Re­flec­tions of Monet

Last­ing im­pres­sions of artist’s ex­quis­ite gar­den be­gin with an overnight stay in Giverny

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BY KARL ZIM­MER­MANN >>> GIVERNY, France — “My great­est mas­ter­piece,” Claude Monet once said, “is my gar­den.” ¶ Look­ing at his gar­den here, I could not ar­gue that this pro­fu­sion of flow­ers and ponds was less than a mas­ter­piece, re­flect­ing the reds and pur­ples and pinks of sur­round­ing anemones, fuch­sias and cos­mos. ¶ His great­est mas­ter­piece? That’s for schol­ars of the Im­pres­sion­ist artist to de­bate. ¶ What’s ir­refutable is that see­ing Giverny the way Monet did— be­ing able to sit qui­etly and watch the sun­light play on the wa­ter— is the best way to ap­proach his liv­ing legacy, an ex­pe­ri­ence that has be­come more plea­sur­able in re­cent times. ¶ In Giverny, the vil­lage about 50 miles from Paris where Monet’s gar­den still flour­ishes, Miche­lin-rated chef Eric Guérin cre­ated that pos­si­bil­ity by con­vert­ing a hand­some, cen­tury-old manor house into a ho­tel and restau­rant. ¶ He named it Le Jardin des Plumes, the Gar­den of Feath­ers. (In France, la plume de l’artiste means an artist’s in­spi­ra­tion and creation.) ¶ Its open­ing sup­plied a miss­ing piece for those of us hop­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence Monet’s gar­dens at their best and on our own. ¶ My­wife, Lau­rel, and I had seen Monet’s fa­mous wa­ter lily paint­ings at the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago and New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art—

and may be else­where, be­cause they are in col­lec­tions the­world over.

For any­one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in French Im­pres­sion­ism, these oils — there are about 250 of them, the main fo­cus of the last 15 years of the artist’s ca­reer— are fa­mil­iar and likely to trig­ger a rest­ful, con­tem­pla­tive sense of peace and a de­sire to see the place that in­spired them.

Monet’s house, gar­dens and lily ponds opened to the pub­lic in 1980, and they quickly be­came a tour-bus day trip, hasty, pro­grammed, crowded and lock­step, which seemed the op­po­site of the ex­pe­ri­ence Monet cre­ated.

Le Jardin des Plumes, which opened in 2012, of­fers a qui­eter, more serene way to ex­pe­ri­ence Giverny. The ho­tel has its own lovely gar­den and pond, and a Guérin-de­signed din­ner in the stylish din­ing room is it­self rea­son enough to cometo Giverny.

But we also could have a su­perb break­fast in a bright, el­e­gant set­ting, take a 10-minute walk down Rue Claude Monet to the house and gar­dens, then stroll around the ponds and tour the house mu­seum on our own sched­ule, un­hur­ried and mi­nus the later-ar­riv­ing crowds.

Fun and funky room

We ar­rived in late af­ter­noon last fall af­ter a short taxi hop from the rail­way sta­tion at Ver­non, a 45-minute ride from Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare (also the sub­ject of an at­mo­spheric se­ries of Monet oils).

Our room, one of the two thrifti­est among the ho­tel’s eight, was on the ground floor of a re­mod­eled ate­lier (a shed or work­shop). It was con­tem­po­rary and, we thought, fun and funky, with a clamshell-shaped bath­tub within the bed­room, along with a wash basin, a desk and a com­fort­able queen bed. The toi­let was in a small an­nex.

For clos­ets, there was a bank of gym lock­ers (too short and cramped to be very use­ful). One wall was nat­u­ral stone, the floor broad-planked, and the other walls and ac­cents red, or­ange or gray.

We had our own pa­tio, but we pre­ferred the large ve­randa be­hind the main house. Lime­stone, half­tim­bered, tricked out in teal blue, it was the work of ar­chi­tect Ar­mand Pi­card, a dis­ci­ple of Gus­tave Eif­fel.

With its own pond (and a spiffy lit­tle house for the res­i­dent ducks), the inn’s spa­cious grounds were an ap­pro­pri­ate ap­pe­tizer for the visit to Monet’s gar­dens planned for the next day.

We read and re­laxed be­fore walk­ing to the nearby Ho­tel Baudy for din­ner. (It was Monday, and Le Jardin des Plumes wasn’t serv­ing.) The Baudy, a vir­tual mu­seum, was cozy and cen­tral to Giverny’s his­tory as an artists’ re­treat. The stu­dio once used by vis­it­ing Amer­i­can Im­pres­sion­ists is in the gar­den be­hind the ho­tel.

But my meal (a chicken-liver ter­rine and minced chicken in mush­room sauce) was dry and undis­tin­guished. Lau­rel’s, a light and de­li­cious goat cheese ter­rine, fol­lowed by salmon, was much bet­ter, though far short of our meals at Le Jardin des Plumes.

De­lec­ta­ble start

Though the ex­te­rior of Le Jardin des Plumes’ manor house is clas­sic and orig­i­nal, the in­te­ri­ors of the pub­lic rooms are clean-lined Moderne— clas­sic in another way.

