Using a voice-activated GPS to tell you which roads to take and where and when to turn not only saves time, but also helps otherwise loving couples avoid numerous arguments. And for Americans traveling in France it can be especially helpful. Of course Bruce and I are a little suspicious of the device’s accuracy, since we have unfortunately found ourselves travelling “dead-ends to nowhere” back in the United States. But there, at least, everyone spoke English!
“Well, my drive from De Gaulle Airport to Versailles was fine,” he tells me, “except for the fact that the GPS that came with the car was inaccurate. It kept announcing ‘straight ahead’ when it should have told me to make a ‘left or right.’ I had to take the car back to the airport to exchange it for a unit that operates properly.”
So begins our idyllic road trip from Versailles to Giverny, which would have taken 90 minutes if we had followed the advice of the guide books, but runs 45 minutes longer, since we have chosen an alternate “scenic” route. The drive north is pure pleasure as we motor through the Haute-Normandie region that lies on the right bank of the River Seine. The Audi convertible Bruce has rented is not only comfortable, but with the top down the intoxicating fragrance of meadows and orchards permeates the September air. Back home in Manhattan the scent of any floral blossom is a rarity on the concrete city streets.
We are hungry as we arrive in Giverny, but finding a restaurant is quite easy, since there are so many to choose from. As we pull into a public parking lot, we spy La Gentilhommiere, a simple country eatery, surrounded by roses, and within walking distance of Monet’s gardens. C’est une belle journee, so naturally, we eat on the outdoor patio under a brick-red colored umbrella. The restaurant is filled to capacity. The lilt of many foreign languages echoes through the air; we recognize Dutch, Japanese, and German. We order a late afternoon lunch. The house specialty is Brochette (skewer/rotisserie) prepared on a wood fire. Bruce requests sausage and vegetables. I select the pate-like terrine that comes with the proverbial French baguette. I promised myself I would try pate wherever it was offered. Husband and wife team Jackie and Jean-Jacques, who speak perfect English, are our friendly and accommodating hosts and servers. With a good sense of humor, they playfully help rid us of the buzzing bees that hope to share our meal.
“When this property became available, it was easy for us to relocate,” they confide. “Owning and operating a restaurant attached to a B&B in Giverny is our dream come true.”
Seeing the delight in their eyes, Bruce and I mull over the possibility of pulling up roots. But after some consideration - while sharing a tasty banana flambé and espresso - we decide renting a house or an apartment for several months in a specified location in a foreign land is more to our liking. New York City still holds wonder for us.
It is 4 PM as we finish our meal; and time to check into La Reserve, a B&B I found on the web a mile out of town. It appeared to be the most romantic accommodation in the area; an amorous setting was most important in the celebration of our 20th Anniversary. We drive through the small, winding, streets of the village of Giverny to get there. It gives us a chance to have an overview of this age-old settlement before visiting it tomorrow morning. Art galleries, antique stores, cheese, chocolate and bakery shops line the sidewalks as well as fashion boutiques, wine bars and small restaurants. Tourists crowd the sidewalks and walk in the middle of the road. Being alert and in the moment is a must while driving.
The hilly vista before us reveals ancient stone houses hidden behind timeworn stone walls. We catch glimpses of grassy lawns, flowering scrubs and thriving fruit trees as we slowly drive by. Branches of wild blue berries are only an arm’s length away. Suddenly, a large opening comes into view; we have arrived at our destination: an ochre-stained country farmhouse on an apple orchard in the middle of a forest straight out of Jean Renoir’s classic film Rules of the Game.
Flaubert, a huge, watchdog resting on the front step of the house welcomes us, but instead of growling or barking, he just lifts his head and poses as Bruce takes his picture. Valery and Francois Jouyet, the owners of the property as well as its valets, chefs, housekeepers and all-around concierges, greet us warmly as they take our luggage and serve homemade cider, sweets, handpicked apples and cheese atop a silver tray covered with a starched cotton serviette and freshly cut orange-red roses.
The ground floor is beautifully appointed with flowering plants, classic French country furniture, and brightly colored landscapes painted in the style of a Monet oil. Two red sofas in the drawing-room, well-constructed bookcases in the library filled with hardcovers, periodicals and maps, plus a billiard table provide a wonderful welcome for travelers. A few steps away, in the substantial dining room, a table covered in white French eyelet linen holds an antique cut-glass bowl of ripe fruit. I peak out the window and see walking paths, grazing cows and donkeys.
“Have you ever thought of renting out this house for a film?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” Francois answers with a gleam in his eye. “Movie companies ask all the time. As a matter of fact, we are considering one request as we speak.”
The lodging is completely occupied, though not another soul is in sight as we climb the petite staircase leading to our chambre a coucher. The Sepia Room, which we had selected, is surprisingly spacious. Beams of sunlight filter through the floor-length cotton curtains, casting long shadows on the honey-colored wood floors. Special treatment is given to each and every detail in the suite including the charming bathroom filled with scented flowers, monogrammed towels and Annick Goutal toiletries. There is not a speck of dust anywhere.
“Your accommodations are perfect,” I tell Francois.
