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The story goes that Monet in his search for a house to accommodate his growing family set out one day by train from Paris and spotted what was then the tiny hamlet of Giverny. Standing out amongst the cluster of properties along Giverny’s long main street he saw from his carriage a long but low house set in surrounding scrubland. The railway line is no longer there, although there was no halt in any case at Giverny, so Monet walked back through the fields from Vernon to find this property. What made this building stand out was that unusually it faced away from the road towards the river. For a modern-day visitor there is no inkling of the beauty behind the stark long wall on the main street. He found to his delight that this property was available for rent and the rest is history. Monet eventually purchased the house and garden. You could say it is bequeathed now to all the visitors that can experience this most magical of places.
Monet was at this time a widow after the death of his first wife and mother to his children – Camille Doncieux. Before her death however he had begun a relationship with a woman of a higher social standing than himself. Alice Hoschedé became his lady-friend as they would have been discretely known and with Camille and their children they lived as a menage for some time up until Camille’s death. At Giverny Monet and Alice set up home with his two sons and her six children although they could not marry until 1892 after the death of Alice’s husband Ernest. The house would be Monet’s delightful home for the rest of his life, and he was completely devoted to the property and gardens, all becoming synonymous with his name. In front of the house lies the Clos Normand, full of flowers. The other side of the road he developed into what we see today by having the waterlily pond constructed. To achieve his aim, he was decisive and didn’t hesitate to change the landscape by diverting a branch of the Epte River. We shall visit the house and gardens more than once on our stay but first we must find our accommodation for the final leg of this trip.
La Pluie de Roses is located some way past Monet’s house as you come towards the end of the village. We are welcomed after our rather fraught day collecting and driving our hire car by Philippe and Elisabeth. This couple have recently sold this gorgeous property, but the current owner appears from the excellent reviews to have more than maintained their high standards. Giverny is blessed with some fine Bed and Breakfast accommodation with this property exceeding our expectations. The rooms are beautifully decorated in a style that could only be encountered in France. There are some quirky touches especially in the downstairs bathroom that is adorned with theatre posters and related photos. It could be a place to linger and read the walls. Our bedroom is sumptuous and in sympathy with the period of the house. It also has a quirky feature in that the fabulous shower has to one side a full-length plain window. You get a great view out over the village and presumably someone in the right place at the right time will get more of a view than they bargained for. The odds are in your favour due to the position of the bathroom – but you just never know.
The house has a wraparound garden that is lovingly tended. The grand stone steps that lead to the French doors at the rear of the house are a very typical feature in a house of this style. It has an intimate grandeur.
The hosts do not provide an evening meal but there are some good options for dining in Giverny. We contented ourselves on this first evening with a light snack before sleeping very well, only waking with the birdsong, ready for the main event of our visit – Monet’s house and garden.
Our hosts at La Pluie de Roses have an especially useful scheme whereby they can sell you tickets to enter Monet’s house and gardens. It is only when you gain a sight off the house that you realize just how much of a life saver this is. Strolling to the front of a queue that stretches way back down the main street and gaining instant admission to the accompanying despair and groans of the waiting throngs was a great relief. Actually, we did not go straight into the gardens. Just by the entrance a young newly married couple were emerging after having had some wedding photographs taken in Monet’s Garden. It would be difficult to beat that for a location for your photographs. They kindly obliged while I took a couple of photographs of my own and they added a touch of glamour to the scene on this hot sunny morning.
As you pass through the entrance the gardens are on first impression slightly underwhelming. I think it is because you feel that an iconic Japanese bridge should be right there in front of you. There is no question that expectations are extremely high. Initially however, you must make your way around a grassy section complete with discarded garden tools and a wheelbarrow before you come round to your first view of the long low house that Monet so loved. Now you are completely engrossed and drawn into this magical place that Monet created and has been lovingly maintained as an incredibly special place in France. The house is gently shaded from view by the lush growth of the trees and plants as Monet skilfully teases you to explore and find the perfect view of his house. That perhaps is to be found when you reach the main pathway leading up to the house, a view that Monet captured so well. Today that pathway is flanked by a gorgeous array of flowers in the lush borders either side of the path. One of the tricks he used, one which shows his skill not just as a painter but as a gardener, is how he leads you around the pathways to continue giving you different glimpses of the house. It is stunningly beautiful. If you have done your homework and have a love of his Giverny paintings, you will also be able to imagine and indeed expect one of his children to stroll out from behind a tree or shrub or emerge from the house into the garden. The setting for painting his young ones would have been magical and inspiring for him and you can clearly understand why he painted so many canvases of a personal nature here at Giverny. Monet also liked to take himself away and be alone in the garden. He would not have lacked for any number of beautiful subjects in the garden in front of the house. Then he could go across the railway into the Japanese garden and be quite peacefully secluded to paint the images that he is most famous for. Today the Japanese garden is reached by a short subway that takes you under the road where you are transported back in time to an atmospheric setting that is beautifully tended and familiar to anyone with the slightest knowledge of Monet’s work.
