This article was commissioned by the Naples Daily News Magazine
I’ll let you in on a secret. I pay attention to coincidences. I consider them part of life’s inexplicable magic. I listen to them like I do a good stock tip, knowing that when they occur, there is bound to be a dividend or two hanging around somewhere. If I hadn’t acted on these instincts, the da Vinci Code Journey never would have happened.
Months before I left my home in Austria for my annual visit to the US, I was feeling like a walking Who’s Who of The da Vinci Code. Everywhere I looked, I knew friends connected to the bestseller. My adopted godfather was the Grand Master Emeritus of the Knights Templar in London. My best friends in Scotland were descendants of the aristocratic family that built Rosslyn Chapel. Even my drycleaner miraculously became Deputy Marshall of Westminster Abbey in London.
It was Paul’s appearance at Westminster that clinched it. While in London on my way to the U.S., where I was going to give a series of lectures on the subject, I made a quick visit to that venerable institution to see Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb. I was pondering the idea of a small, select da Vinci Code Tour and was looking for something special—and Westminster Abbey was one of the major locations featured in the book.
As I roamed through the Abbey with my guide-phone pressed to my ear, I wandered too close to the exit door and set off the Abbey’s alarm system, which began to wail ferociously. As I stood, red-faced and guilty, trying to pretend that the screeching whine was not emanating from the plastic object in my hand, a small dapper man in a long red mantle swooshed toward me. With a benevolent smile, he gently took the phone from my clutches and quickly presses a few buttons. The piercing wail stopped abruptly, and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.
That was when the magic happened. The man looked into my eyes and blinked. “I know you.”
Trying to shake the buzz from my ears, I shot an uncomprehending glance at him.
He grinned. “It’s Paul. You know, Paul the drycleaner.”
Yes; it was indeed my Irish drycleaner from my London days—over fifteen years before. The absurdity of it all began to sink into my consciousness as I gazed at Paul standing before me, transformed and stately in his long red mantle.
“Retirement bored me,” he explained in his lilting Irish brogue.
I lowered my voice as my eyes wandered along the stone frieze of one of the most beautiful religious monuments in the world. For a thousand years, this was the historical seat of the protestant Anglican Church. “If I remember, aren’t you, um, Catholic?”
Paul’s eyes twinkled. “Ah yes, so I am, so I am,” he answered softly, pausing appropriately before adding, “And they say God doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
In that discombobulated way that happens when two people meet in extraordinary circumstances, we chatted randomly about our lives. I explained that I was living in France, writing about—I spoke carefully as I was never sure how this will be taken—subjects covered in The da Vinci Code. When Paul didn’t flinch, I mentioned my tour.
To my relief, he beamed. “Oooh, that’ll be lovely. What shall we do, close the Abbey and have a verger—those men in black coats—take you for a private tour and a candlelight dinner? I know exactly the verger. Benjamin makes history positively sing.”
My voice jumped an octave. “Westminster Abbey does that?”
He chuckled. “Oh, not yet, anyway. But leave it to me.”
That’s when I knew my idea for the da Vinci Code Tour will work. Soon afterward, I met an upscale tour operator who jumped at the idea of a small, select journey based upon the bestseller. We honed the journey to four locations—London, Scotland, Paris and Provence—added a sprinkle of superb restaurants, a dash of adventure riding the wild white horses of the Camargue, and a dose of spirituality with a visit to the cave of Mary Magdalene. But the key was my knowledge of the deeper meaning of the subject and the opportunity to be invited as a guest in the homes of my friends connected to the book. The result was an intimate and, at $18,500 per person, selective Da Vinci Code tour. It was a select, once-in-a-lifetime adventure for us all. And it all began by coincidence.
When The da Vinci Code first appeared in 2001, it was a thriller that contained a lot of information I already knew. It is what I call a “bridge book”—something that takes ideas or notions currently outside the current understanding of society and puts them into a form that makes them accessible to the larger public. Whether you loved it or hated it, The da Vinci Code was a work of fiction that forced people to examine what they believe.