The small bar and break­fast room has floor-to-ceil­ing glass on two sides over­look­ing the gar­den. Though a hot break­fast with ham, cheese and eggs was of­fered (about $24), wewere more than happy with the con­ti­nen­tal (about $19): ex­cel­lent cof­fee, freshly squeezed or­ange juice, yo­gurt, jam, but­ter, honey and pas­tries that Lau­rel called “ex­quis­ite.” The flaky crois­sants were so rich that even I didn’t but­ter them, truly un­usual.

Then it was off to be in the short ini­tial queue when Monet’s House and Gar­dens opened at 9:30 a.m.

A good strat­egy, Lau­rel thought, was to go first to the wa­ter gar­den, the lily ponds, be­cause tour groups would en­ter the prop­erty near that area as the morn­ing pro­gressed.

Thiswas a place to linger qui­etly. Monet would sit for hours on the benches here, study­ing the re­flec­tions on the wa­ter, which acted as a liq­uid mir­ror.

We did the same, ad­mir­ing not only the lilies but also the blue aga­pan­thus, black-eyed Su­sans, im­pa­tiens and weep­ing wil­lows that ringed the pond.

Green arched bridges, quintessen­tially Ja­panese, were im­por­tant ac­cents in Monet’s flo­ral com­po­si­tions.

Bam­boo lined the feeder canal. Though the wa­ter gar­den is more fa­mous, the Clos Nor­mand, the 2 1⁄2- acre walled gar­den be­hind Monet’s house, is lovely as well, with its rec­tan­gu­lar beds over­flow­ing with col­or­ful blooms. (A clos is a walled vine­yard.)

Monet livedin his house in Giverny from1883 un­til his death at age 86 in 1926. Michel, his youngest son (Claude had eight chil­dren), in­her­ited the house and lived here un­til his death in 1966, when the Claude Monet Foun­da­tion was formed to raise funds to re­store the gar­dens and the house.

Up­stairs are the bed­rooms: Monet’s, his wife Alice’s, and Blanche Hoschede Monet’s, who was both his step­daugh­ter (Alice’s daugh­ter) and daugh­ter-in-law, mar­ried to Jean, Monet’s el­dest son from his first mar­riage.

Af­ter the deaths of Alice (1911) and Jean (1914), Blanche, also an artist, took care of Monet in his fi­nal years.

Even more mem­o­rable for their bright and vi­brant col­ors are the rooms down­stairs, in­clud­ing the kitchen, blue-tiled, with blue-ac­cented fur­nish­ings and dozens of cop­per pots and pans.

The ad­ja­cent din­ing room, whose walls and chairs are painted bright yel­low, is lined with Ja­panese prints, anaes­thetic that Monet fa­vored and that in­flu­enced his wa­ter gar­dens.

The grand­est room of all is his high-ceilinged, airy stu­dio, later a re­cep­tion room for deal­ers and now hung with re­pro­duc­tions of his work. Here it seemed as though Monet had just left for a stroll in his gar­dens and might well re­turn any minute.

The gar­dens let us step back in time while con­nect­ing Monet’s work with the ex­quis­ite realty in­which he lived.

Ex­quis­ite end­ing

Af­ter a day of artis­tic mas­ter­pieces, it­was time for a culi­nary one.

That evening at Le Jardin des Plumes, we were served shards of flat­bread with fresh cheese and avo­cado purée in the cock­tail room be­fore­mov­ing into the din­ing room for an amuse-bouche: an eggshell filled with a yolk lightly cooked in olive oil, smoked squid and Mi­mo­lette cheese.

Starters were pork belly with shrimp and shred­ded but­ter­nut squash (Lau­rel chose this) or smoked salmon on a disk of dev­iled egg, more like a sauce (my choice). For an en­tree, Lau­rel chose pork cheeks with toasted bul­gur, wine sauce and goat cheese; I had chicken with Cal­va­dos sauce and crème fraîche.

Dessert was a choco­late tart with pas­sion fruit sor­bet in a gra­ham peanut crust.

For a meal to be as ex­quis­ite as Monet’s paint­ings and gar­dens was a tall or­der, but our din­ner in a peace­ful set­ting was the un­par­al­leled fi­nale to our stay.

Karl Zim­mer­mann

CLAUDE MONET’S

famed lily ponds act as a liq­uid mir­ror in his gar­den in Giverny, France. He’d con­tem­plate the ponds for hours, study­ing the im­ages in the wa­ter.

Karl Zim­mer­mann

THE GRAND AL­LÉE leads to Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, France. The gar­dens al­low vis­i­tors to step into the artist’s world.

Karl Zim­mer­mann

A HAND­SOME old­manor house in Giverny has been trans­formed into a ho­tel and restau­rant called Le Jardin des Plumes.

Ni­co­las Thibaut Getty Im­ages/Photonon­stop RM

THE KITCHEN in Monet’s house is all blue tiles and blue ac­cented fur­nish­ings, with plenty of shiny cop­per pots and pans.

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