France’s Famous Garden Setting
It’s famous, of course, for the water lilies, but if you go to Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny in Normandy, what you are likely to remember most is the Clos Normand. This is the part of the garden closest to the painter’s house, and beside its gravel paths, the beds are a riot of colour and texture. It’s like walking through a 3 dimensional painting made up of hundreds of colours. And this wonderful place is just a short journey outside Paris – and flights to Paris are fast and frequent.
Nobody knows for sure if Monet intended the garden to look like this, but we know that Monet loved gardening. “Apart from painting and gardening, I’m good for nothing!” he once exclaimed. Weeds and brambles took over when he was gone and, despite photographs and work from various family members, what you see now is a homage, not a faithful reproduction. It’s also the product of a mind-boggling amount of work. Nine hundred varieties of annuals are planted every year in an endless cycle of digging, trailing, pruning and mulching.
In May, the responsibility for all that work fell into the hands of James Priest, the new head gardener at Giverny, and he’s a Brit — or, rather, he was. Priest came to France in 1986 and has pretty much gone native: he speaks English with a French accent. He’s deeply respectful of the work of the previous incumbent, Gilbert Vahé, who held the post for 35 years, and says he’ll watch and learn for the first 12 months. Only then will he make his mark.
Whatever happens, Giverny is bound to remain a sumptuous visual experience — and the perfect start to a weekend in eastern Normandy.
Monet’s house and gardens (00 33-2 32 51 28 21, fondation-monet.fr; £7) are open daily, 9.30am-6pm, from April 1 to November 1. They get 500,000 visitors each year. Coach parties and school groups are the bane of weekdays — avoid them by going between noon and 2pm, or after 4pm. These are good times to aim for at the weekend, too, along with 9am-10am.
Every month is different – September is for sunflowers, dahlias and asters; hold on till early May for deep beds of tulips. Whenever you go, it will be pulsating with colour. Ignore the house, by the way — it wasn’t built for the volumes of people trooping through it, and there are no Monet paintings inside.
Plan to see the garden twice, once in the afternoon and once at 9am next day. This will allow you to enjoy it as Monet would have, appreciating the changes in light and atmosphere. When you’re done, check out the Musée des Impressionnismes next door, currently showing works by Monet, Manet and Degas (02 32 51 94 65, mdig.fr; £5.70).
A few miles north of Giverny lies Les Andelys. Home to a beautifully preserved medieval church and square, it’s overlooked by the Château Gaillard (open daily except Tuesday, April 2-November 6, 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm; £2.80). Built at vast expense by Richard the Lionheart, it sits on the edge of a sweeping escarpment above the Seine.
Beyond the pretty village of Lyons-la-Forêt, you’ll find Le Jardin Plume (02 35 23 00 01, lejardinplume.com; open May 11-October 30, 2pm-6pm on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, 10am-noon on Wednesday and Saturday; £6). Horticulturists have been drooling over its mix of modern planting and old-school layout for years. It’s Priest’s favourite garden in the area, so may offer clues as to how Giverny might evolve.
How To Get There
Paris is only about 50 miles from Giverny, so it’s really easy to get to – just scan through the web for cheap flights to Paris, then pick up a train or coach to Giverny and visual heaven follows!