It seems appropriate that to get to Claude Monet’s home at Giverny, I’m leaving Paris from the Saint-Lazare train station. In a famous series of paintings, the impressionist master captured the busy energy of this station, an in-between space of hurried, blurred figures, with clouds of steam from approaching locomotives billowing under its iron-and-glass arched roofs.
But it was his outdoor paintings that Monet is best known for, including those of his gardens in Giverny, about 40 miles northwest of Paris.
Monet moved to Giverny in 1883, middle-aged and nearly penniless. Nine years earlier, he had exhibited Impression: Sunrise, the painting attributed with giving the impressionist movement its name. Yet true artistic success and financial stability would be years away. During the 43 years that Monet lived in Giverny, he came to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists, attaining international fame and a considerable personal fortune, much of which he funneled into his other passion, horticulture.
During the 43 years that Monet lived in Giverny, he came to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists, attaining international fame and a considerable personal fortune.
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He spent years designing and landscaping the property he acquired here, working — with the assistance of his team of gardeners and small children — with the specific intention of creating spaces that he could paint. The gardens he created have come to be called his “other” masterpiece.
Only 45 minutes after leaving Paris, my train pulls into the town of Vernon, just inside the region of Normandy. Giverny lies a few miles away, but with a population hovering around 500, it’s not on the main line. From here, I’ll have to make my own way.
Walking out of the station, I bypass the little motorized train and the air-conditioned shuttle bus, either of which would take me the 3 1/2 miles to Giverny. Instead, for the equivalent of about $15, I rent an old 10-speed bicycle for the day from the cafe directly opposite. It’s perfect. The waitress/bike-renter offers me a home-made map highlighting an easy cycle path to my destination. She pumps air in the tires and comments on the perfect conditions. The sun is rising quickly, the heat beginning to prickle the skin on the back of my neck.
When do I need to bring the bike back?
“Take your time!” she waves me off cheerily and turns to serve another customer.
It’s mid-August, so Vernon, like villages all over France, is quiet, with bakeries, pharmacies and hairdressers alike displaying hand-scrawled signs saying “Closed for summer.” I cruise down the almost empty main street toward the river, detouring past the leering gargoyles of the church Notre-Dame de Vernon.
Crossing the Clemenceau Bridge, I take stock of the drowsy Seine — hard to recognize as the same river that flows through Paris. The banks here are natural, with grass and trees growing down to the water, and a cacophony of swans, geese and ducks gathering in the muddy shallows beside a dilapidated 16th-century mill.
Here begins the André Toufler path, an old train line converted into a bike-friendly path. On my left, grapevines scramble among yellow dandelion flowers, and trees covered with creepers create a dense, green curtain that climbs up the hillside. On my right, I see into well-tended back yards beside neat houses. I ride through a cloud of sweet rose perfume.
Beyond the houses, the land opens up to cornfields, pastures of sturdy grazing Maine-Anjou cows, and the steep roofs of houses, as white as the chalk in the hills beside me.
As I ride up a slight hill, the prevailing theme in town appears to be flowers: Every single garden is abundantly, gorgeously cultivated in a kind of anticipatory tribute to the famous property beyond.
I’m a bit sad to see the path end at the main road, Rue Claude Monet. This must be Giverny. As I ride up a slight hill, the prevailing theme in town appears to be flowers: Every single garden is abundantly, gorgeously cultivated in a kind of anticipatory tribute to the famous property beyond. Do people move here because they love to garden? I wonder. Or is it the result of some town decree?
One last rise, and I’m greeted with a friendly sight: the warm, rose-pink facade of the Ancien Hôtel Baudy, the restaurant where I’ve planned to have lunch. The large terrace is already starting to fill up with the midday crowd. Old, coppiced plane trees create a thick green roof over faded red umbrellas and pastel metal tables.
