Those of you that have travelled in Northern France, or even just know a little about Monet will have been able to guess exactly where we went next. Midway between Rouen and Paris (our next stop), on the tree lined banks of the Seine, lies the little village of Giverny, and in Giverny you will find Monet’s house and gardens.
If you think of Monet’s work, I’m certain that the images that popped up in your mind included at least one of his waterlilies. They’re emblazoned across notepads, t-shirts and umbrellas the world over and the vast canvases he painted of them that now hand in the Musee d’Orangeries in Paris are arguably his most famous work. Well, this is where the waterlilies grew, and this is where he was when he painted them.
It was one of the most beautiful days of our trip, warm and sunny but not humid or sweltering, and even just strolling along to the entrance we could hear the stream running beside us and we had the feeling that this was going to be somewhere very special.
It didn’t disappoint. Giverny is now firmly on my list of homes and gardens that I would move into in a heartbeat. For the record, Coleton Fishacre remains top of that list, but only just.
We entered by the garden gate and headed straight for the subway back under the road and down to the water gardens. As you come up the steps the arrows take you around the back of the garden, along past the stream and a thick cordon of bamboo rustling in the breeze. There were bridges for the girls to stomp across, bushes for them to hide behind and a path for them to skip along, and for H and I an immediate feeling of tranquility. It might be the bamboo, it might have been the noise of the stream, or that the water was just so clear, or it could have been magic.
The visitor layout is designed so that you come around a corner, step forward under the arch, and there before you is the lily pond. And because even on on Monday morning the gardens were already filling up, it wasn’t until we stepped forward that we truly saw it for the first time.
It’s hard to convey in pictures just how pretty a spot it is. For one thing I think your mind’s eye can ignore the other people in the back of the shot far more easily that the camera can. In my head we weren’t exactly along there, but when we got home and looked at the pictures there seem to be a lot more people than I remembered. All of us taking pictures. So although it’s hard to believe given how many pictures I’m putting into this post, I promise you that for all the time taking pictures I spent just as much time with my camera slung on my back, just drinking it all in.
H and I had had a vision of spending a little time drawing, just to say that we sketched where Monet sketched, but the water gardens aren’t really set up in a way that you could; most of the benches were in a circle in a clearing and anyway as soon as you pulled out a pencil I rather suspect you’d become a bit of a sideshow, and that only works if you want to draw lots of pictures of peoples’ legs. So we watched, and pinched ourselves that we were really there, standing on a bridge that’s probably a replacement to the green bridge that appears in so many paintings but is none the less in the same spot, wondered if any of the coach load of Japanese tourists with selfie sticks was going to fall in the pond (nearly, oh so nearly), and listened to the girls decide which bits they liked the best while Pip tried to do a bit of impromptu vine pruning from the sling on my back.
Back over the road and into the main gardens and I was in dahlia heaven. I mean I was in rhapsodies when my one dahlia in the garden produced a handful of pompoms, now imagine a garden as big as a hockey pitch set out in avenues of flower beds overflowing with blooms, and all organised into colour palettes. There was a row of reds, and entire back bed of yellows into pinks, a white bed that popped against a peerless blue sky and the girls’ favourite row where pink faced purple all the way down.
And at the centre a row of arches led up to the house, a riot of colour that by itself would be worth a long, and longing look, even if it hadn’t also been immortalised in paint.
Various different clucking noises led us off to one side, and behind the orchard we found some of the cutest, fluffiest chickens I’ve ever seen, seriously, they looked like they were wearing retro 80’s leg warmers and Kitty loved them. I’d given her my phone to take pictures (in a swap to regain possession of my DSLR) and when I got it back I found close to a hundred different views of the chickens. Perhaps in due course and if I ever have a bigger garden I might find I have an ally in my bid to persuade H that chickens would be fun.
The gardens at Giverny are well documented, both in Monet’s paintings and the mountain of commentary that has followed them, but I’d never so much as seen a photograph of the house before, save for his studio. From the outside it looks huge, a far cry from the little ‘cottage’ in a rural village that I imagined. It is however, deceptive. Built in a very traditional French style it’s only one room deep, so when you look at the house, you’re seeing the whole thing. My English eyes had built it two rooms deep at the very least, so it’s not quite the mansion it suggests. It is however, sweet and lovely, and full of pictures (even if they are reproductions). I think you can get such a feel for someone from their home; the colours they use to decorate and the things with which they surround themselves build up an aura of their personality and having visited Giverny only confirmed how much Monet loved colour.
He had a big thing for two tone woodwork, and the doorframe and the windows and the furniture would be done in the same colours, mostly a gorgeous turquoise blue. The rooms were comfy and cosy and I loved spotting a sewing machine table tucked out in the lobby to the balcony but the two rooms that had H and I both stand and stare (and mentally re-do our colour scheme at home) were the dining room and the kitchen.
The dining room is yellow. Brilliant sunshine yellow from floor to ceiling, with only the tiles around the fireplace and the china in the cabinets providing a pop of blue. It’s one of the happiest rooms I’ve ever been in.
And then the kitchen.
I have a weakness for a lovely kitchen. And for copper saucepans. And for blue and white tiles. Suffice to say I didn’t want to leave.
The whole place is very special and if you are ever in the vicinity, don’t think twice, just go.
And just in case my words can’t convince you, let me take you on our little journey tracing Monet’s steps through Etretat and on to Giverny:
And if you are thinking about going with little ones, I have five Top Tips for visiting Giverny with children:
- Book your tickets online. It’s a bit of a funny booking website and the whole time I wondered whether it was legit or not, but it is, and booking tickets on my phone as we drove over in the car saved us from standing around in a queue for 30 minutes and let us use the groups entrance which was the first one we found. We just showed them the tickets on my phone and the staff at the entrance scanned them off the screen.
- Go early. Even relatively early on a Monday morning it was starting to fill up quickly and judging by the queue outside it wasn’t about to get any quieter. Assuming you can’t go outside of school holidays (that would be us until 2032!), get there first is the best tactic.
- Take cameras. Not just for the photography addicts like you and me, but when the paths were too busy for the children to be able to run, giving them a phone so they could record their own impressions helped to slow them down to the pace of the more leisurely tourists.
- There are limited toilets actually inside the house and garden but lots in a little building in the tarmac car park over the road from the free carpark. Worth a visit before you go in.
- The exit is at the back of the house by the main entrance, and about fifty yards down the road on the right we found an ice cream stand that was perfect to keep us cool. The girls’ strawberry was pale pink perfection and I had a lemon and basil sorbet that was beautifully balanced and I think my best ice cream of the whole trip.