Closed in the Winter: Giverny, France

For as long as I can remember, the name Claude Monet has been an important one in our family. His impressionist work is a favorite of my mother’s to the point she has recreated many of his masterpieces to hang in our family home. I even remember reading Monet’s Ghost by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro as a child and being completely captivated by what lies beyond the frame of his famed Water Lillies. Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated with exploring the already-formed classic worlds (see: Dreadful Dantes in my creative writing tab).

Claude Monet painted the lovely Water Lillies while living in Giverny. This painting is on display in the Tate Modern Museum, London.

As we planned our Northern France holiday, Giverny, Monet’s home town and primary residence, was a top priority. We used Villers-sur-Mer as our base on the third and final leg of our trip (more to come on that fascinating town soon), so Giverny was about an hour and a half’s drive south.

We never tired of the beautiful landscape and beautiful churches that dotted the countryside as we made our trip down the road. With our eyes glued to the fields and fields of green, we finally found ourselves winding through narrow roads and roundabouts so quintessential to village life.

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The small town of Mouzon, France.

In order to get to Giverny, you first drive through Vernon, but not five miles after passing through that town, you’re in the main part of the city marked by the village church called Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny.

Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny, the main village church.

This simple, yet elegant, church is Roman in origin with the oldest part dating back to the 11th century. The rest of the current structure is said to be constructed in the 15th century. It has clearly gone through extensive upkeep over the centuries, and in 2009, it was registered officially as a historical monument.

Surrounding the church is a lovely and serene cemetery, which was our main focus for the drive. Claude Monet is buried in this churchyard with his family, and it was not hard to miss. The elaborate and blooming grave sits along the path to the back of the yard, meeting you just as you enter. It truly was beautiful to see all the flowers and colors decorating the tomb, and it only seemed appropriate with all of the colors Monet gave the world in his artwork.

Claude Monet was a founder and leading artist in the French Impressionistic movement during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was extremely well known for painting the same scene many times to show the French countryside and architecture at different times of day and in different seasons of the year. I mentioned before his work painting the Rouen Cathedral. He painted 31 versions of the cathedral throughout his life, and that is just one example. Because I do not have any personal photos of these works, click here to see them.

In 1883, Monet moved to Giverny where he painted his Water Lillies and Japanese Bridge series, among many others. It was during this time he began to finally prosper from his work and thus he grew his personal garden. He had seven gardeners following his explicit instructions in designing his garden, but he continued to change and alter it to suit his imagination. Claude Monet died in 1926 to lung cancer, but he insisted that his funeral be small and humble in the church of Giverny.

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Water Lillies by Monet, hosted in the National Gallery, London.

We paid our respects to the artistic genius, but something we did not know while we were planning this part of the trip is that his home and museum are closed during the winter. We were too early by two weeks, so we could not go to see the Japanese bridge from his masterpieces or the ponds from his work. We were devastated that we didn’t think to check the operations of the attractions. We had assumed they were open year-round.

Because the town houses only 500 people, there wasn’t much else to do, so we took our time in the church cemetery, and we found Monet was not the only person of note buried in this lovely parish.

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The tombstone for Gerald Van der Kemp, “savior of Versailles.”

Near Monet’s mausoleum is a man named Gerald Van der Kemp. This man was in charge of the conservation of Versailles Palace and the Trianons, and he was very respected among the social and political elite. But he did not stop at Versailles. In 1980, after he retired, he personally oversaw the restoration and conservation of Monet’s Gardens.

He was a fascinating man having gone from drawing political cartoons to becoming a Foreign Legion to Morocco, and then he became employed at the Louvre Museum as a project manager in charge of the Rothschild Collection. If this sounds like a full life already, he was drafted in WWII and captured in Normandy. He escaped captivity to find himself saving precious artworks from the war like the Venus di Milo, Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa while holed up in a chateau for the remainder of the war. It was because of this this, he was recommended and urged to become the curator of the Palace at Versailles in 1957. While sometimes controversial with his style choices in the restoration of the crumbling Palace, he will always be known as the “savior of Versailles.”

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Two more headstones caught our attention, not just because they were highly decorated and statuesque but because they were connected. The very first monument you see when walking up the path to the cemetery is a propeller from an aircraft. The plaque said this:

During the night of the 7th and 8th of June 1944, a Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber crashed in flames to the south of the village, in the “Plaine des Ajoux.” This statue displays a propeller blade from the aircraft to pay homage to the seven crew lying in our cemetery. Their sacrifice led to our liberty today.

This monument stands in testimony to the crew and is a symbol of the admiration and gratitude of the people of Giverny.

Then we found the tombstone for those seven crew member adorned with British flags and poppies. Their names were Sgt. R. Sutherland (Air Gunner), Sgt. K. Penton (Air Gunner), R. Maud (Pilot), R.W. Tovey (Navigator), Sgt. A. Anderson (Flight Engineer), H. Foster (Air Bomber), and J.L. Fyffe (Operator and Air Gunner). More information on that moment in history can be found here. It truly is fascinating and eye-opening to see so many war names memorialized in one small cemetery.

Back in London, the Royal Academy has an exhibit until April 20, 2016, featuring several Impressionistic artists from Matisse to Monet. Because we were unable to go inside Monet’s home, as soon as I could, I booked a ticket to see the exhibit. The rooms were small and the crowds were large, even at a 1:30pm showing on a Tuesday, but I’m so glad I went. We were not allowed to take any photos, but do take a look at this link for more information on the showing.

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While this small town may be easy to skip, I urge you to take the time and visit Giverny. No matter the time of year, it is a lovely place to take some time and relax. Many holidays are all about sight-seeing and the hustle and bustle. Giverny can guarantee a laid back and serene pocket in the French landscape along with some stunning and remarkable history.

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The quiet street in Giverny opposite the church.

Do check out the links below for more information on Claude Monet’s House and the Impressionism Museum that we did not get to see.

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