Claude Monet once said “Apart from painting and gardening, I’m not good at anything.” While I readily acknowledge his artistic skills, a trip to his house and garden 70 kilometres outside Paris may satisfy my curiosity about his green thumb.
Travelling to Giverny is easy even for someone who speaks limited French like I do. I take an express train from Gare St.Lazare to the ancient Normandy city of Vernon and then hop on a bus for the final few kilometres.
I arrive early enough to enjoy lunch nearby before touring Monet’s house and gardens. I dine under the dappled shade of plane trees outside the Hotel Baudy, once a hangout for American and French artists in the late 1880s. I share my omelette, but not my glass of wine, with a marmalade cat that politely meows merci. It’s achingly picturesque. Even the walk to the bathrooms meanders past a rustic studio and along a path bordered with roses and daisies.
I enter the museum grounds through Monet’s old studio, now transformed into a first class shop. No photography is allowed inside so I’ll stock up on postcards and books on the way out.
I catch a glimpse of the verdant gardens but choose to start my visit with the house. Like Monet’s paintings, the interior is awash in vibrant hues. One hallway is covered in antique Japanese prints. The bedroom of his wife, Alice, has leaf green walls and sky blue trim. The living room is the colour of a robin’s egg and the curvy moulding around the wood panelling is outlined in peacock blue.
I feel like I have stepped inside a ball of sunshine when I walk into the dining room. Everything, including tables, chairs and walls is painted in shades of brilliant yellow. Two enormous china cabinets, also yellow, look cartoonish with elaborate Rococo styling. The room is accented with piles of blue and white pottery.
The kitchen next door is plastered floor to ceiling with blue and white tiles and overflows with brass and copper pots and pans. I could live here easily.
Outside I marvel at flowers blooming in harmonized colours. Masses of roses, dahlias, sunflowers and nasturtiums glow like brilliant jewels in the September sun. Monet’s secret was to plant with an artist’s eye for how the garden would be best reproduced on canvas.
The pond is dotted with lily pads and surrounded by stately weeping willows. It holds a perfect reflection of the cloudless afternoon sky. In the past, coal burning trains used to chug by here. I pause to envision a bizarre story – that Monet asked his gardeners to brush soot from the lilies before he painted them.
I fall in love with one particular aspect of the exterior, a vivid green that appears everywhere; on the doors, shutters, benches, trellises and the Japanese bridge. It makes everything from the pink stucco on the house to the pots of red geraniums appear more vibrant.
I’m disheartened, thinking I’ll never remember this exact shade of green. But then I notice a small blister of paint peeling from the bottom of the front stairs. I bend over to examine it more closely and voilá! The chip magically hops into my tote bag. Once home I discover it’s a near match to Benjamin Moore’s Cat’s Eye.
Two hours later, I’m almost cross-eyed from all the colours and sensory overload. I’m hoping my photographs will capture the sights my brain can no longer hold.
Back on the tour bus to the station, I have an argument with the driver who wants to see my return ticket. It’s lost in the maze of paper and postcards in the bottom of my bag but he begrudgingly lets me ride. It’s unlikely that anyone would buy a one-way ticket anyhow. The road to Giverny is narrow, hilly and without sidewalks.
In Vernon, I quaff a cold Kronenbourg beer while waiting for the train to Paris. I examine my tiny sliver of paint and smile. I may never have Monet’s green thumb, but at least I’ll have his green paint.
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