So, you’re in Paris and a decision must be made. Do you see Monet’s paintings of his famous Waterlilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie near the Tuillerie Gardens or do you visit his garden and waterlily pond in Giverny about a 45 minute train ride out of Paris? Which should come first? We chose to take the garden option by joining a bike tour for the day that started at St Lazare Railway Station in the heart of Paris.
We booked our tour through a company called viator.com which we can highly recommend. They organise the whole package including rail tickets, museum entry and of course bikes for the ride through the stunning French countryside. At the station we met Dan our American born guide and twenty other Monet enthusiasts.
At around 11:00am we arrived at Vernon, a small and adorable French country town on the edge of Normandy. We then made our way from the station to the nearby bike garage (Dan referred to it as a bike boutique) to collect our bikes fitted with carry baskets that were soon to come in handy.
Dan gave us about 45 minutes in Vernon to shop for our lunch where we visited a superb bakery (boulangerie) called Isabelle and Thierry Rose. We bought freshly baked zucchini quiches, crunchy chicken and salad baguettes and two delicious citron tarts, more than plenty for our picnic lunch. Others in our group visited the fromagerie for a selection of local cheeses and the charcuterie (meat shop) for sliced meats and homemade pâté. The town is also famous for apple cider so we picked up a bottle but others went for a good French red instead.
Back on our bikes and with our baskets full we rode slowly and carefully through the cobbled streets of the ancient town, on bridges which crossed the slow flowing Seine, to a delightful picnic spot on the bank of the river. Here everyone enjoyed eating and drinking their recent purchases on the lush grass next to a beautiful old black and white French country cottage suspended high above the water by remnants of an ancient bridge almost entirely destroyed during wartime. With boats dotted around and ducks diving for their lunch in the shallows, this setting was a masterpiece itself.
After lunch we rode through the richly scented French countryside, along disused former railway lines to the tiny town of Giverny. Dan pointed out the Hotel Baudy. This is where Monet and many of the young Impressionist painters of his time stayed when they first started painting outdoor scenes in this area. These painters were not taken seriously at first. You may have seen subjects like haystacks, sunsets and everyday people in natural settings with an emphasis on the accurate depiction of light, all far from the realism and salon rigidity of their predecessors.
When we finally entered the famous garden and saw Monet’s waterlily pond we were stunned by its natural beauty, tranquility and serenity. The mass profusion of multi coloured lilies opening their faces to catch the filtered sunlight through the weeping willows is a sight that inspires you to buy a brush and some paint. As we stood on Monet’s famous Japanese bridge we gained a sense of the effect of natural light that the French impressionists were famous for capturing. We spent about an hour in and around the lily pond taking endless photos and the sublime early August day was a perfect time for seeing the lilies at their best.
We then ambled through the underpass to Monet’s main garden known as the Clos Normand. Here we were treated to a resplendent garden with a multitude of flowers which appear to be almost randomly sown in the French provincial style, with small gravel paths separating the massive flower beds. By early August the roses were getting towards their end as were the sunflowers but the dahlias, cosmos and hibiscus were in full bloom along with hundreds of other plants and trees, creating a burst of colour everywhere you looked.
Monet’s house at the top of the garden is well worth a visit. You can see many copies of his works, (no originals in the house now) but you do get a sense of how he lived. The very colourful rooms, for example the blue sitting room and the charming dining room painted in various yellow tones, are a real reflection of his sense of colour and style. Upstairs you will see his bedroom and the three windows out of which you can catch a fabulous view of the garden in full bloom. Photos and videos are strictly forbidden in the house, however you are allowed to take photographs out of the bedroom windows.
Again, another hour had passed and we took a stroll back through the little village where there are a number of small art galleries, shops and restaurants. Needing to be on time to catch our train back to Paris we climbed back on our bikes and on the return journey we made a brief stop at Monet’s grave to hear a little more about the fascinating family history and to pay our respects to this truly remarkable artist. Dan our guide, provided helpful commentary and intelligent perspectives throughout our journey. His knowledge and skill as a guide made our day that much more personal, comfortable and enjoyable, from the time he welcomed us right up until our final ‘aurevoirs’ at the end of the day.
Whether you visit Monet’s Garden as part of a bike trip or simply catch the train independently, it is a great day-long excursion out of Paris and in the months of June, July or August you will be treated to something very special when the gardens unfurl their colourful brilliance.
Well now it’s off to the Musée de l’Orangerie to complete the experience and see the amazing Waterlily paintings these wonderful gardens inspired. Or should we have done that first?