It’s a phone-less world down there in the underground lair of Les Chandelles, the infamous “club échangiste” – and something to be appreciated in itself before we get into the stuff you really want to know about. Inhibitions (and Instagram) are to be left above ground, and your time spent down there is intended exclusively for your pleasure and that of your companion’s. Whether it unfolds exactly as intended however, depends on a few other hidden variables that are less easily controlled for the curious newcomer…
We arrive at the unmarked façade of 1 rue de Therèse a little after midnight and a good amount of wine. The taxi driver knows exactly where we’re headed to and our attempts to have him drop us off more discretely at the corner under the statue of Molière prove futile. “Amusez-vous bien!” he grins as we sheepishly file out of the car onto the dimly-lit backstreet behind the Palais Royale.
We’re a party of four; two couples; because round numbers here are key, amongst other things. Les Chandelles is a swingers club before anything else. That means, it’s a place for twosomes, partners, husbands & wives and everything in between, but always come in pairs if you’re serious about getting inside. The club is one of the few establishments of its kind to be fully owned and operated by a woman, Valérie Hervé, who we’ve been told prides herself in catering for women first; their comfort, safety and most importantly, their desires.
Admittance into Les Chandelles is a 50:50 gamble, reliant entirely on the watchful eye of its gatekeeper. We push open the first door and gather in a small hallway before ringing the bell to the second door; huddling in a limbo of uncertainty for a good and long 30 seconds by my count. Here, you are being watched and listened to by a discreetly placed surveillance camera. Be very careful what you say and do in this limbo, for you are being judged on it all.
Gathering from the angry online reviews of rejected souls – a lack of decorum and a certain “je ne sais quoi”, nor jeans or sneakers will work in your favour. Doe-eyed tourists unaccompanied by savvy locals or regulars will likely be politely informed that “tonight will not be possible”. Confidence, like anywhere, is the key. Black attire is a smart and safe choice, and skirts are required for ladies. Alas, don’t try to wear what you think people wear to a sex club. Forget the Halloween latex and instead think about the wardrobe of a high-level executive and this may go well for you. What you wear underneath is where you might take the initiative to get “creative”, but it’s entirely up to you whether you share that creativity with anyone else during your stay.
Phones and purses surrendered to a very solemn-faced maitre-d, we’ve made it to the other side, trying to keep it cool and casual as we descend a low-lit velvet staircase. Almost everything around us is velvet in fact, but it smells and feels surprisingly airy. A fresh, minty scent wafts discretely through cavernous corridors decorated with chandeliers and chartreuse red curtains. At first glance, this could be mistaken for any luxe underground nightclub from the 90s. Guests are clothed, so far, ordering vodka tonics and swaying to Calvin Harris and Destiny’s Child at the bar. One begins to doubt if you’re even going to see anything scandalous here at all, but Les Chandelles is a place that reveals its secrets slowly, like a David Lynchian velvet dream that turns into Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
As we make ourselves comfortable on velvet banquettes with our complimentary first drink, other couples talking closely around the bar briefly pause to notice our presence. The all too familiar feeling of being judged upon arrival is noticeably absent. Dare I say the mood is friendly and welcoming? Keep in mind, I’ve heard eye contact and a knowing smile go a long way in a place like this. Upon closer inspection, ear lobe biting and wandering hands appear to be acceptable practice here, but the bar area seems to be a relatively PG-13 space while the night is young.
With our avant-garde double date off to a smooth start, we look around at each other, faces glowing and giddy in the candlelight. “Okay, so who’s going to explore first?” I neck back the rest of my champagne and volunteer. Rule number 1: glassware must stay in the bar area at all times – for safety reasons. Wandering around with a drink in hand will swiftly get you exiled back to the bar. To really whet your appetite, one must fall down the proverbial rabbit hole as it were, and venture away from the relative safety of the bar into Les Chandelles‘ darker corners and corridors.
