In the world of gardening pilgrimages, Monet’s garden at Giverny rules supreme. His water lily paintings, the evocative scenes of irises, beds of summer flowers in the French countryside – could there be anything more romantic? Many were inspired, we know, from his personal garden. Surely in visiting, we will be able to absorb some of this magic? Maybe.
To get maximum enjoyment from the experience, it helps to be A Believer. But be humble. You will be but one believer amongst the half million who visit over the seven months of the year that the garden is open. That is over 2300 a day.
As we lined up for opening with our tickets pre-purchased on line, a phalanx of 95 Swiss bore down upon us in the tiny lane. We resolutely held our pole position and were directed left upon entry whereas they were headed right. This sent them to the water lily garden and us to the house gardens where we had the unusual experience of having the place entirely to ourselves for a few precious minutes. I even managed some photos without people in them but this state of affairs was not to last and soon equal numbers were pouring in from the top entrance too.
We had worked out that it may be wise to traverse the house interior early and so proved to be the case. Goodness knows how that poor house stands up to the beat-beat-beat of a million feet but it is an interesting place in terms of its interior decor and the art. The yellow dining room was pretty astonishing.
There is a very good collection of Japanese prints which were a source of inspiration to Monet, though the print count was exceeded by the number of Japanese visitors on the day we were there. Some fine examples of Impressionist art are on display but don’t expect originals. This is a re-creation of Monet’s house as it was in his day and so too are the paintings reproductions, albeit some good ones.
The garden? I probably have to whisper this, but if you are a keen and knowledgeable gardener, you may find it a little underwhelming. Monet is said to have taken inspiration for many of his paintings from the garden and to have played with colour to make it zing. Private gardens are private visions. Once they pass into public ownership, that dissipates over time and it has had 88 years to do so. In midsummer, there is a heavy emphasis on annuals and some “interesting” plant choices. We rather doubted that Monet would ever have gone for enormous, overblown modern dahlia hybrids. The flower gardens were reminiscent of English cottage garden style but with strong colours. And immaculately maintained. Hordes of gardeners were picking over the pelargonium florets to remove individual spoiled petals.
The water lily gardens were somewhat wilder and charming for that. There are two Monet bridges there but smaller in scale than they appear in his paintings. The mistake is to expect the gardens to reproduce the paintings in real life. They were an inspiration for an Impressionist artist, never a detailed representation of what he saw before him.
It is the whole Giverny package that makes it a special experience. If you simply arrive on a coach tour, shuffle around the garden, then the house followed by the gift shop before boarding your coach for the next attraction, you may secretly wonder what the fuss is all about. It is different if you make the time to stay.
We spent two nights in Giverny, staying in a rustic mill house B&B. This gave us time to walk the streets, to bike the countryside and to soak up the romance which still lies below the tourist machine. The first night we dined at the historic Restaurant Baudy which is reputedly largely unchanged from the days when Monet and his friends used to patronise it. The garden out the back was dishevelled and had no plant interest but was utterly romantic in the way we associate with the French.
On the second day we pedalled the 5km to nearby Vernon, along a flat cycle way. “Bonjour,” all the oncoming cyclists and pedestrians called and we replied in kind. We found that it is possible to buy a perfectly acceptable bottle of plonk at the supermarket for €2.50. That evening we had the table d’hote offered at our B&B – freshly cooked local fare eaten al fresco where we talked broken French and some English with our hosts and their friend.
There is still huge charm to be found in Giverny but Monet’s garden, despite all the history and the hype, is only one part of that.
Monet’s Garden is open daily from 9.30am to 6.00pm from April 1 to November 1. Further details on all matters related to visiting the garden, transport, accommodation, the village and surrounding areas can be found on http://giverny.org/ Tickets to Monet’s garden cost €10.20 and can be purchased on line through this site.
Giverny is reached easily from either Paris or Rouen. The train journey from Gare St Lazare in Paris to the nearest station at Vernon takes 50 minutes and costs €14.30 each way.
We stayed in an impossibly romantic converted mill house, Moulin des Chennevieres in the village of Giverny paying €90 per night double for bed and breakfast.
First published in the Sunday Star Times.