Why did this book make such a splash? First of all, the plot: The da Vinci Code purported that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but Jesus’ companion and, sacrilege of all sacrileges, that she was the mother of his child. The author, Dan Brown, inserted the Provencal legend that Mary Magdalene fled to France, and added a twist from the controversial bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail: that Mary’s daughter began the Merovingian line of French royalty. Finally, he wove in the legend of the Holy Grail, the mysteries of the Knights Templar, and the dark secrets of the Priory of Sion.
And so, the journey began by examining the plot of the book. Hinduism uses a spiritual practice call neti neti, which translates as “not this, not that,” and then examines what is left over to discover what is true. In that spirit, I begin our two-week tour in London, the home of the Enlightenment, and where Paul’s magic came into play.
The May weather was perfect, the late sun just setting as our little group swept past the crowds of tourists pressing against the iron railings of Westminster Abbey and was waved inside the cavernous interior. Everything was bathed in a velvety late evening light; beams of soft pale rays glimmered through the carved windows, highlighting the worn, honey-colored arches and the multitudes of memorials carved in stone.
The Canon of Westminster greeted us warmly as we were shown to the carved wooden benches, called quire stalls, to attend Evensong. There we passed a serene hour listening to the beautiful boys voices floating upward as we relaxed into the comfort of ritual. Whatever the Church’s past history, it was important to see it as it is today, performing a daily worship of song and prayer. Then the congregation left, the massive wooden doors closed with a low thud, and we were left alone with a thousand years of history. As Benjamin the verger whisked us into every corner of this magnificent pile of stone, jetlag disappeared and we fell into the timeless wonder of history coming alive.
Finally we stood in front of the monument of Sir Isaac Newton, reclining on a sarcophagus with his elbow resting on stone copies of his greatest tomes, many of their scientific principles still valid today. All around him, the walls were jammed with statues of architects and artists, writers and poets, politicians, explorers—and scientists. Who said religion and science are diametrically opposed?
Benjamin the verger noded his head. Pointing behind Newton to a pyramid with a celestial globe with the zodiac signs, he noted that astronomy and astrology were one and the same a few hundred years ago. Even Newton’s unorthodox interest in alchemy, the mystical art of turning metal to gold, wasn’t so strange, I add. Lead into gold applies to personal transformation and growth.
When religion moved from esoteric to exoteric around the fourth century A.D., it became available to a broad public people, rather than a select minority. It changed from a practice of examining the inner self to that of obeying a set of pre-ordained rules. Esoteric translates as inner—only recently has it taken on New Age connotations.
With these ideas swirling in our heads, it was time for a glass of champagne, before sauntering up a long flight of stone steps into the small oak-paneled dining room where Paul and our candlelight dinner were waiting. Afterward, as a special surprise, a friend whom I had invited to join us reached down and pulled out a set of bagpipes for an impromptu serenade. The music acted as a catalyst to bond our group.
As the group shed a few emotional tears, Paul glanced along the long, polished, fifteenth-century oak table and smiled knowingly.
“Well, well, well,” a guest said as we hopped into the waiting black cabs to take us to the hotel. “One of the most memorable nights in my life. How will you top this?”
Yet events didn’t top each other, but unfolded in layers, so that a picture began to take place. Three days in London flew by in a British blend of crumpets and tea, drinks and dinners, with the occasional visit to a historical monument to tie everything together. Like Sherlock Holmes, we followed in the footsteps of coincidence, seeking to discover with each delightful step how much of the plot of The da Vinci Code is true.
Or not. The major underpinning of The da Vinci Code was the mysterious Priory of Sion, a centuries-old secret society whose Grand Masters were some of Europe’s most influential artists, scientists, and creative minds—such as Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau. Over dinner with Vicki Barker and William Cran—two of Britain’s most respected journalists and filmmakers—at their wisteria-covered Georgian home along the banks of the Thames, we watched Bill’s documentary on the subject. The Priory of Sion is a forgery. The Dossier Secrets, the supporting documentation of this allegedly ancient society, are less than twenty years old.