“It’s Valery,” he answers. “She is responsible for everything in the house. I gave up my law practice in another village just so she could fulfill her dream of owning a B&B in Giverny,” he shyly confesses.
Bruce and I lock eyes. “It’s deja vue, all over again,” I sigh. “You are the second couple who have shared this vision with us today. There must be some… je ne sais quoi… about this spot that draws people like magnets to want to live, and work and love here. It was exactly the same for Claude Monet,” I continue. “It is said when he saw this spot from out a window on a train between Vernon and Gasny, he immediately decided to put down stakes.”
The instant Francois leaves, Bruce and I fall into each other’s arms declaring how lucky we are. Clinking our crystal glasses filled with cider, Bruce whispers, “Happy 20th Anniversary, my darling.”
“To love,” I reply, giving him a heartfelt kiss. “And to Giverny!”
We rise early the next morning, dress quickly and quietly head down for breakfast. We want to arrive at Monet’s gardens and home before the museum opens at 9:30 a.m. Bountiful tables of traditional French pastries, homemade jams, jellies, yogurt, and cheese, await us, plus freshly squeezed orange juice, croissants, eggs, bread, cereal, cold meats and pots of sweet honey. We create a “tasting menu” considering all the choices offered; besides no one else is seated at the table. Delectable, delicious, scrumptious are some of the adjectives that come to mind as we bite into each morsel. It was for the “art” we had come to Giverny. Not the food. But we are seduced by the skill of Valerie’s culinary craft.
Architect. Botanist. Caretaker. Claude Monet (1840-1926) took on the role of local deity when he purchased and cultivated the property in the 1890s as a private sanctuary in order to paint with short, broken brush strokes of mixed color, his impression of landscapes en plein-air (in the open air) as light fluctuates in quality and intensity from moment to moment during the course of a day. Before this genre took hold, landscapes were painted with blended, smooth brush strokes of color, indoors, at a painter’s studio.
Bruce is a talented photographer whose specialty is portraits of reflections in water. This pilgrimage is my anniversary gift to him. Monet is one of his much beloved artists. Bruce has often spent hours in front of Monet’s “Water-Lilies” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Today, I promise, he can savor each moment for as long as he wants as he creates his own impression of the terrain. An act not unfamiliar to Monet, who photographed the topography he created in order to determine the compositions he wished to depict on canvas. “Color,” Monet writes, is his “daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”
Only a few tourists are in line as we reach the ticket booth. Just ten of us silently listen as the clock ticks-off the minutes. Each one is lost in the reverie of his or her own anticipation. I recall my initial visit here in the mid-1960s, when the property was so sparse of vegetation that I could actually see the road in town as it led up to the entranceway. The sense of being in a small suburb of Paris was evident. Then, like this morning, there were hardly any visitors. One meandered about the landscape for as long as one wished without interference from anyone. We crossed fields of wild flowers and remnants of railroad tracks to get from the flower gardens on one side of the property, to the water gardens on the other side. Ironically, I was terrible disenchanted at the viewing of the Japanese Bridge and the Water Lily Ponds for the first time because they appeared so much smaller and bare compared to Monet’s grand, beautiful renderings. His house though, I remembered, was enchanting: tinted pink, with bright green shutters, a sunflower-yellow dining room and a robin’s egg-blue kitchen; filled with Japanese wood-cut prints that lined the walls; and delicate blue and yellow chinaware that one could purchase.
Suddenly, I awake from my trance by the voice of the ticket-taker abruptly announcing we may enter. Like excited children we move forward. We are in darkness for a moment or two and then the dazzling sunlight hits our eyes. After focusing another second, all becomes clear: the grounds, the flowers, and the “Eighty” or so foreign visitors chattering away as they race after their guides.
Our jaws drop open. We stare in utter amazement. I am keenly aware that a major transformation has taken place since I last visited. We are enclosed in an overgrown, multicolor floral estate, which appears to be cut-off from the rest of the world - except for the horde of humans streaming through. How foolish of us to think we could avoid the throng. Over 500,000 people, from around the planet, pay homage to this great impressionist painter and his residence each year. I am nostalgic for what I remembered. Sentimental for what I held as authentic in my mind’s eye.
Where to start is our first concern. Slightly unnerved by the growing crowds but determined, Bruce suggests he lead the way, and reminds me of Maya Angelou’s adage: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Pointing straight ahead, he directs our attention forward, past Monet’s house, past the free flowing borders of vividly- colored flowers and lush green plantings, whose height stretches way above our heads, further and further into the property, past the crowd.
“Focus on the scenery instead of the people in it,” Bruce instructs as he starts shooting with the Cannon G1X he has brought for the trip. “Take close ups of the flowers,” he coaches. “It makes for a better picture. Let’s head for the Water Lily Pond.”
According to Monet’s specifications, over 200,000 plants arranged by tint, size, and texture are planted here each year as if they were tubes of paint. Prohibited from walking directly through the flowerbeds, I attempt to capture golden Nasturtiums, pink Dahlia, and orange Asters to the left and right of me along the visitor’s path. I am in awe of the color combinations of “red, pink, and green” and “blue, purple, pink and white,” which when juxtaposed, create the translucent effect of the impressionist’s palette.
