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Monday
Aug192013

Candlelit Evenings at Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

They begin lighting the candles in the château and gardens at sunset.

Despite all of the wonders and delights of Paris that I've discovered in my 18 years of living here, even I have to begrudgingly admit that when it comes to "must see sights", the reality can often be a huge let down compared to the fairy tale image many visitors imagined. Crowds, lines, noise, confusing signage, no restrooms, years of scaffolding for renovations, a lack of any helpful information in English, Artful Dodgers making off with your wallet...it seems there's always something that ruins the "moment". 

But not at Château Vaux-le-Vicomte. 

Last Saturday night I went to check out the Candlelit Evening with my wingman for the evening, Brian Spence (who many of you will recognize as the owner of the Abbey Book Shop in the Latin Quarter). Both of us had visited Vaux-le-Vicomte several times during the past 15 years. I had very much enjoyed the decor at Christmas time when each room of the château is elaborately decorated and the gardens were blanketed in snow. Brian has attended several of the historic costumed events like Journée Grand Siècle, when the 17th-century atmosphere is recreated for the day. 

Les Chamilles is the semi-formal open-air restaurant in the gardens.

Two years ago I even attended one of the candlelit evenings when I brought a group of gardening aficionados from South Africa for a private tour with the head gardener. It's always a bit hard to relax and enjoy the "moment" when you're working (and as much as I love being a tour guide, it's still work...if you're doing it right). But that's not why Vaux-le-Vicomte often slipped my mind when thinking of places to recommend to my clients. It's because it had always been a bit of a challenge to get there without your own car or as part of a group tour. 

And when I wasn't looking -- oops! -- that all changed. Along with a few other interesting improvements that now make Vaux-le-Vicomte a serious contender for Best Château Visit from Paris. And if you've been a longtime reader of the Secrets of Paris, you know I rarely throw the word "best" around lightly.

The entrance of Vaux-le-Vicomte from the country road that leads you there. Zero trinket hawkers.

I'll go into a bit more detail below, but for those with short attention spans, here are the top points to consider for the Candlelit Evenings at Vaux-le-Vicomte

When you visit Vaux-le-Vicomte, you may not realize that some of the friendly faces helping out around the estate are the actual owners, the De Vogüé family. Alexandre, who co-manages the château with his brother Jean-Charles, gave us the tour and filled us in on all of the latest changes for 2013, including the municipal shuttle from the Melun train station to the château (weekends only), the allowance of guest picnics in designated areas of the gardens (they're beta testing this idea for the moment), and the fireworks show every Saturday in summer (instead of every other Saturday). 

With Alexandre and Brian, enjoying a glass of bubbly at "Le Songe de Vaux", a Champagne bar open during the Candlelit Evenings. No grumpy people at Vaux le Vicomte! 

Because 2013 is the 400th birthday of the legendary French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, there is a special multi-media exhibition on his works at Vaux-le-Vicomte and two newly-created garden walks (a 45-minute "Through the Looking Glass" walk to discover a secret garden, or the 1h45min "Giant's Eye" walk out to the statue of Hercules. Signs along the way help bring these walks to life and teach guests about the essential elements of Le Nôtre's French formal garden style. And although they're a tad on the anachronistic side, there are also electric golf carts available so that even people with mobility issues can enjoy the grounds (€15 for 45 minutes).

For dining, there is semi-formal open-air dining overlooking the gardens (€49 and €59 menus; under an enclosed tent in case of bad weather), a self-service restaurant next to the château entrance (about €20 for dinner; indoor and outdoor seating), a lovely Champagne bar with classical music and deck chairs (€10/glass of Champagne), and for romantics on a budget you can now bring your own picnic if you stay within the designated areas (near the canal). Alcohol is permitted (don't forget a corkscrew!) but just keep in mind there is nowhere to "check" bags because of security issues, so if you don't have your car with you, it helps if everything you bring is (eek!) disposable, so you don't have to carry an empty cooler or picnic basket full of ceramic plates around with you all night. There are poubelles throughout the park, be sure to make good use of them! 

The view of the gardens from the château during the day.

If you go on Saturday, I recommend getting there a bit early so you can go up into the Dôme for panoramic views (it closes at 6pm) and get a good look at the gardens before the sun begins to set (be sure to get the night ticket if you plan on staying after the daytrippers go). Of course you can stroll through them with the candle lights, but the experience is as different as, well, night and day! You'll have time for a glass of Champagne (and maybe a quick snooze in the deck chair) before dinner. The most crowded time in the château is after dinner but before the 10:50pm fireworks show (Alexandre said the longest wait was 30 minutes during this "rush hour"). 