Once we know that da Vinci wasn’t a Grand Master of a secret society, we later moved on to the effeminate figure he painted next to Jesus in The Last Supper. Hugh Buchanan, one of Scotland’s best-known watercolorists, nailed that one. As many people in Leonardo da Vinci’s times were illiterate, he told us over dinner in Scotland, it was common practice to paint religious figures in a way that they could be easily recognized. It was well known in art circles, he explained, that St. John the Baptist was portrayed as an effeminate figure without a beard.
On to the Knights Templar, the monastic military order that reputedly held a treasure that, according to The da Vinci Code, proved that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Dinner with Grand Master Emeritus of the Knights Templar General Sir Roy Redgrave and Simon LeFevre, Grand Prior of England, Scotland, and Wales, was a night to be remembered.
Into the foyer of the sumptuous Cavalry & Guards Club we sashayed, our heels clattering on the black and white marble floors. We puffed discreetly up the red-carpeted staircase, lined with massive oil portraits of Britain’s greatest generals, then entered the library where Sir Roy and his wife, Lady Valerie, are waiting.
Roy wasn’t well-loved because he is a British General, or a Knight, or Head of the British Armed Forces in Hong Kong and Berlin, or Grand Master Emeritus of the Knights Templar. It’s because both he and his wife are delightful people with wicked senses of humor, as the guests soon found out over dinner. While Valerie guided us through the etiquette of drinking port, Simon gave an after-dinner talk on the Knights Templar.
Formed in Jerusalem in the twelfth century to guard the pilgrim routes in the Holy Land, the Knights Templar were a chivalric order organized to bring peace to an otherwise mayhem of Christian vs. Islamic “this land is mine, no, it’s mine” free-for-all slaughter. The Templars invented the modern concept of banking, allowing people to deposit money in one of their buildings and withdraw it in another country; they invented the checkbook. This is probably why they became too powerful; hence their downfall.
But the story of the Knights Templar treasure was stuff of myths and legends. The modern day Knights Templar is a recent Christian charity formed on the ancient principles of this society.
By the time we arrived in Scotland, we had neti neti-ed ourselves out. Pulling at all the strings of The da Vinci Code’s plot, we discovered, one by one, that most weren’t historically valid. Then again, Dan Brown always did say he was writing fiction.
But wait. The second part of the neti neti process is to examine what is left over. What about those strange grimacing faces that line the inside of the Temple Church in London, or the statues of Mary Magdalene dressed as an Egyptian or a Black Madonna, or the very odd stone carvings called Sheela na Gigs—hags that look, well, as if they are about to be examined by an OB/GYN? Perhaps the plot of The da Vinci Code might not stand up to scrutiny, but there is still something there.
The mysteries culminated when we reached Rosslyn Chapel, a few miles south of Edinburgh. From the outside, Rosslyn looked like a small, nondescript stone chapel on a windswept Scottish hillside. Only when we walked inside does its power hit us. Every inch was covered with carvings: celestial stars and moons, medieval instruments, vines, lines, biblical characters, unicorns, dragons, and kings, knights and queens. A host of intricate illuminations bombarded us from the ceilings, the walls, even the floors.
It was easy to see why this extraordinary building acquired the name Cathedral of Codes. Built by Sir William St. Clair in the fifteenth century, it obviously had a lot more going on than just “stonemasons’ quirks,” which was how these symbols had been dismissed until recently. Baron St. Clair Bonde, direct descendent of Sir William St. Clair and in whose seventeenth century Robert Adams manor we are staying as guests, confirmed that although legend stated the Knights Templar treasure was here, it was hardly likely. But who said treasure was tangible, he added with a smile in my direction.
