A short drive of one hour (or a train ride of 50 minutes from Gare Saint-Lazare) takes one to the small village of Giverny whose main attraction is the Monet Gardens and Home. Two summers ago, I spent a week in the hills just above Giverny. I had the great good fortune to visit Monet’s gardens every morning before tourists arrived, and in the early evening after the tourists had left. As far as beauty went, it was a breathtaking week that has lingered in my mind.
I went with an art group even though I was hoping for writing inspiration. I was half-way through my book that was published in May. We stayed at La Réserve, a maison d’hôtes (bed and breakfast), that is hosted by Valerie and Francois Jouyet (www.giverny-lareserve.com). The group leaders stayed in a separate cottage, called a gîte, that has a spacious living room/dining room, well-equipped kitchen and, I was sure, some very nice bedrooms. I stored all this in the back of my mind and vowed that I would return someday and rent the cottage.
Not wanting to get on a plane, this summer, to go anywhere, I decided to make all my summer travels close to Paris, easy to get to, and a place of both beauty and rest. In June, I went to Brittany. In July, I went to Normandie. And last week, as a birthday treat to myself, I, and two friends, rented the cottage at La Réserve and stayed for a whole week.
I have written about Giverny and the gardens before and won’t repeat myself. This year, being the strange and extraordinary year it has been, going to Monet’s gardens in August didn’t seem like a silly idea. There would probably be no Americans, no Japanese and no Chinese. That group alone makes up for 75% of the visitors on any given day in July or August pre-pandemic. We didn’t know what to expect but this whole time since February 7 has been an adventure of not knowing, so we were game for anything.
After an hour’s drive from the suburbs of Paris, we arrived at La Réserve on a Wednesday. We were greeted by Valerie who was kind enough to say she remembered me. She walked us over to the cottage. I was delighted. It was better than I remembered. Large bedrooms with double beds, an en-suite bathroom in each bedroom; and a grill outside the back door. We had a private garden with a picnic table for evening dining. I remembered strong Wi-Fi but this time it wasn’t to be. No one ever figured out what was wrong but for most of the week, we were without internet. Once I accepted that, the week took on a even calmer atmosphere: disconnected from the world of Zoom but seeing people everyday in the form of my two friends, and whoever we met on our many walks traipsing up and down the hills surrounding Giverny.
As with most museums in Paris and France, during the time of Covid-19, one has to make a reservation to get into Monet’s gardens. I was told that they were letting in 350 people an hour which is about 4000 less people a day than earlier summers. We were to come on time and queue up at a door that I had no idea existed. As we showed our tickets, a young woman asked us to hold out our hands for the sanitising spray of disinfectant. The path from the door opened onto the steps going down to the small tunnel that leads to the water-lily pond. Large green arrows marked the way, and there was no doubt that one followed the arrows, no exceptions. So, like a long snake winding it’s body around the entire pond, we walked slowly, single and double file, with no distance between us and the people ahead. If we stopped to look at anything and talk about it, it was easy. No jumping up and down to see over someone’s head or ducking under an armpit to get closer to a view of the beautiful water-lilies that were open and happy to be seen. It seemed like a lot of people but it really wasn’t.
One round of the pond was all that was allowed, and then we were escorted across the road to the house gardens. The colors were just starting to turn an orange and a brown. The nasturtiums in the Allée des Roses had all been cut back and the allée was now a large pathway. It was blocked off as was much of those paths that meander around the house gardens. Again we followed the green arrows and ended up in another queue to enter the home. It’s been years since I had been in the house. Crowds make me very uncomfortable and every other time I’d been there, people packed the house like sardines. Not this time. This time, I got to appreciate how spacious the house is and how fortunate Monet was to have become so well-known long before his death. He had the means to create what so many of us are enjoying 120 years later. He loved and was inspired by Japanese art. Part of his upstairs art collection is a large selection of Japanese paintings and prints that hang on many of the walls. The upstairs consists of three bedrooms, two ‘bathrooms” (I’m not sure what they were called back then), two staircases, windows in every room opening onto the gardens and, also, many paintings done by his friends: Cezanne, Pissaro, Renoir, Sisley and others. The yellow and blue dining room and the blue-tiled kitchen are spectacular and one can only dream of dining there in such company.
Down the pedestrian walkway is the Musée d’Impressionisms. It used to be a museum for American painters that came to Giverny but sometime in the last ten years, it switched over to the museum it is today. Expositions, that are often fascinating, are installed once or twice a year. Two years ago, the expo was of the Japanese influence on many of the Impressionist painters. Paintings, Japanese and French, hung side by side to demonstrate what words on the walls were explaining to us. This time, it was Impressionists along the rivers and beach heads of Normandie. Two rooms were devoted to Hiramatsu Reiji, a Japanese painter who is clearly influenced by Monet. From his work, one can tell that he loves the gardens and Monet’s prolific work. He has produced some very beautiful pieces that included painting on canvas and on screens. I don’t believe he would be considered an Impressionist so it was a bit puzzling why he was there. I wasn’t complaining. His work is breathtaking.
One evening, we attended a chamber concert held in the museum. We were very lucky. We had been told that we could buy tickets at the entrance on the same evening. When we arrived, the women checking off names, laughed saying the concerts had been sold out months ago. With social distancing, an auditorium that was built to sit 270 people, was now sitting 78 or so. She said we could wait if we wanted to take our chances. I was positive we would get in. There are always some people who are no-shows. Indeed, we did get in, and heard two pianos play dance music from Westside Story (Leonard Bernstein), music for strings and piano playing Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin). There was also Samuel Barber and Prokofiev but if it had only been the first three pieces, I would have been extremely happy. It was a highlight of my week.
Every evening, we walked back to our cottage at La Réserve and grilled fish, meat, veggie burgers, corgettes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. We ate outside watching the light of August slowly eep away as the days were getting shorter. Our last evening, we witnessed a remarkable sunset. I had been reading about the many California fires and, to me, it seemed the sky was on fire. It was that dramatic. The reds, oranges, whites, yellows and purples danced and flew as if they were on stage. One minute it would get darker then, suddenly, it was lighter again. The clouds swirled. As they moved further away from the sun, the white clouds appeared as mountains with red caps or orange at their feet. We stood watching for a good fifteen minutes. It was our final art expo of the week, gratis via nature.