From the Saint Lazare train station, I caught the 7:18 to Vernon. My destination was Claude Monet’s home in Giverny. I planned this trip the night before, a solo adventure on the last day before a heat wave descended on Paris. As I write this, I realize how laughable it was that I thought by going early I would avoid the crowds.
I had read somewhere to look out from Saint Lazare and imagine the station as Monet had painted it. That guidance is what found me shortly before 7, standing on the platform and gazing at the scene which now hangs in the Musee d’Orsay. Squint. Did I see it? Perhaps.
Breath. Relax. I steeled myself for a day of crowds, lines, weariness. For the remainder of the day, I would force myself into a zen state and look at the world through Monet’s eyes.
I arrived in Vernon at 8. The walk to the village of Giverny (the name refers to the village, not the house) would take nearly an hour. Following the footsteps painted on the sidewalk from the train station door, I walked down the street, around a corner and straight through the center of town (although the footsteps stopped at the Giverny-Vernon shuttle stop).
Vernon is a medieval town, nicer than I had imagined, and clearly worth some time upon my return. Fortunately, I had come here on a one-way ticket and hence had no need to rush back to the train station. Yet for the moment, my focus was on making it to Giverny before Monet’s house opened at 9:30, so I didn’t dawdle.
The sky was overcast, and I wondered if I had been foolish to leave my umbrella and raincoat back home, but shortly the clouds vanished as I left the town of Vernon behind me. Road noise mixed with the chirping of birds and the distant hum of a farm contraption.
The path was flat, deciduous forest on one side, homes and a road on the other, no more taxing than a stroll across Iowa. In well under an hour, I made it to the outskirts of Giverny. As I stood on the roadside, I watched four tourist-ladened buses turn into the village.
I laughed, breathed deeply and soldered on.
Of everything that would happen that day, the town itself was one of the most pleasant surprises. I paused to wonder if Monet inspired the beauty or if the beauty inspired Monet. In either event, it is one of the most charmingly immaculate villages I’d ever encountered. Stucco and timber mansions. Pastel shutters. Stone fences. Adorable cottages. Irises. Lilies. Roses.
For twenty minutes, I had Giverny all to myself. While the tourists no doubt unloaded up by the house and scampered off in search of a coffee and a toilet, I wandered the remainder of the village and never saw another soul. In that moment I realized that this was the reason one should hurry to be the first in Giverny.
By the time I located the house, a queue had formed and parades of tourists followed their ringleaders identifiable by the colorful pennants held aloft. Bolstered by a pleasant walk and some alone time, they didn’t phase me.
I loved the gardens, the house, and even the Japanese lily pond in spite of throngs of people scurrying in formation, iPads raised, elbows bent. An elderly woman passed me repeating in a heavily accented voice, “I am Japanese. I am Japanese.” I could only speculate that she wanted to share her heritage as a manifestation of her pride in Monet’s homage to Japan. But I wondered whom she was practicing for.
A green bench enticed me to sit and I spent a few minutes thinking about this space, what it meant to Monet, and how he painted it through the seasons of nature and his own life. From fall to spring. From the height of his talent through to his much less capable old age. He was faithful to this place until the end of his life. I lingered before moving to his home.
A canary yellow dining room. A Delft-blue tiled kitchen. Every room faced back to the garden. The person who lived here clearly loved color. I could see him awakening on a spring morning, pulling his covers up over his shoulders, smelling the lilacs, hearing the coo of a dove. Did he fall back to sleep or was he teased out of bed by the morning light that flickered across the water?
In spite of this moment of sheer peacefulness, I didn’t dally. Instead, I left the house and wandered down the road, toured through the Giverny Impressionist Museum, and stopped at a garden restaurant for a cup of coffee and a tartine. I sat for an hour watching the flag patrol march by on their way to the church. One desperate man searched for ice-cream.
With renewed vigor, I fell in behind the crowd, visited the church, Monet’s grave, and a heartbreaking memorial to 7 British soldiers lost nearby during World War 2. Their grave was marked by the propeller from their plane shot down into the nearby woods.
The walk back to Vernon seemed faster. Shortly, I arrived back at the park on the Seine banks to view the old mill. Then I crossed the bridge, toured the Vernon History Museum, and ate a leisurely lunch. On my way to the station, I diverted up the cathedral, tired but unsure when I would return. Why leave one obvious site unseen?
I bought a ticket back to Paris, waited in the sun, and treasured the day.
TRAVEL HINTS: I bought my ticket to Monet’s home online the night before. It was not obvious that in doing this, I didn’t need to queue at the house. In the same door where people are queuing (the ticket kiosk is just inside this door), I could bypass this line and enter on the left side of that same door under the exit (“sortie”) sign. Eventually, one person figured this out which created a rush of those of us who had advance tickets.
In Vernon, I ate at the Bistro des Fleurs near the history museum. It was a lovely 3 course meal that included wine for 21 euro.
I enjoyed the Impressionist Museum at Giverny. The History Museum at Vernon I could take or leave. But a combined ticket to the two was something like 8.50 euro. To me, well worth it.
Next time, I will walk again, but on a cooler day in the late afternoon. Perhaps then, the crowds will have already returned to Paris.
Categories: A year in Paris