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Monet’s gardens, palette, and past live here

Giverny biking tour makes its own impression

By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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GIVERNY, France — We already had dragged our children to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Pompidou Museum, when we broached the subject of traveling to Giverny. An hour outside of Paris, the Normandy village is best known as the home of the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet. It is where you can see the Japanese bridge bathed in wisteria and the water lilies bobbing in a pond, all the inspiration Monet would need to craft hundreds of his plein air works.

Giverny was a place my wife had dreamed about since studying Art History 101 in college. She would not be denied. The problem was persuading the 12- and 14-year-olds.

“Look how the light reflects off the water and the brushstrokes are so free,’’ my wife told them as we gazed at Monet’s “Blue Water Lilies’’ at the Musee d’Orsay. “Monet would take one subject and paint it again and again during the course of the day and you can see the effect of the changing light.’’

“This is where we’ll be tomorrow,’’ I said, “staring at those water lilies.’’

“No way! I’m not going,’’ said Jake.

“Can we head to the amusement park now?’’ said Melanie, referring to the Ferris wheel she saw in the nearby Tuileries.

I knew that a standard bus tour of Giverny would never fly with them. Their patience was obviously on empty. Then my hotel concierge mentioned Fat Tire Bike Tours, which takes day trips to Giverny. Met by a guide at the St. Lazare train station, we would travel in a group to the village of Vernon, pick up our bikes, visit a farmers’ market to buy picnic food, have lunch in a park, and then ride a bike trail to Giverny. Perfect, I thought.

The next morning we were standing with our tour leader, Andrew Golden, waiting for our train to leave, joined by other Americans, Canadians, Britons, and Aussies. I mentioned to Jake that St. Lazare was another of Monet’s favorite subjects, but I’m not sure he heard me over Kanye West on his iPod. When we told the kids that we would be biking to Giverny, they had warmed to the idea, though they barely uttered a word as we rode the rails past the industry that rings Paris and through fields of wheat as we neared Vernon.

As soon as we got off the train, we got the bikes and coasted over to an outdoor market. Finally, the kids seemed excited as we strolled from local fromagerie to butcherie to boulangerie. Having been in Paris for three days, they already knew their favorite cheeses and meats. Melanie asked for Reblochon, a creamy cheese not unlike a camembert, while Jake bought slices of Rosette de Lyon salami. We also purchased warm baguettes, juicy strawberries and apricots, and bottles of water.

Back on our bikes, we pedaled in a line through the small town of Vernon across a bridge. The same Seine River that snakes through Paris flows north to Normandy, and Golden led us to a park on the opposite shore to picnic. We sat on the freshly mowed grass and watched a family of swans in the river as we dug into our goodies. Golden passed around a duck paté and cheeses to sample before we got back on our bikes and continued our ride.

Having seen bicyclists merge recklessly with mopeds, speeding taxis, and buses on Parisian streets, I was a little nervous about the congestion, even if we were in a country village. Yet, much of the ride from Vernon to Giverny was on a 5-kilometer bike trail along the Seine, ideally suited for families. We cruised past small colorful houses and their manicured gardens that rolled down to the banks of the river, while Jake tried his luck riding hands-free.

We biked onto rue Claude Monet, the main street entering the small town of Giverny, passing several pensions, restaurants, and art galleries. Then we locked up our bikes and strolled over to the Monet homestead, walking first into the Japanese garden that any Monet lover reveres. The artist (1840-1926) moved to Giverny in 1883 with his wife and their eight children. He would make this his home for the rest of his life, living in the pink house known as The Cider Press (Le Pressoir), visited by his contemporaries Cezanne, Rodin, Renoir, and Degas. When not painting, he would pour all his energy into cultivating his vast gardens, at one point employing six gardeners to help him with the layout.

“Apart from painting and gardening, I am good for nothing,’’ said Monet, adding that, “my greatest masterpiece is my garden.’’

A great admirer of Japanese prints, Monet bought the adjacent land in 1892 and proceeded to build his own oriental water garden. He would divert part of a local creek into a pond, filling the placid retreat with tubs of water lilies of every color imaginable while the shoreline was planted with irises, azaleas, bamboo, and willow trees. A year later he would build the Japanese bridge seen in so many of his works and soon add a trellis blanketed in wisteria.

My wife’s eyes lighted up as she walked that same curved footbridge. A trail borders the perimeter of the pond, which is much smaller than I imagined. We then crossed over into the main garden where orange nasturtiums were in full bloom in late summer. The colorful palette of Monet’s paintings extends to his flower garden, where every hue is represented by a sublime specimen, be it a hydrangea, poppy, hibiscus, rose, peony, or dahlia. Whether you arrive in spring or summer, there is bound to be something to tantalize both sight and smell.

A wide gravel path, the Grand Allée, leads to the house, which stood in a state of disrepair after Monet’s family deeded the property to the Académie de Beaux-Arts in 1960. Twenty years later, thanks to wealthy benefactors such as Lila Acheson Wallace, co-founder of Reader’s Digest, Monet’s house and gardens were refurbished and opened to the public. Walk inside to see the bright yellow dining room, the blue kitchen, and Monet’s quite ordinary bedroom. This is no estate, but a whimsical country home whose rooms are painted vibrantly. Our last stop before heading back on our bikes to Vernon was Monet’s grave. He is buried down the road from his house, in a small plot next to the town church.

On the train ride home, as Jake and Melanie slept, my wife talked animatedly about lesser known Impressionists she studied in grad school. She was in her glory, having crossed Giverny off her bucket list. The kids were just as excited when they woke up and we went to Fauchon, a renowned patisserie within walking distance of St. Lazare. The caramel-filled eclairs and vanilla mousse were their just rewards for putting up with the passions of their parents.

Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.

If You Go

Fat Tire Bike Tours
24 rue Edgar Faure
75015 Paris
866-614-6218
(from North America)
fattirebiketours.com/paris/tours/monet-bike
The full-day tour costs about $92 per person, including train fare and bike rental.