk, New York, and Paris-based Societe
Generale SA, through the Louvre on ``decrypting the thriller'' tours that
study the paintings cited in the novel.

``Rennes-le-Chateau doesn't appear in the book, so most people are unaware
of the link until we mention the importance of the village,'' says Le
Roux, a 40-year-old art historian. ``Almost 50 percent of the people on
the tours are disappointed to discover the book is total fiction.''

Ancient Cover-Up?

Dutchman Karel Van Huffelen says the story is factual. The 57- year-old
chartered accountant and former auditor for his country's internal revenue
service eight years ago abandoned his job, moved to the region to unravel
the mystery. ``The Da Vinci Code'' has brought new energy to his efforts,
he says.

``Brown's book is more than a novel,'' Van Huffelen insists. ``Oh, yes, he
knows a lot more about the mystery than he tells the reader. The treasure
is Templar gold, but there are more profound truths than where the money
is. It's difficult for non-initiates to grasp.''

That's putting it mildly.

Inside a stone house a few paces from the Church of the Magdalene,
self-educated archeologist Graham Simmans is wrapped in a tartan blanket
and slumped in a leather armchair. The retired U.K. Royal Air Force
squadron leader slices into a wedge of cheese and says he has devoted the
past 20 years to the quest. To hear him tell the story, the popular
delusions that have sprouted from ``The Da Vinci Code'' are the result of
``the most powerful and enduring cover-up in Christendom.''

Simmans, the author of monographs on the nuances Brown embroidered into
``The Da Vinci Code,'' also says he has discovered the Arc of the Covenant
and isolated the burial chamber of Alexander the Great.

Papal Pizza

It's commercial folly not to take the spiritual slapstick seriously, says
Will Cogan.

``Over 50 percent of my customers are lost souls looking for something,''
says the 31-year-old proprietor of the Pizzeria de la Place in
Rennes-les-Bains. ``I moved here in the summer of 2003 and land prices
already have doubled because of `The Da Vinci Code.' The mystery wasn't
originally part of my business strategy, but I'm looking to make Crusty
Christ and Papal Pepperoni pizzas part of the menu.''

Last Updated: October 26, 2004 21:14 EDT