The Japanese section of Monet’s Garden is a delight and very sympathetically maintained. Although the lily ponds and the ubiquitous bridges are of course the highlights you have come to see it is the secluded, tucked away parts of the garden that really delight. The area shaded by the trees with a small river of water, a rowing boat tied up by the bank waiting for Monet to step in with his easel and paints. These atmospheric tableaux really transport your imagination back in time, giving a genuine sense of how Monet must have delighted in the construction of this gorgeous garden and then to enjoy using it to paint some of his most enduring landscapes. They are also a welcome quiet section to enjoy before embarking on the path around the Japanese garden, a path that will need a little patience to negotiate. Being one of the world’s most famous gardens you will find it busy at most times. Waiting for a loving couple to finally finish their photography on one of the famous bridges does need some tolerance on your part but it is worth the wait. The views from the bridges over the lily ponds are spectacular and do not be put off or intimidated – take your time and get the shots you want. You will be glad you endured when you get home.
The lives of Claude Monet and Alice Hoschedé were complicated. They were a couple and their families were living together but Alice always had some dependence and contact with her husband Ernest. Alice tried to resolve the situation with her husband over the next ten years after moving in with Monet at Giverny but without success. The ambiguity of their relationship remained until Ernest Hoschedé died from a prolonged affliction with gout in 1891. Monet had bought the house and land in Giverny the year before, having rented the property until then. Alice and Monet finally regularised their relationship on 16th July 1892 when they married in Giverny. Four days later Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler.
With his marriage to Alice and the purchase of the house and land Monet could now settle into developing the house and gardens. He extended the gardens and embarked on creating the water gardens and the gorgeous expanse of lily ponds that people associate with Monet and Giverny. His collection of Japanese art was built up and the overall effect of his enthusiasm is the extravagant colour of the planting and the breath-taking beauty of the house and gardens that we see today. Much of the credit for the survival of the house and gardens to endure to the condition they are in today is down to the care that was given to them by Alice’s daughter Blanche. She married Monet’s son Jean Monet. Jean died in 1914 aged just 47 after a long illness. This was just three years after the death of Monet’s wife Alice and the two events consumed Monet with grief. Blanche returned to Giverny as a widow to care for Monet and help him through the remaining years of his life. Monet died in 1926 at Giverny. Blanche also was a painter and her haystack paintings clearly owe a debt to the tutelage of her Monet. Blanche took on the responsibility of the house and gardens and as she was so in tune with her father she enabled its survival to be as we see it today. It is quite a legacy. I can confidently state that if you have never been to Giverny then if you possibly can you must go – you will never forget it.
There is one final place to visit relating to Monet and his family – The village Church.
The Monet family have a plot in this church of Saint-Redegonde located about a kilometre along the one main road in Giverny from Monet’s house. The plot, although not extravagant, certainly conveys the status of the great painter and his family in the local community. You will no doubt want to stop by the graves and pay your respects and there is an exercise to be done in working out all the family relationships of the complex Monets. The church repays a visit inside, but you have to remember that Monet was no great supporter of the church during his lifetime. It is entertaining however to try to picture the scenes played out here by the family. This little church played its part in many important family events of the Monet – Hoschedé family.
The Monet connection is not the only fascination that comes from a visit to this church. It was only by accident on our visit here that we discovered the graves of a crew of airmen that crashed nearby shortly after D-Day. I have because of my interest in family history developed a passion for touring churchyards and could not resist a wander through this one after paying my respects at the Monet family tomb. You cannot miss the unusual sight of a propeller turned into a monument. The inscription indicates that the propeller is from the Lancaster that crashed but from most accounts it appears to be from another aircraft. Here in the churchyard are buried the crew of the Lancaster, a plane that crashed on an operation near to Giverny on the night of June 7/8, 1944, less than 48 hours after the D-Day landings.
The Lancaster plane was from 115 Squadron I LL864 piloted by Ronald Maude who was only 21 years of age. You cannot help but reflect what you personally may have been doing at that age. It most certainly would not have been flying such an iconic plane over dangerous enemy territory. Pilot Maude and his crew were based at RAF Witchford in Ely, Cambridgeshire. Early morning at around 2:20 am the plane was shot down by an enemy aircraft flying close to the Giverny – Vernon road. Incredibly they seem to know who the German pilot was that shot the plane down. He was a Major Walter Borchers who had a very successful strike rate as regards destroying RAF aircraft. He however also did not survive the war but continued in the air well into 1945 before being shot down.
The grave dramatically indicated by British flags stands out prominently in the churchyard.
The inscription on the memorial reads: “These seven air men fell and were buried together”.
Seven plaques with a personal dedication remembers each individual airman. There is also a poignant photo on the grave that was taken shortly before they died showing them as a happy close-knit crew. Soon tragedy would befall them. They are still remembered here by visitors who leave flowers and other tributes on this site.
I feel it is right that I list the names of these young men and please visit this grave when you have paused by the Monet grave.
P/O Ronald Maude
Sgt Alan Anderson
F/O Ronald Tovey
P/O Harold Forster
Sgt Jack Fyfe
Sgt Robert Sutherland
Sgt Kenneth Penton
Normandy has no shortage of sites such as this one in Giverny Churchyard. You cannot help but be transported back in time to those days of conflict but it is still extremely difficult to visualize such horrors in this beautiful and peaceful landscape that we travel in today. Even though we are over 70 years on from those dark days of World War II the landscape is still bearing the scars and reminders of that time. In many ways we tend to think purely of the allied landings as being the defining moment of the fighting in Normandy. However, when you travel through the countryside and towns it becomes apparent that the beach landings where only the beginning. The towns, villages and people of Normandy and of course the soldiers and airmen that headed inland towards Germany paid a terrible price for the liberation. Even in such a sleepy and peaceful place as Giverny the impact was felt and in many of the smallest remote villages you will find that is the case.
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