As we exit the underground tunnel, built in 1980, to get to the Water Lily Pond with its Nymphea and Japanese Style Bridge, a hidden, wooded, water oasis unexpectedly appears. Cool, green and misty tones of weeping willow, poplar and bamboo trees reflect along its rim; traces of flowering azalea, peony and orchids shimmer among the underbrush. Grand, profuse and calming, since the pond’s enlargement, it now definitely compliments Monet’s depictions of it in his paintings as exhibited in museums around the world.
Bruce and I excitedly stand hidden amid the greenery with our cameras poised, waiting for sightseers to get out of our way, as if we were on a Safari.
“Remember to shoot into the pond,” he whispers. “It’s the mirror image of the surroundings plus the sky that creates a dynamic snapshot.”
Whenever we are free of interference from the human form, we shoot from every angle along the pond’s banks before another troop of tourists interfere. Satiated, he affirms he is done and wants to leave. “We have more than enough pictures to edit when we get home,” he concludes. “I can’t wait to work on them.”
I have to coax him to visit Monet’s house before we depart even if only to catch glimpses of it from behind and above the heads of visitors standing in front of us. He loves looking out the second floor windows at the gardens below; admires Monet’s collection of Japanese prints; and delights in the brightly colored walls of the house. But he absolutely refuses to go into the Gift Shop!
“To Auvers-sur-Oise, then,” I suggest? He agrees; Van Gogh is his favorite painter.
The guide books recommend including Auvers-sur-Oise, only 55 minutes away, during a day’s visit to Giverny. It was there that Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) spent the last 3 months of his life, painting over 80 of his greatest canvases, including his last work, Wheatfield with Crows; Portrait of Dr Gacher; Church of Auvers-sur-Oise; and Fields with Poppies.
Awash in sepia tones, the village, which dates back to the middle ages, and which Van Gogh considered “profoundly beautiful,” appears poor and unremarkable compared to the likes of Marie-Antoinette’s Versailles and Monet’s Giverny, sites that are fresh in our minds having just visited. I can’t imagine why it has not been restored, until I learn that since 1995 the village “cannot be altered and will not grow beyond its limits” because of its inclusion within the charter of the Parc naturel regional du Vexin francaise. Therefore, Auvers-sur-Oise is to remain “eternal.” Not bad in ecological terms, nor as a public relations strategy. In other words, we tourists can actually walk in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh.
Bruce and I stand in reverence in front of the historic 1800s buildings he depicted in his superb works from that period: the Auberge Ravox, Notre-Dame Auvers, and the Auvers Town Hall. A copy of each of his oils is placed next to the structure for visitors to compare and enjoy. In fact, there is not a single original painting of his in existence in the town.
Famished, by now, and hot from the mid-day sun, we hope to lunch at the Auberge Ravox, which we read is also a charming, appetizing bistro, but find it is closed at this time of day. Moreover, every restaurant along the way that we enter is totally booked with tourists, except for a French Seven Eleven, in which we quickly share a ham and cheese sandwich and soda, standing up, alongside village locals. Being hungry is probably a good condition to be in, we convince ourselves as we take our final sip. What better way to empathize with Van Gogh’s poor state of circumstances during his last weeks of life.
Practically alone, we walk the steep back roads of the village, with its ancient stone walls, slanted rooftop stone houses, and attached small, flourishing gardens. The Village of Auvers-sur-Oise painted in 1890 is one of my favorite residential landscapes: a magically rendering of thatched roofs and cottages along a winding country road painted in choppy broad strokes of vivid auburn, yellow, green, and blue.
Bruce is tired, at this point, from the long excursions we have taken since early morning. Sitting on a large rock he tells me, “It’s getting late. I still have another two and a half hours to drive to Noizay. I want to be alert for the trip down to the Loire. Do you mind if I take a nap?”
“Of course not,” I answer. And reassure him that I will only visit the Maison de van Gogh back at the Auberge Ravoux for us both, knowing we may never travel this way again. How foolish of the guide books to suggest Giverny and Auvers-sur-Oise could be visited on the same day. In truth, one whole day for each might not even be enough.
It is dark and dank as I climb the tenement-like staircases leading to room # 5, Van Gogh’s last residence, on the upper floor of the hotel. How many thousands before me have made the tour, I wonder. I am on the verge of tears as I witness how tiny his room truly is; almost the size of a closet; nothing within except a small thatched chair, an empty wooden picture frame, nails upon which his canvases were hung, and a high-gloss show-case with a plaque that reads:
While staying at the Auberge Ravoux, Vincent confided to his brother
Theo: “Someday or other, I believe I will find a way to have my own exhibition
in a café.” In partnership with the Auberge Ravoux, the Institut Van Gogh first
refurbished and preserved the painter’s world, and is now working to make
Van Gogh’s dream come true: bringing, “someday or other” one of his Auvers
paintings back to the room where it dried. The 7sq.m attic room without a view
will thus become the smallest museum in the world!
I weep for the life he was forced to live; for the pain he had to endure. I snap one last picture so as not to forget, then head straight back to Bruce.