On Saturday, Georges and I took a tour of Monet's estate and gardens in Giverny -- by BIKE!
I've been in France for 8 years and have never visited Giverny but always wanted to do so, and it turns out Georges has lived here his whole life and never visited, either. But getting out to Giverny without a car is actually rather complicated, as there is no direct train service to that small village. However, Fat Tire Bike Tours has a very popular tour where they bring you out to a town near Giverny by train, and then you do a moderate bike ride with a picnic lunch on the banks of the Seine. After lunch you continue on the bikes about 4 or 5km to the village of Giverny.
Now, I'm not the most fit or athletic person, and though Georges is in better shape than I am, neither of us has ridden a bike for more years than we can count. There were a few moments where I really worked up a red face and a good sweat, but most of the ride was on level ground and in the end, we did it and we really enjoyed it. The tour was exceptionally well organized from start to finish, our guide Anya was knowledgeable and a lot of fun, but also made sure we were all safe and comfortable at all times, and we can't recommend this tour enough.
So here are some of the highlights of our day with Monet!
We left from Gare Saint Lazare in the morning. I didn't know that St Lazare was the very first railway station in Paris, and that even today it is the busiest train station in all of Europe! (My money would have been on Gare du Nord or Saint Pancras in London because of the Eurostar, but I would have lost that bet.) Monet painted St Lazare and was fascinated by the play of light at the station, with the steam engines of that era.
With our guide, we took a train to the town of Vernon in the Haute-Normandie area of France. Once you get into Normandie, you start seeing all this wonderful Norman architecture:
Vernon was heavily damaged by the last war, but a few of these old buildings have survived. The reason the ground floor is smaller than the upper floors? TAXES! They paid taxes based on the dimensions of the foundations of the house, so they just made the ground floor smaller and then added an extra foot or two to the upper floors to get more living space without paying the tax collectors.
When we arrived, we went to the Saturday open-air market to shop for whatever we each wanted for our picnic lunch. Georges and I chose a delicious paté de campagne, some cheeses, a baguette, a couple of apples (this region is noted for apples and for Calvados liqueur) and a bottle of brut apple cider. We had also brought (from home) a little bag of carrots and another of dried apricots. Then we went to pick up our bikes (baskets provided to stow our picnic fare or backpacks) and headed out toward Giverny.
But first, we got to enjoy our delicious picnic here, along the Seine, with a view of another little Norman cottage - and a real medieval castle!
After a relaxing lunch - so wonderful to be out of the city in the fresh air, and the weather was Indian-summer perfect - we hopped back on our bikes, and headed toward Giverny. Once we got there, we stowed the bikes at one end of the village near a lovely café, and took a short walk down Rue Claude Monet to take our tour of the gardens and Monet's wonderful house.
Monet lived a very long life - until the age of 80 - and was one of the few painters of his time to become famous and wealthy from his artwork during his own lifetime. In fact, he was a millionaire (and best friends with the Prime Minister of France, Clemenceau) which is what enabled him to buy his home and the grounds at Giverny.
One of Monet's bedroom windows. The house is actually right on the street, and is rather long and simple; it's not at all a big mansion! Monet created the gardens HIMSELF, taking a lot of pleasure from designing and planting the flowers and building the water features (even diverting a nearby stream).
And look at the results:
This is the famous Japanese garden created by Monet, and there were just a few water lilies left blooming, even this late in the season. We loved walking all around this garden. And I got very excited to see the autumn colors of a red maple tree - they are practically non-existent in France!
So beautiful and serene. Just like a painting, n'est-ce pas?
The house as seen from across the pond in the Japanese garden. And more fall colors, plus a bright pink water lily.
I love this shot because I could visualize something like this inspiring Monet to do the paintings in the Musée de l'Orangerie.
There were still many flowers blooming in the main gardens.
Monet's colorful pink and green home. Those open windows are his bedroom windows; below was his study. We weren't allowed to take photos of the interior, but we did get to walk around. My favorite rooms were the bedroom, for the views over the garden, and the kitchen which was huge and covered with gorgeous blue-and-white tiles, and rows of copper-bottomed pots hanging from the walls.
Monet's final resting place in the village churchyard. In ill health during the last months of his life, he was approached by the French government who wanted to honor him after his death by placing his remains in the Pantheon, where so many of France's great men (and an appallingly few number of women) were buried. Monet refused the offer; he loved Giverny, and wanted no part of a state funeral and the "honor" of the Pantheon. So, here he rests, along with his son, his second wife (first wife Camille is elsewhere as she died before he moved to Giverny) and other family members.
I hope to go back again someday, but in the late spring or early summer, when the flowers in the gardens will be of a different season and there will be even more water lilies. It's just beautiful there, even with the throngs of tourists. Totally worth the challenging bike ride. We're so glad we did it!