We took a mid-morning train from Paris’ hyper-busy Gare Saint-Lazare station, which took us deep into the Normandy region, to the northwest of Paris, alongside the seabound River Seine flowing tirelessly towards its estuary, near the port city of Le Havre on the infamous Normandy coastline.
The stop on the Normandy-bound train for the village of Giverny was at the town of Vernon. From the station at Vernon we rode a tiny train-like trolley toward the village. This is where the great Impressionist Claude Monet, who knew great commercial success in his own lifetime – he was a celebrity of sorts – worked and lived for the last 35 years of his long life of 86 years, until his death in 1926. Monet developed his house and gardens into his artistic ideal over time, utilizing a small army of gardeners and craftsmen.
The grounds are split into two main parts: the first part, surrounding Monet’s handsome home and studio, was a luscious garden with endless rows of tulips in bloom on this fine but still chilly April day. The second part, accessed through a short tunnel under the village road brings one to the famous Japanese lily ponds, planned by Monet and executed carefully according to his designs – featuring winding serpentine paths with frequent gazing and resting-benches, Japanese Koi in the lily ponds, countless flowerbeds, trees of many varieties; mainly weeping willow hanging over the water’s edge and Japanese-style iron and wood bridges.
Over 35 years Monet painted hundreds of canvases featuring the surface of the lily ponds in all seasons and times of day, and moods. The most famous and well-known of these canvases were commissioned by the French Prime Minister in 1916 and are housed at the northwest end of the Tuileries Garden above the Louvré Museum in the fantastic Musée de l’Orangerie, which was an older orange conservatory adapted to house 8 of Monet’s huge water lily panels in two wonderfully natural skylit, elliptical rooms. Monet worked on these canvases (panelized) until the time of his death and near blindness due to cataracts – up until the very end, when he said “the paint is still drying!”; the panels were installed immediately following Monet’s death.
Monet’s large estate house was full of (copies) of paintings by all of the impressionist artists whom Monet knew personally, along with many of his own paintings of varied subjects – most notably the haystacks and the gothic cathedral facade at Rouen in Normandy near Giverny, caught at different times of day from sunrise to sunset, in differing seasons and differing light and moods, Big Ben in London, the Grand Canal of Venice at dusk, portraits of his children and beloved wife Alice Monet, self-portraits at various stages of his life, and his famous paintings of the bustling late-19th and early 20th-century streets and grand boulevards of modern Paris and of course many painting of the Japanese water lily ponds on his property. During his lifetime, the real paintings he collected were hung on the walls of his Salón. Priceless Japanese prints, pottery and sculptures dotted the many interconnected rooms, echoing Monet’s fascination with all things Japanese. Every room had a different color theme, and wondering from room to room was truly an unfolding adventure.
My favorite room was the bright yellow dining room hung with many bright paintings and with Monet’s collection of fine ceramic pottery, with a large table dominating the center of the room with a daily bouquet of flowers from the estate gardens. The kitchen had so many bright hammered-copper pots and pans and a giant steel/brass/copper wood-burning range, most undoubtedly the latest and greatest appliance at the time it was installed.
We spent a long time on the grounds to let it all soak in – so much beauty; so many different kinds of flowers in full bloom! We spent a long time in the fabulous bookstore, where I bought a couple of books that I sent home to family and myself, along with some Monet water lily t-shirts as gifts for the folks back home and many postcards to update friends and family along our journey’s path through the great capitals of the European continent.
Returning to Paris and the teaming Gare Saint-Lazare station – one of the six major termini for trains coming into and leaving the metropolis, bound for points northwest into Normandy and beyond to the English Channel coastline cities, we walked out of the huge train station’s central space underneath its grand clock striking the hour, back onto the bustling streets of the 9th arrondissement of Paris, and headed out to find the fabulous Palais Garnier or Opéra Nationale de Paris. It wasn’t hard to find – this grand 19th-Century opera house dominates vistas from many vantage points on the surrounding grand boulevards, such as Avenue de l’Opera. The giant opera house is totally over-the-top with its gilded and heavily-ornamented and sculpted facade along with many inscriptions and sculptures, and is well-known as the setting for Gaston Leroux‘s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera. Behind the ornate facade, the huge auditorium of the opera house can seat 2,054 happy spectators who were there to “see and be seen” in the carefully-designed “Italian-inspired” French Auditorium. At the Musée d’Orsay, which we visited upon our return to Paris in mid-May, there was a glass floor looking down on a “maquette” (scale model) of the city of Paris around the Palais Garnier, along with a stunning cross-section maquette of the opera house’s inner spaces. Most amazing were the auditorium itself, the Grand Escaliér (staircase) and the main high-ceilinged Grand Foyér (Grand Hall). My favorite parts were the ingenious aparati for hoisting stage sets and actors up to the vast wooden stage from the depths below and the ingenious aparati for lowering backdrops and stage sets from the towering back-of-house stage loft. Carriages could drop off elegantly-dressed opera-goers behind the facade off the Grand Vestibule, designed to allow convenient, all-weather access to well-healed Parisians.
From the Palais Garnier, we strolled past many big fashion houses and department stores, with their high-fashion-studded shop windows attracting well-heeled Parisians to come and shop, and from there to our final night, at the Hôtel Rue St-André des-Artes in the Odéon and St-Germain-des-Prés districts on the south side of the River Seine, of our first stop in Paris.