France: the land of croissants, Monet, sumptuous food, and fruitful vineyards. I’m traveling again, this time in rural France. Yes, I just went to Spain in spring. But I’m 65, and am taking every opportunity I can to live full out. My girlfriend, Dianne, has been itching to go to France. She told me that all I had to do was pay my share and enjoy – she’d take care of the details. So, of course, I said yes.
We are flying in and out of Paris, but our focus is northern rural France: Normandy, Brittany and the Loire River Valley. First stop: Giverny, home of Claude Monet, the famous impressionist painter. It’s a tiny village (population 502 in 2008) inundated every day with day-trippers from Paris eager to see Claude Monet’s gardens and home.
Giverny is a quiet place, with one main road and a few cross-streets that lead down to the highway. The buildings appear to be old, though some were repaired / rebuilt after bombing damage during WWII. The gite (French vacation home) where we are staying had its fourth floor ripped open by a bomb; the owners decided not to rebuild it, so it’s now a three-story house. At one time it was the presbytery for the town’s medieval church (built 11th and 12th centuries) next door. Now it’s been thoroughly modernized on the inside with conveniences and reliable plumbing.
But it’s the historic aspects I love the most: the solid stone walls, the tall windows, the shutters. It’s cool inside our flat with a breeze flowing through it when we have the windows open, no matter how warm outside.
We arrived in the afternoon. The little main street, Rue Charles Monet, was filled with tourists, so we took a nap first, and set out about 6 pm to explore. By then, the visitors had departed, leaving the little village to those of us lucky enough to be staying here. Villagers seem to take a cue from Monet, filling every spot of dirt with bountiful flowers, and training (or maybe allowing) vines to climb walls.
The tiny streets were mostly deserted, the locals seemingly hiding in their homes. I would hide too if two thousand people descended on Honoka’a on a daily basis. Each home was secreted behind a gated wall, or was the wall – houses often ran right up to the edge of the street with their gardens behind or to the side, like Monet’s pink stuccoed house.
At times we could see sun-lit gardens or rows of fruit trees (apples and pears) or grape vines behind the formidable gates. The style is so different from American front lawns sprawling to the curb.
That evening, we had dinner at the Ancien Hotel Baudy, a place where artists congregated and painted when Monet lived here (1890-1926). The dining room looked inviting, but we chose to sit in their garden across the street, in this village of gardens. It was so easy to linger over our dinner, wine and dessert, despite the occasional bee visitor.
On our second day, we walked over to see Claude Monet’s house and garden, second in line only to a college student touring Europe. This early-bird start allowed us to walk straight to Monet’s water lily garden, with views of the Japanese bridge without people on it.
At every turn on the path there was another beautiful view. While I had assumed the boats in the pond were decorative, one of the score of gardeners (11 full-time plus volunteers) used it to tend to the water lilies.
In his later years, Monet’s health and eyesight were failing. So instead of traveling around France to paint, he created the water garden and his famous flower garden right on his property.
He painted them again and again, in different seasons and times of the day. Many versions were available in various sizes and quality in the gift shop, which had been his painting studio.
The house gave me further insight into his life and priorities. Walls are covered with art: the many Japanese prints he loved and likely the inspiration for his water garden, his paintings, and the works of famous contemporaries.
The spacious kitchen and bright yellow dining room suited his large blended family. While the furniture is not original, the house was refurnished to look like it did when he lived there with his two sons, his mistress (he later married her) and her six children.
The rest of the day was consumed with the ordinary things of life like laundry, and deciding what to do the next day (visiting the Musee des Impressionnismes with its current exhibit – Manguin and Fauvism, and walking the grounds of the village church with Monet’s grave).
By the fourth day, we were off to our next adventure, but not before we stopped at the boulangiere (the bakery), a dozen doors down the street, for a couple of croissants to go. I noticed that even they had a potted garden and topiaries in their outdoor eating space. Everyone in Giverny has the gardening bug.
For other essays on our rural France journey, see:
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