The shuttle from Melun train station to the château only runs on weekends. There are usually taxis right outside the station (count on €20 each way) if you don't want to wait. There are also chartered buses coming in from Paris, but they are only for day trippers, they're gone before sunset. The only other option is to come by car, which is not totally unpleasant in the evening as long as you have a designated sober driver (those plane trees lining the country roads out there don't need anymore bumps and bruises), and you'll have a place to "store" your stuff (bulky coats, picnic supplies, sleepy children, etc).

A view of the château from Les Chamilles (that's my dinner...and my wine).

For bedraggled tourists and urban-stressed Parisians alike, one of the best things about Vaux-le-Vicomte is that you really feel the peace and quiet of the French countryside. When you arrive at the château after driving through the forest, you're welcomed by a grand entrance and sweeping views, not a hellish expanse of concrete filled with tour buses and street hawkers trying to sell you postcards. Geese fly overhead, the sound of birds permeates the gardens, and even when "crowded", in the candlelit darkness it's easy to feel like you're the guest at a private party for a handful of people, not just a number being stuffed through a tourist site by grumpy, overworked staff. 

You can get tickets online (and book your dinner if you want to be sure to have a place on Saturday night) or through FNAC. You can also just walk in and stand in line for tickets, which gets longer as the day progresses. Tickets for the Candlelit Evenings are €19 (includes access to the château). The ultimate ticket to ride is to become a Friend of Vaux-le-Vicomte. At just €35 per year (€50 per couple, €70 per family), you get free entrance, no lines, access to special events and discounts for friends who come with you. And of course you get to help support one of the country's greatest historical monuments (tax deductible for fiscal residents of France). 

At the end of the evening when the fireworks show ended, the guests slowly began filing out of the château and gardens towards the shuttles where Alexandre was making sure everyone had a spot (taxis are on call in case of stragglers). Those who came in cars take their time, sometimes lingering in the gardens a bit longer than the official closing time of midnight. No one is rushing them at Vaux-le-Vicomte. There could hardly be a more magical place to visit on a warm summer evening. Every Saturday through October 5th. 

Another view of the château, from the Champagne bar.

Other Events at Vaux-le-Vicomte
There are other events besides the Candlelit Evenings worth noting, including the Dîner des Muses on September 14th where guests come in white and green (to celebrate the gardens) for a picnic in the gardens. Tables and chairs provided around the gardens, guests bring their picnic and table decor, prizes for the best set-up. The château becomes the Palace of Chocolate on November 9-11, with tastings, workshops and artworks made of chocolate by master pastry chefs.

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Reader Comments (13)

Thank you Heather, I always enjoy my vicarious living in Paris I find with your blogs..
August 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAna Maria
Looks spectacular Heather!!
August 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNorma Thiessen
Such a wonderful post - and the pictures are spectacular.
Merci,
Llyane
September 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLlyane
Castle, candlelight, and champagne? I have GOT to do this next time I'm in Paris. Thanks so much for all the detail on this experience and the tips.
September 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa
Beautiful ... I'm adding this to my next trip. Thank you so much for the info.
September 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBibi
Having 'done' a lot of the local châteaux, I have to agree with you that V-le-V is amazing: stunning gardens, a really cute little dome-y roof and with a tiny fraction of the pushy tour groups and tacky sales pitches of Versailles. Thanks for such an informative article (only made me a little jealous I didn't get to see it by candlelight): hopefully I can persuade a few friends/ guests to check it out too!
October 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlison
Hi! Great post, I really enjoyed it. My boyfriend and I will be in Paris in May, and we were thinking of taking your suggestion and visiting late afternoon (maybe around 5) to see the gardens and the dome during the day and then stay for the candlelit evening :-) We were wondering though, in that case, we would have to get 4 entrance tickets, right? Two for the daytime and two for the evening? Thanks for all the info you provided, it seems a lovely experience.
March 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElentari
Thank you so much for this Heather! I am going to Paris for the first time this July, and now thanks to you have booked in a candlelit dinner for my 30th birthday. Yay!
June 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEmma
Hi Heather! Really appreciated this as I'm leaving for Paris in 3 days and will be doing this very excursion. I'm worried though as it looks like the last train out of Melun is at 11 and the fireworks are way past that. Did you have difficulty taking the train back to Paris?
July 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth
No, they have it timed so that the shuttle bus to the train station in Melun leaves after the fireworks but before the last train at 12:15am. You can ask at the chateau when you arrive just to be sure.
July 17, 2015 | Registered CommenterHeather Stimmler-Hall

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