As we approached a man with a pungent pipe walking his dog on the main street in Giverny, an hour west of Paris by car, he nodded at us knowingly. “Vous serez les premiers,” he said with a chuckle. “Bonne visite!”
To my astonishment, we really were the first ones to be admitted when the doors to the house and gardens of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet opened at 9:30 a.m. on this Thursday in mid-May. Once inside, we found ourselves alone exploring the handsome rooms of the house where the artist lived from 1883 until his death in 1926.
It was an exultant, almost shockingly intimate experience. In Monet’s original studio, I fought off the temptation to sit on a tufted chaise longue covered in faded floral chintz. Sunlight streamed through the open windows of the large, high-ceilinged room, which he later re-purposed as his smoking room and a reception parlor for dealers, artists and professional callers. Reproductions of Monet canvases perched on wooden railings shared space with caramel-colored pine wainscoting, a red Oriental carpet and a few wicker side chairs. The mise-en-scène was so perfect that I jumped when I heard heavy boots grind the gravel path just outside the open window, briefly fearing I might be accused of trespassing by a hugely famous and rather ursine artist with a bushy white beard.
To best experience the great painter’s sanctuary adjacent to the banks of the Seine, you need silence and solitude — most easily achieved by visiting on a weekday and arriving the night before, so that you can beat the tour-bus hordes on mad-dash day trips from Paris and the cruise ships docked in Normandy ports. During the annual season — this year from March 29 to Nov. 1 — Monet’s house and gardens, which are run by the Fondation Monet, will receive more than a half-million visitors. And for good reason: The estate is an exquisitely staged setting that enshrines both the artist’s jaunty bohemian taste and his respect for the bourgeois rites of courtesy, comfort, leisure and gastronomy. The gardens in particular were a great source of pride for Monet: “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” he once said.
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Until recently, the problem with this early bird strategy was that there wasn’t really anyplace special to stay or eat in Giverny. But that changed last November, when the chef Eric Guérin, a local who now runs La Mare aux Oiseaux, a charming inn with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Brière region on the French Atlantic coast, opened Le Jardin des Plumes, just a 10-minute walk from the Monet site.
As I listened to the frogs in Monet’s garden below and caught a glimpse of a new moon through the larch trees, it was easy to understand why, at 53, the painter eagerly gave up the suburbs of Paris for this Norman village. In its serenity, he discovered a muse, as well as the ability to explore a sort of cultural muddling — seen here, for example, in his exceptional collection of Japanese prints — that would deeply influence 20th-century art.
By the time we had finished visiting Monet’s house, the gardens were packed with people taking pictures of the tulips and irises with their iPads. So we did what the artist would doubtless have advised us to do, and escaped deeper into the surrounding countryside. We headed to lunch by following the Seine to nearby Gasny. It was a blissfully absent-minded pleasure to drive along the river’s verdant banks, partly hidden by the long skirts of beech and willow trees that line the country roads. In the garden of the charmingly old-fashioned L’Auberge du Prieuré, we had a fine meal to the soundtrack of a wisecracking bunch of middle-age French pharmacists and their wives who had arrived on lovingly polished Harley-Davidsons.
After lunch we visited the château of the celebrated de la Rochefoucauld family in La Roche-Guyon, which is sheltered by a steep chalk cliff and has an 18th-century riverside garden that was restored in 2004. The rest of the afternoon was spent reading against the soothing backdrop of the fountain and brook in the grounds of Les Jardins d’Epicure, where we stayed that night, an exceptionally pleasant hotel (with a Michelin-starred restaurant) in Bray et Lu, a town set amid the rolling hills and wooded stretches of the Parc Naturel du Vexin.
In the morning, a cornflower blue sky was filled with big, woolly white clouds. The window above the hotel’s breakfast buffet framed a bucolic tableau Monet would doubtless have admired: bordered by the leafy edges of a hedge, the lush green field across the road was inhabited at varying depths of vision by cream-colored cows, some standing and some sitting. There’s no disputing the charms of Giverny. But the real discovery of a night or two in the country just outside of Paris is that so much of the same pastoral beauty that seduced the artist survives intact.