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Pop Culture Trips

Jessica Antola A tour group gathers at the Louvre

Photo: Jessica Antola

"Hello, I'm Brad." We're standing outside the Mabillon Métro stop in St.-Germain-des-Prés, but Brad could pass for the mayor of Margaritaville. He is tall, with a flower-print shirt, sandy hair, and the toneless accent of an American broadcaster. "Is there anyone here not among the fifty million people who have read The Da Vinci Code?" Brad asks the assembled crowd of around 40. Not a hand goes up. "Well, you'll find this tour very worthwhile today," he says, "because we're going to find the Holy Grail." Personally, I haven't come to find the Holy Grail but am on something of a pilgrimage: I'm trying to puzzle out why so many people, inspired by a movie or an "event" book like The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, travel in search of places that cannot properly be said to exist: Harry Potter's England, the Paris of Amélie, the New Zealand of Lord of the Rings, the Notting Hill of Notting Hill.

The phenomenon is hardly a new one—in Ireland a friend recently noticed an ancient highway sign pointing the way to a bridge used in a 1952 John Wayne movie—but it is growing. The Iowa cornfield seen in the 1989 film Field of Dreams now gets 65,000 visitors a year. Whole tour operations have opened up shop exclusively to service the Harry Potter fan base. Sideways and Lost in Translation have spawned maps and tours and hotel deals. And this month, the juggernaut known as Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code arrives.

Brad has brought us into église St.-Sulpice, the church that figures heavily in The Da Vinci Code. As he gently explains what a Pietà is, I drift away, walking through the hush of the remarkable cathedral. Modest signs calmly implore visitors to remember that St.-Sulpice is a functioning place of worship, with actual parishioners whom tourists ought not to disturb. Then, in the transept, I notice dozens of people—some copying a text word for word—huddled around a series of bulletins, printed in both English and French: "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel," reads the English version, "this is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a 'Rose Line.' It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory, which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. No mystical notion can be derived from this instrument of astronomy except to acknowledge that God the Creator is the master of time."

In spite of the great upheaving excitement surrounding the movie, St.-Sulpice insisted on maintaining its quiet dignity, refusing to allow any filming within its walls. The same cannot be said for the tiny Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Edinburgh, which, like St.-Sulpice, figures prominently in The Da Vinci Code. The chapel's governing trust agreed to let Ron Howard use the building for his film, which only threatens to overwhelm it further. Everything at Rosslyn is intimately scaled, and the mania about The Da Vinci Code has rendered this intimacy absurd. The gift store is packed shoulder to shoulder with camera-toting visitors, and when we all finally file into the chapel itself, we number more than 500. "Well, I usually walk around, but there are too many of you. I'll do the tour from here," says Simon, the chapel's docent, as he begins to speak from the nave. "This is a busy, working chapel. We perform funerals, baptisms, and weddings. In 1997 we had six thousand visitors. This year we're on pace for well over a hundred twenty thousand."

Even as the chapel accepts its immense windfall and plows it back into much-needed refurbishments—"we can't complain," says Simon, "we need the money to do preservation work"—the fabric of the chapel has started to wear away under the waves of tourists, and relic thieves have pirated away pieces of its precious stonework. When the estimate of 120,000 visitors began to appear low—26,000 people crossed the threshold last August alone—a note of panic set in, and the chapel's director, Stuart Beattie, indicated that he might start restricting the flow of pilgrims. Their money will help preserve Rosslyn, but their feet and hands and insatiable acquisitive curiosity may help annihilate it. What better symbol for the places that become fetish destinations?

It's an odd turn of events: to serve as a backdrop for a lavishly produced illusion, a location is dressed up as something it isn't. Tourists then stream in to experience the illusion for themselves, and so to prop up the expectations of its new visitors—and keep the dollars flowing—the location dresses itself up all over again. "The movies we love, they come from a real place," says Jeannie Barresi, whose company, Beyond Boundaries Travel, offers packages built around the Harry Potter franchise. "But film locations don't look like what they look like in the film. And especially now, with CGI, they're so enhanced. If you go to Alnwick Castle, you're not going to find goblins running out from behind the columns." Except that you will: Beyond Boundaries does everything it can to make sure children (and adults) won't be disappointed by reality. The company throws banquets; charters the "Hogwarts Express"; conducts Dragon Slaying, Herbology, and Potion classes; and sponsors falconry displays and treasure hunts.

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