Novelist Alexander Chee Snuck Into a French Chateau to Have a Picnic
Sneaking into the gardens of a grand château for a clandestine nighttime picnic, novelist Alexander Chee and his friends discover the joys of making yourself at home.
Antoine would like us to go to this château on Saturday for a picnic, my friend Brandon said as we planned our weekend. They light it with candles at night on Saturdays.
Sounds great, I said, not knowing how much of this would be true.
It was the fall of 2008 and I was researching a novel on my second-ever trip to Paris—the second of what would become many—and my friends were full of suggestions. On their advice, I had spent that first week at some of the little museums—the Musée Carnavalet, the Musée Cognac-Jay, the Musée Jacquemart-André—yes, they all rhyme. After a week indoors, the idea of a pleasure trip out to the suburbs seemed exotic.
That Saturday, we arrived in the late afternoon on the train from Paris after a half-hour’s ride. I was with Brandon, his husband, Pascal, Antoine, and Antoine’s then boyfriend, Cédric. There was just one tiny taxi out to the château, and so we took turns in it until we were all there.
The suburb, Melun, is easy to miss. You may have had its brie, which Antoine had packed for our picnic—a forbidden picnic, as he’d explained on the train (at the time no outside food and drink was allowed). There’s a restaurant by the entrance, he said, but the gardens, well, a picnic there is just more beautiful.
I don’t know what I expected, but as the long drive lined with towering trees gave way to my first view of the château, I could see something oddly seductive mixed in among the grandeur of the steeply pitched rooftops, the decorative moat and the formal gardens.
This was no ordinary place.
Vaux-le-Vicomte inspired Versailles and, according to legend, it was out of envy. Nicolas Fouquet, the finance minister to Louis XIV, purchased the land in 1641 to create the 1,235-acre estate he unveiled on August 17, 1661, with a glamorous, three-day affair. The king, a guest that evening, was allegedly so jealous of Vaux’s style and beauty—it made the Louvre look tatty by comparison—that he left without staying the night, despite the royal guest room built especially for him. Fouquet was soon arrested, framed for embezzlement, and imprisoned. Vaux-le-Vicomte was put under lock and key, and most of the assets were seized by the king, even the orange trees, and the rest auctioned. When this failed to assuage his offended pride, he built Versailles, using Fouquet’s architect, decorator, and garden designer.
And I have to say, I understood why Louis did it. I wanted to live there, too.
I first felt it walking the length of the formal gardens. At each major turn, the view was entirely composed, like a painting, designed to pull your eye across the landscape. I wanted to lie down at the top of the farthest hill with a bottle of wine and look across the alternating views of the lawns and the fountains, and never leave.
During the house tour, as the staff lit the candles in the library’s chandeliers, I wanted to sit with a snifter of Armagnac in the Salon d’Hercule and read by the light of all that beautiful yellow flame.
When I mentioned this feeling to my friends, they said they felt the same way. Soon we were joking about how we would redecorate, where we would dine or nap, what we would keep or throw away. Versailles was tacky, chilly, and overdone, we decided. Vaux-le-Vicomte had style.
We left the palace and innocently reentered the gardens, the candles now lining those splendid geometries in the dark. We sneaked away to the snack bar, now closed, and unpacked our picnic: the Melun brie, rabbit rillettes, a Mont d’Or, bread, and wine. We can’t help ourselves, I imagined saying if we were caught, as we toasted Fouquet and the ghosts of his old parties. Whatever it was Louis XIV wanted to capture, he failed. The curse of Vaux-le-Vicomte is that you feel at home.