I may get pelted with geraniums for admitting this, but here goes: Claude Monet’s ultra-famous gardens in Giverny, while objectively artful, left me cold. It’s like the painter left his vision behind but took the soul of it with him to the grave. They’re just too … perfect.
I visited Giverny as a port of call on a recent Seine River cruise. It was clear that the Impressionist’s two gardens, which he created so he could paint his visions of paradise, are unspeakably lush and immaculately tended (the place has a team of full-time gardeners). And yes, as you amble through his water garden, wander over the iconic Japanese bridge and peer into the pond to see if the water lilies are flowering yet, you can almost imagine yourself in one of his paintings.
To me, though, there was something sterile about the place, despite the perfectly tended pathways and the thousands of visitors with whom I shared my wanderings, and in spite of the whizzing sound of cars passing by (one thing the glamorous photos don’t show you is that a two-lane highway separates the garden by the house from the water garden). The fluorescently illuminated gift shop, as big as a barn, was full of cheap crap-knacks, such as “Lady with a Parasol”-on-magnet or “Water-Lily Pond”-on-polyester-scarf, that are meant to appeal to the masses. Indeed, Monet’s garden, as a daytripper’s jaunt from Paris, draws a half million visitors per year.
If you’re in the area, the pilgrimage to Monet’s place is obligatory, but keep it short. A better way to spend a day in Giverny is to wander into the heart of its village. Grab a stool in the bar at the ancient Hotel Baudy, where the artists who followed Monet to Giverny bartered paintings for food (their work still hangs there). Check out the artists’ studio in the back garden that’s been preserved as it was a century ago. And feel free to wander through the garden that for Baudy’s owner is as much a labor of love as was Monet’s. It’s got lavender and geraniums, benches you can sit on, and forested alcoves for private musing. It may not have that pond full of water lilies. But it’s got soul in spades.
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown