A day spent at the gardens and home of Monet at Giverny is a beautiful one, regardless of with whom you spend it, whether a fellow art lover or travel companion. And of course a sunny day spent among flowers in the green countryside of France lends itself easily to romance. But I decided to forge the way there on my own, and the peace and beauty of my day, along with the sense of Monet’s presence, were themselves a powerful accompaniment.
The art of Monet moves me in a way that almost no other art does. And I don’t know why. I’m not a fan of landscape art or floral themes, but something about the scale and stroke of Monet’s work has always affected me. Perhaps it is because his water lilies were the subject of my first museum trip, at 19, a birthday gift from my mother, and never before had I seen up close the brushstrokes of an artist: so layered and so careful, so full of appreciation for their topic, physical and tactile before me. But 10 years later, years of art history classes and world travel and art making of my own behind me, the sight of a Monet still affects me the same way it did that first day. So upon my arrival in Paris, one of my goals was to visit the place that inspired him, to see for myself the natural beauty that acted as his muse.
I took the train from the Gare St.-Lazare (captured by Monet) to the Vernon station, about an hour outside Paris, a trip that flies by as the architecture and bustle of Paris give way to the sylvan lushness of the countryside. Upon arrival at Vernon, I got off the train and was herded with the other tourists toward a bus going directly to la maison de Monet. It appeared to be a sardine can full of Americans. I know I’m a hypocrite for saying so, but I dreaded mounting that bus. So when I saw a sign at Bar Restaurant du Chemin de Fer (directly across from the station) that read, “Here Rent Bicycles,” I was, of course, delighted, as it was a sunny, 70 degree day. I was wearing my favorite new vintage dress and a sun hat. What could be more French than riding around town on a bike in a skirt? Warning: this café only takes cash for bike rentals (about 12–15 euros)!
The map supplied to me by the bar was, well, lacking in specifics. But the fun part of traveling is getting lost and getting found. After riding farther than I thought I should, and becoming quite sure that I would end up back in Paris eventually, bike in tow, some signs started popping up, directing me toward the maison in mind. Then I saw clusters of tourist groups, students and looky-loos all heading in one general direction. I found my way easily then, locked up my bike and, after standing in a worth-it line for admission, gained entry into the house I’d been waiting a decade to see.
Forgoing the guided tour, I grabbed a map of the grounds and started meandering. That day boasted the nicest weather of my entire two-month stay in France, and I wouldn’t have spent it any other way. A cloudless, warming sky showed sunlight upon hundreds of flowers in the main garden (what some might call a “backyard”): row after row of flowers in every color and shape imaginable, tall vines of climbing flowers, lilies and lilacs and lavender filling the air. Arches of ivy crowned paths lined by tulips. Flowers hung off of trestles guiding the way back and forth from the main house, itself consumed in climbing ivy.
“Jardin d’Eau/Water Garden,” proclaimed a sign above steps leading downward. I followed them down, through a small tunnel and up again, ascending into more bright sunlight attacking trees with gusto. A pond held two small, old boats floating in the shaded water littered with leaves. For some reason, I expected to have to walk quite far around the property to reach the real goal of my wanderings, but suddenly I turned a bend, and there it rose before me: the Japanese footbridge.
My breath caught in my throat, and I experienced the same kind of feeling I got when I first saw the Eiffel Tower, or that I get every time I catch sight of the Empire State Building from a plane or bridge: the familiarity of a dream come to life. This structure resounded within me, the multiple occasions I’ve examined brushstrokes describing it echoing inside me like seeing your reflection in a mirror with a mirror behind you—dozens of pieces of familiarity singing at once into a chorus that illustrates the whole. The whole, tactile before me, its lavender flowers bouncing in the wind, glowing in the sun; the whole, quiet and old and real.
I continued around the property, covering every inch and trying to absorb each flower that grew around me, trying to see the place through Monsieur Monet’s eyes. Looking down at the pond, the water lilies in focus atop a blue, watery sky’s reflection, it was especially easy to understand how the artist was so inspired to paint what he did, how he did.
But to really understand Monet’s perspective, I had to explore his actual residence (where no photos are allowed, which I learned the hard way). For this New Yorker, the massive but cozy house, with room after room of sunny, vibrant color, and creaking with the beauty of age, was a dream house. Lace covered the windows, which were open to visitors to look at the gardens below. White walls were lined with brightly colored molding. The dining room was vast and a strong shade of yellow. But what struck me about the place was the art inside it. There are no actual Monet pieces; instead, Monet filled his home with the art that moved him—Japanese prints and other oriental art, rugs and furniture.
After a few hours of roaming Claude’s place (we’re totally friends now), and snapping up a dozen postcards in his atelier-cum-gift-shop, I fetched my bike and decided to forgo the restaurant with the “Hot Dogs! Hamburgers!” sign juste en face and do a little exploring. I ended up a short bike ride away at La Terrasse (87, rue Claude Monet), with a table all to myself, in the sun beside a lavender bush. I enjoyed a long, long lunch of tarte aux courgettes (sort of a zucchini pie) and un verre de rosé (or two), completed by a tarte normande, a French variation on the classic apple pie—a warm tart filled with cinnamon apples, topped with crème fraîche.
After lunch, having completely unwound myself by way of fresh air, beautiful art and good food, I slowly rode back to Vernon, enjoying the sun on my face, gathering freckles and listening to the wide silence of the country. I made it back to return my bike with a clean 20 minutes left to have a Coca Lite and reflect on my incredibly beautiful day. The kind of day that should force you to close your eyes, let the sun soak through your lids as you daydream . . . except my daydream was right in front of me.
Fondation Claude Monet
Giverny and Vernon
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