What makes half a million people a year visit the Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny? For me, May was the perfect time for a first visit to find out. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the frogs were on the lilypads and the wisteria was in flower. As a result, the Japanese bridge – and everywhere else – was heaving with tourists, but even so it was possible to find a quiet corner or two in the garden.
From the beginning of next month (1 June), Monet’s garden will be under the care of a new head gardener. Briton James Priest, who will head a team of eight tending to the five-acre plot, says: “Monet is the factor that brings everyone here. It’s an Alice in Wonderland Monet world and you have to capture the imagination of all these different nationalities who visit. Monet would paint in layers and I think he made his garden in the same way.”
Monet lived at Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. He began to create a garden as soon as he moved in and tended it until he died. Diverting a local stream he created a small lake, stocking it with waterlilies and surrounding it with drifts of flowers and willow trees. It’s fascinating to see for oneself how Monet “borrowed” the surrounding landscape making his garden seem to flow into the countryside beyond.
The house is beautifully preserved too. From his bedroom you have a view of the garden and green hills that is almost exactly the same as what Monet would have seen. This year, Monet’s living room has been rearranged to look just as it did when he lived there, with copies of his paintings hung as he had them. The only jarring note is the extra studio he built specifically to paint the huge Waterlily canvases that are now in the Orangerie in Paris. It is now a massive giftshop full of Waterlily-printed stuff from 50-euro T-shirts to teddy bears. However, since Monet’s house and garden are not state-supported, I suppose the Fondation Claude Monet Giverny needs to pay for this impressive level of conservation somehow.
Giftshop madness: A 1,000-piece jigsaw of one of the Waterlily paintings (19 euros) – impossible, surely.
Tip 1: Buy a combined ticket (14 euros) at the Musée des Impressionnismes for the Bonnard in Normandy exhibition and for Monet’s house and garden to avoid the long ticket queues at Monet’s house – ticket-holders can go straight in through the group entrance to the house. Or buy your tickets for Monet’s house and garden (8 euros) online in advance.
Tip 2: Although it does not sell tickets, the tourist information office does sell a good small guidebook (by Olivier Aubert, 5 euros) to all the village attractions.
Getting there: Monet’s house and garden open daily, 1 April-1 November, 9.30-18.00. The train takes about 45 minutes from Paris Gare Saint-Lazare to Vernon, which is about 90km (55 miles) from Paris. Then shuttlebus Vernon-Giverny, 4 euros each way.