Diving in first, we venture gingerly through a series of connected cavernous boudoirs that lead to smaller and more intimate padded nooks dressed with silky, voluptuous textiles. To our left and right, subtle moans and bare flesh and tangled limbs begin to reveal themselves. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, we find ourselves standing amidst a circle of naked bodies in motion; both lean and plump, youthful and middle-aged. Moving through the room, someone’s heart-shaped backside seems to be staring directly at me. A pair of Louboutin-clad limbs are hoisted in the air, the black patent stilettos catching the light. Behind me, the distinct sound of a fleshy slap is answered by an enthusiastic “ooooh”. In another corner, a woman’s voice is begging for more of whatever it is she’s getting, and in that moment, you have a choice. To stay or to go. To play or not to play. To be or not to be…
We flop back onto the bar couches where our companions eagerly await the salacious details. Our first descent into the “rabbit hole” had been brief, to say the least. You might even compare the manner and speed at which we moved through those rooms to a stealthy and steadfast power-walk. Lingering no longer than was absolutely necessary – if at all – over the next hour, we would each take turns to repeat this comical dance of drive-by voyeurism three or four times, returning to report back on what we’d managed to witness in the cavernous sex rooms. With every “drive-by”, we would gain the courage to linger for just a few more seconds than the last. And in our own tragically awkward way, we were testing the waters. Except each time we dipped our toes in, we found the water was still freezing cold. By cocktail number three, it came time to accept our fate as the drive-by voyeurs in an otherwise hands-on and fully-engaged swingers scene. And that was okay. We resolved to enjoy ourselves as if it were any other Parisian discothéque and try not to “bump into things” – which as it happens, is more easily said than done.
Having left the boys at the bar, my girlfriend and I find ourselves seated in a long blue-lit hallway trying not to stare too long in any one direction while waiting our turn for the ladies room. Wearing nothing but a spiked leather dog collar, a statuesque woman strides past and stops to notice a young lady seated beside us in the queue. Without exchanging a word, the women proceed to passionately embrace, heedlessly fondling each other and damn near making it all the way to third base by the time someone finally swings open the lavatory door, relieving my companion and I from our flustered state, rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed. In the toilets, mouthwash and rubbers are on offer next to the soap and towels. Timidly reentering the hallway, our lady in the dog collar is turning in for the night, blowing air kisses to another couple as her partner guides her away on a leash. “A la semaine prochaine, mes chouchous!” she coos. Apparently, she’ll be back next week. Indubitably, Les Chandelles is not just a sex club, it’s a lifestyle.
Having lost track of time entirely, we luck upon an empty salon fitted with a gold stripper’s pole. I take the opportunity to demonstrate just how little skill I had acquired from a pole dancing class as part of the program on a girlfriend’s recent hen do. I feel immediately pleased with myself knowing that while I may not have been able linger very long down the latex rabbit hole, or grab anyone by the … well – at least I could say I gave the old stripper pole a whirl in my trusty opaque winter tights.
Satisfied with our trial run at Paris’ infamous swingers establishment, “all in the name of research” of course, we settle our tab with the maitre-d at the top of the velvet staircase. We owe 97 euros per couple for the entry, which includes our complimentary drink, plus 25 Euros for every additional glass of Dutch courage. Sexual freedom as it turns out, doesn’t come quite as cheaply as we’d hoped.
As a sense of normalcy is regained under the orange glow of a street light waiting for an Uber at 3am, we agree with our fellow explorers that if we were ever to return with serious intentions, it might not be for a second double date. Among the many lessons learned that evening, it has become apparent that if one truly wants to explore their limits in a sex club, it probably shouldn’t be with the people that might one day babysit your kids in a squeeze. No, quite right, double dating is perhaps best done with pizza and a movie.
We wave off our friends in the taxi and I turn to my partner of 10 years, now husband of one month. Arm in arm, I look deep into his eyes and ask, “Fancy a kebab on the way home?”