In its heyday, from the late 1880s until the beginning of the Great War, the Hôtel Baudy was the center of the village’s thriving social scene. Originally a tiny canteen and general store, it expanded thanks to the sudden influx of American and international artists. Attracted to the region for the beautiful landscapes, the cheap rent and the tantalizing proximity of Monet himself, they came by train from Paris, sometimes intending to stay for a few days and leaving years later.
In its heyday, from the late 1880s until the beginning of the Great War, the Hôtel Baudy was the center of the village’s thriving social scene.
The American artist William Metcalf is attributed with “discovering” Giverny in 1886, and the likes of John Singer Sargent, Paul Cézanne, Theodore Robinson, and Mary and Frederick MacMonnies are among the better-known painters who patronized the Baudy. Of course, not all of the artists who stayed there found fame and fortune, and some original artworks, traded in lieu of room payment, still hang behind the wooden bar.
I lock up my bike next to a large patch of lawn that was once a tennis court and approach the terrace.
“One for lunch, please.” A glass of rosé arrives quickly, closely followed by l’assiete du soleil, a huge plate of roasted summer vegetables, parmesan and cured ham. The sound of gravel crunching underfoot as waitresses flit between the tables mingles with the bright chatter of the polyglot lunch crowd.
Afterward, I wander around the restaurant’s back garden, poking about the sunny atelier, which was built in 1887 to accommodate the many artists-in-residence. Dust specks drift in the air, and the cobwebs are thick. Pots and brushes lie about, and an unfinished painting rests on an easel. It feels like the last artist simply put down his brush and walked away.
As I had feared, a long line of visitors are waiting to enter Monet’s home, snaking a few hundred yards up the road, so I turn instead to the many art galleries that pepper the main street.
There seems to be something for everyone here, from surprising modern street-art-inspired canvases to cloying pastoral scenes.
Modern-looking Espace 87 catches my eye, and, wandering in, I chat with the personable gallery manager and sculptor Alain Brieu. I remark upon the high number of galleries for such a small town. Brieu points out that the town naturally attracts art lovers; even if only a fraction of the half a million or so that arrive every year actually buy something, it is enough for many businesses to flourish.
“Are there any impressionist artists here now?” I ask.
Impressionist painters don’t exist anymore, there are only imitators. Nobody can afford to buy real impressionist art now.
Alain Brieu, gallery manager
“Impressionist painters don’t exist anymore, there are only imitators,” he declares, in a way I’ve come to see as distinctly French. There are certainly plenty of those around. Brieu shrugs. “Nobody can afford to buy real impressionist art now.”
Well, not in the medium the artist originally intended. But Monet’s works are emblazoned on everything from umbrellas to mugs to tea towels on sale in the gift shops. “It’s dreadful! Truly dreadful!” Brieu says. “The only things that aren’t dreadful are the prints, but why not buy an original piece of art instead?” With a smile, he gestures to those hanging on his walls.
I arrive at Monet’s house just after 4 p.m. As I enter the famous gardens, I take a deep breath and brace myself for a seething mass of tourists. But to my surprise, it is calm. People wander here and there among the flowers or rest on benches.
Flowers of every color fill my field of view, seeming to crowd in, nodding slightly in the breeze. It looks like a paint factory has exploded. Divided into rows, dominated by a wide central path leading to the front door of his home, the garden called Clos Normand is structured quite traditionally, yet it feels overgrown in a pleasing, messy, impressionist kind of way.
As I take a few photographs, it strikes me how difficult it is to find perspective here. The density of plant life in all of its colors makes judging distances difficult, and I’m surprised to see a small girl walk by me, only about two feet away, on a parallel path utterly hidden from my view. Bees buzz. Children pose for their parents in the warm sunshine.
Then I come to the road.
Rumbling with trucks and local traffic, it literally cuts Monet’s gardens in half. Visitors are protected by an underpass, and high walls hide it from view. But as I approach the bottom of the garden it’s impossible to miss, and I’m surprised that it has never been diverted.
