We caught the twelve o’clock train from Paris, arriving at Vernon just before one. Our friends Anne and Clive were there to meet us. They live in Normandy now, part time at least, switching between a farm house where they have a potager and keep bees, and a flat in Essex. We last saw them a decade and a half ago, during a visit to England in 2005, but our shared history goes back to the late seventies, when we taught together in Papua New Guinea. Indeed, they and I were on the same flight to that country, in January 1976, when we had simultaneously – and unbeknownst to each other – given up teaching jobs in the concrete jungles of suburban London for the new adventures of a real jungle in the Pacific.
But we were not in Vernon to reminisce, although we did lots of that, aided by the wine and food found in the lovely village of Giverny. And, of course, by the magnificent spectacle which is Monet’s Garden.
Seldom does a garden deserve a capital G, although many claim the right. Kew would qualify, of course, as would the Bouchart in Victoria (British Columbia). And also this, the one designed and planted by Monet over a century ago, the irrepressible impressionist writ large in banks of colour and form.
Even in early April the first spring flowers were in bloom, daffodils and early tulips most prominent. There were hyacinths as well, all colours but dominantly purple and blue, and serried ranks of white and purple sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), greenhouse-grown and transplanted in to the still cool ground. The roses were just starting to leaf out and framed the house so perfectly that it was possible to see where Monet had stood to paint his series of “The artist’s house viewed from the rose garden” masterpieces.
We crossed under the road to the piece of land he had developed into the water gardens. No lilies in April, of course, although a few lonely leaves could be seen swaying on long tendril stems. But the Japanese bridge occasionally cleared itself of tourists, allowing for a beautiful photograph framed by the light green sheen of an early weeping willow. Forsythia exploded in the oddest places, a sudden exuberance of gold against an otherwise winter-bound hedge.
This place – Giverny – has long been on my “bucket list,” a mythical place referenced in so much of the art and history of our times. It did not disappoint. We were there on a cool day, with high cloud, so the shadows were light and the crowds were small. It was wonderful to not feel crushed, to be able to stop and look, to suddenly gasp as a new composition exposed itself. After spending a couple of hours in the garden we wandered in to the house. This is appointed as though the artist has just stepped out for a café au lait, with pots of brushes and his studio filled with paintings, some finished, some incomplete.
There was one I’d only before seen in books and at first I thought these were originals, until I saw one – the poppy fields of Holland – which I had seen two days before in the Monet museum in Paris! I quickly flipped through my camera until I found the image I had taken there, then showed it to the staff person in the studio.
“How’s this possible?” I said. “Did he make two copies?”
“Oh no, monsieur, ici c’est un reproduction! All of them!”
Which was rather disappointing but made sense in a security-related sort of way.
That evening we went to a small restaurant in the village and had a wonderful prix fixe meal – salade Normandie, lamb brochette, and for dessert what was described as ‘soft white cheese with spring berries’ and arrived as a semi-yoghurt goat cheese drenched with raspberry coulis and some sort of soft whipped cream, all served like a pudding in a bowl. Which wasn’t at all what I was expecting! Plus wine, of course, and lots of stories.
The next morning after breakfast we wandered down to the village. The sun was out, and so were the tourists streaming into the Garden. We sat on a terrace and had coffee, and watched the crowds go by. Later I went to a small gallery and met Pascale, who sculpts and paints and whose art is worth looking at if you’re thinking of buying me anything for Christmas … you can find her work at www.pascalebeneteau.com
Anne and Clive drove us back to the station, and we caught the one o’clock train back to Paris after a perfect 24 hours in Giverny. Food, wine, art, friendship, and a magnificent Garden – what more could one want?