ROME - On the stone steps of the 500-year-old Santa Maria del Popolo church, our tour group huddled around our guide.
"Come closer," the guide said. We leaned in even more.
"Be really quiet inside," he advised. He was holding a tattered, hardcover copy of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," and as he spoke, he slipped it into a messenger bag slung around his shoulder. "The priest here doesn't like us. Oh, and don't flash your Path of Illumination maps."
I quietly stepped through the doors. The church was packed with throngs of tourists and a few dozen people in the pews, waiting for Mass to begin. A glance to my left startled me: Behind a black iron gate covering a small nook was a shroud-draped skeleton. Its head was cocked to one side and its hands crossed over the chest.
I casually started the blockbuster book on a recent flight to Rome from my home in Miami. It was fun and a perfect diversion for a boring plane ride. When I finished, I was intrigued. I wanted to see what the sites in the novel looked like.
A few Internet clicks yielded something called "The Official Angels & Demons Rome Tour": a four-hour romp through Rome, past sites featured in the book.
For those of you who haven't read it, here's a five-second recap: Harvard symbiologist Robert Langdon (the main character in "The Da Vinci Code," played in the movie by Tom Hanks) teams up with foxy sidekick Vittoria Vetra (played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) to unravel the mystery behind who is mutilating and killing Catholic cardinals. Centuries-old conspiracy theories abound. Oh, and Langdon saves the Vatican from destruction.
As a reader, I wasn't so much taken with the plot or the papal controversy surrounding the book. Much has been written about the Vatican's reaction to both "Angels & Demons" and "The Da Vinci Code." For me, it was the setting - Rome - that was exciting.
The tour, I hoped, would maybe provide some real-life history along the way. It didn't disappoint.
We were instructed to meet on the steps of Santa Maria del Popolo at 9:30 a.m. Our guide greeted us and gave a brief summary of the book. He passed out a copy of "The Path of Illumination," a map of Rome photocopied from the novel.
We all gathered inside near the Chigi Chapel. But we couldn't see any of it. The entire chapel was covered in white plastic and scaffolding. Same went for the "demon's hole," a marble, manhole-sized insert in the floor that covers a subterranean crypt. In the book, the Chigi Chapel was covered due to construction.
I wondered whether the rest of the sites on the tour would be off-limits, too. Director Ron Howard claimed that the Vatican interfered with efforts to get permits to shoot certain scenes around Rome, a charge the church said was a publicity stunt on Howard's part. Yet Rome's diocese admitted last year it had barred producers from filming inside two churches because the movie didn't conform to Catholic views.
As it turned out, the skeleton had nothing to do with "Angels & Demons"; it was an exquisite marble sculpture by Bernini. From there, a bus whisked us to St. Peter's Square. We spent about 45 minutes outside the Vatican (the tour is banned from entering), listening as the guide discussed Bernini's work and read passages from the book.
Then we hustled back to the bus and stops at Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Castel Sant'Angelo. True to the book, Bernini's statues of angels were everywhere.
My favorite spot came midway through the tour, at Santa Maria della Vittoria.In the novel, this church was the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. Yet there was something even more macabre inside the church: the church's namesake, Santa Vittoria herself. Her centuries-old martyred body is encased in wax in a glass case. But the wax has cracked at the tips of her fingers, revealing her bones. Her head rests on a pillow. Her eyes are closed, and her mouth is slightly open.
"Oh my God, look," I whispered to my husband, while peering at the tiny woman's face. "You can see her real teeth!"
No need for fiction here - reality was thrilling enough. *
Angels & Demons Tour: Adults $78 (56 euros); ages 4-14, $73 (51 euros), under 4 free. Reservations, www.angelsand
demons.it. Four-hour tours 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays-Sundays. Tour includes bus and walking. Dress appropriately for visiting churches: Cover shoulders and knees.