Emerging moments later on the other side, I find the landscape radically changed. A lush oasis of clear pools, huge ferns and a forest of tall green bamboo as thick as my wrist constitute Monet’s famous Water Garden.
A lush oasis of clear pools, huge ferns and a forest of tall green bamboo as thick as my wrist constitute Monet’s famous Water Garden.
Branches of huge weeping willows brush the surface of the still water, creating ripples. A brilliant blue dragonfly perches beside a shaded stream, so still I think it might be asleep. The famous arching green bridge is held tight with densely winding purple wisteria. The subject of countless paintings and photographs, it is now crowded with picture takers: In their bright summer clothes, from a distance, they look a bit like flowers themselves.
It’s calm here, and I sit on one of the many benches. An elderly couple walks past, quietly discussing the lilies in knowledgeable terms.
A big red truck goes by, the top of its cabin visible over the garden wall.
Eventually I make my way up to the house itself. Rose-pink with green shutters on the outside, and vibrantly painted inside, it is undoubtedly an artist’s home. Each room seems to have its own character, and strong, well-balanced colors give it a strangely modern feeling. Most surprising of all are hundreds of original Japanese wood block prints that were in Monet’s private collection. I recognize the name Hokusai, and I do a double-take to see a print of his unmistakable The Great Wave off Kanagawa hanging on the wall.
Leaving the home through its sunny dining room and adjoining china-blue kitchen, I look at my watch and get a shock; I’ve got exactly 33 minutes before my train departs. Exiting through the enormous gift shop, actually the studio in which Monet painted his famous Water Lilies series for the Orangerie Museum in Paris, I get on my bike and ride.
Zooming down Rue Claude Monet, past the galleries, past the Impressionist Museum, past the Hôtel Baudy, I pause briefly at the church of Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny to pay my respects at Monet’s grave.
Half a lifetime away from the man who trailed into Giverny poor and with an uncertain future, the successful and prosperous artist succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 86. Rejecting the pomp of a state funeral, he was buried in this local graveyard with only family and close friends in attendance. Right at the end of the ceremony, in a moment that reads as if from a play, Monet’s longtime friend Georges Clemenceau, the former French prime minister, ripped off the black cloth that draped his coffin, declaring: “No! No black for Monet! Black is not a color!”
Today, the extended Monet family plot is covered in flowers.
Going to Giverny
Monet’s home: Fondation Claude Monet, 84 Rue Claude Monet, 011-33-232-51-28-21, http://fondation-monet.com. Visit the home where impressionist painter Claude Monet spent half of his life and the gardens that inspired some of his masterpieces. Open daily from March 28-Nov. 1; admission $10, children ages 7 to 17 and students about $6, younger free.
WHERE TO STAY
Les Rouges Gorges, 6 Rue Aux Juifs; 011-33-232-51-02-96; lesrougesgorges.com. A village within a village. Cute timber and stone cottages placed around a paved courtyard overgrown with flowers and greenery make this a welcome B&B stay in the medieval center of Giverny. Rooms from about $60.
Les Arceaux, 49 Rue Claude Monet; 011-33-232-21-61-17; http://bit.ly/1mlm3RI. A spacious and stylish two-story home with a large garden, terrace and patio. A couple of minutes’ walk from the Claude Monet Museum. Rooms from about $140.
WHERE TO EAT
L’Ancien Hôtel Baudy, 81 Rue Claude Monet; 011-33-232-21-10-03; http://restaurantbaudy.com. The canteen-turned-hotel that housed famous French and American artists in Giverny’s heyday. Take lunch under the dappled shade of the terrace. Entrees start at about $18.
Le Petit Giverny, 41 Chemin du Roy; 011-33-232-51-05-07; http://lepetitgiverny.com. Hidden a street away from the relatively busy Rue Claude Monet, this brasserie-grill serves up tasty steaks and fresh regional produce. Entrees start at about $16.