Our bridge is weathered timber, not the synthetic green shade favoured in Monet’s own garden at Giverny so far less distinctive as a landscape feature. But no matter, we like it in real life. We made the pilgrimage to Monet’s garden in Giverny last year.
My first encounter with a garden strongly promoted for its romanticism was in northern Italy – Villa San Remigio. If you have ever been to the Italian lakes district, you will nod in agreement when I say that the whole place seems impossibly romantic. Stresa, Mennagio, Bellagio (the Lake Como one, not the Las Vegas one) – in the right circumstances these are places of charm bordering on enchantment.
Villa San Remigio had a wildly romantic back story – the love affair between a Neapolitan poet and musician and an Irish artist. If my memory serves me right, there was some sadness, earlyish deaths and childlessness. It had the mandatory handsome villa and a particularly lovely old church along with beautiful views across Lake Maggiore. But were the gardens romantic? It was all gentle decay when we were there, especially of the old concrete (and there was a lot of old concrete in larger than lifesize shrine-like constructions and terraces) and whoever managed the place was hoping to get grants for a major restoration. It may have been done by now but competition for restoration money is stiff in a country with such a long history and so many things in need of major investment.
I searched on line and found an article in the UK Telegraph, listing their pick of the ten most romantic gardens. Villa San Remigio wasn’t on it, but the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain and Monet’s water lily garden in France were and I have been to both of those. The Alhambra is an amazing place but the gardens are a modern re-creation. It is the whole package there that makes the romance – the history, the beautiful palaces which are on quite an intimate scale, the light, the view across to the Albaicin (or medina)…. The garden enhances but does not generate the romance. The most recent. modernistic gardens at the Alhambra were anything but romantic.
Monet immortalised his garden in so many paintings which imbues the place with added mystique. An analysis of the garden itself rather belies that. However the water lily garden is loosely maintained and in a naturalistic style which contrasts with his more rigid stripes in the upper garden.
What these gardens have in common is a rich history, age and gentle decay, some solid architecture of note and romantic back stories. The gardens do not necessarily stand on their own merits. And let’s face it, in this country we lack most of the above although some of us can manage some gentle decay. But age is measured here in decades, not centuries.
These gardens – and most of the ones on the Telegraph list – are all well out of private ownership now but the love of romantic gardening dates back to the original visions of private owners, albeit generally ones with considerable personal wealth to achieve their dreams. These days the romance is a product of sophisticated marketing. I am yet to be convinced that an institution or business ownership model is capable of generating a romantic garden.
But private individuals can and do. I would disagree with the Telegraph’s list but that is because I am interested in the modern return to romantic gardening – what is being done here and now, not what was done last century or the centuries before.
We spent a couple of nights in the village of Giverny where Monet’s garden is located. I am quite willing to admit that our delight in the charm of the village may have been influenced by the departure of the daytime crowds, the soft evening light and the consumption of the fermented fruit of the French vine, but we found ourselves more engaged with the village scenes than we were with the star attraction. This was romanticism on a very personal, domestic level. The soft-edged naturalism, often with charming detail, has nothing to do with great wealth, grand vision and power. It is equally within the reach of the individual.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.
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.