On cue, I pointed to a bulky line running eye-height along the inside of the chapel. Upon closer scrutiny, it was a thick, leafy vine. Every twenty feet, the vine was interrupted with round, full-cheeked Bacchus faces, men of different ages with foliage for hair, beards of leaves and twigs, and branches sprouting from open mouths. The legendary Green Man, I explained.
Like King Arthur or Robin Hood, myth and lore were ways to keep the old ways of thinking alive. The Green Man—the pagan god of nature. Mother Nature’s son. The Mother. Now we call her Mary Magdalene, but before that she was called Artemis, Isis, Ishtar, the divine mother, or simply the Sacred Feminine.
For thousands of years, Asian cultures had understood that the world is governed by polar opposites called Yin and Yang. But in the West, the past thousand years, called The Patriarchal Age, have been ruled by warrior-like perceptions of the world. During this time, the feminine way of thinking went into hiding in myths and legends such as the Green Man, or Mary Magdalene.
Whether you believe in astrology or not, we have entered a new astrological age, the Age of Aquarius, the era of communication, which is feminine in nature. Hundreds of books on the feminine have sprung up in the past fifty years, but it was Dan Brown’s novel that brought these ideas to the popular market.
Nations also have tendencies toward masculine or feminine, differences that become apparent when we traveled from the United Kingdom to France. London is decorated with statues of fierce lions and generals honoring warriors and bloody battles. In Paris statues are of sea nymphs and voluptuous women, writers, poets, and musicians.
No surprise Dan Brown began his novel here.
With vigor we began to relish the story behind the story of The da Vinci Code, absorbing the senses and rhythms of life, while we admired the Mona Lisa, craned our necks to examine the St. Sulpice Church, and savored what the French call culinary science in the ornate private dining room of Le Grand Véfour, Paris’ grand eighteenth-century restaurant.
Then with a gentle sigh, we left The da Vinci Code behind to descend to our last stop, a rented fairytale chateau that was to be our home away from home for the rest of the journey—Provence, home to painters and poets, endless lavender fields, and the cult of Mary Magdalene.
As in the past, symbols of the feminine such as Artemis, the patroness of nearby Marseille, are worshipped today in rituals and traditions, many which involve the enjoyment of the senses—food, perfumes, soaps, oils, and paintings. Every night, our chef, Michelle, a native of Provence well versed in local customs, created a symphony of mouth-watering delicacies using local, homegrown produce. Try to live with the rhythms of nature, she explained, and your body will thank you in kind.
Gradually the pace of the journey began to slow down. We talked less, slept soundly, laughed more, foraging through markets for fresh bread and wonderful soaps and scarves that were soft to the touch. We were flowing with life, rather than against it. And it felt wonderful.
And the legend of Mary Magdalene? We rode the white horses of the Camargue to visit the forsaken wilderness where she supposedly arrived in 45 A.D. But it was where it was said that she spent her last thirty years that we found her. Along a path lined with wild thyme and sweet-smelling rosemary, we wandered high above the Ste. Baume hills just north of Marseille, finally reaching a small stone courtyard carved into the nearly vertical rock face.
We peered behind two heavy wooden doors to examine the yawning cave, sparsely decorated with a few wooden benches, a simple stone alter, and dozens of flickering red candles. On the steps outside the cave, Father Henri Dominique, one of the five Dominican priests who lives in the chapel next door, greeted us, as he did all those who make a pilgrimage to her.
“What a coincidence,” he exclaimed, his white robe swaying in the wind. “Yesterday I was interviewed about The da Vinci Code, and I said no one had found us.”
“So is the legend of Mary Magdalene true?” one of the guests asked, his voice echoing in the open space. The silence was so loud that it was almost palpable.
“We can never historically prove she was here,” he answered. And with a shy smile, he beckoned to us. “But I feel her presence now.”
The breeze whispered a serenity rarely experienced in daily life. And we knew he was speaking the truth.