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Gardens of Normandy

France

Giverny and the classic gardens of Monet. At the southeast corner of Normandy, only a one-and-a-half hour trip from Paris, Giverny has always been the most visited, famous and accessible of contemporary French gardens. The casualness here stands in marked contrast to the bristling organization of Versailles. Giverny is the home of artists and Impressionism. Water-lilies, teal green Japanese bridges bracketed by willows, and the artist himself in a waistcoat and beard…all these images resonate in the paintings of Monet himself and souvenir calendars, note-cards and even umbrellas. Voila!—Giverny, a Mecca of 19th century art.2

There are three distinct seasons to visit– the gardens are quiet and inaccessible from October 31 through April.May 1 is opening day. and red, yellow, white and blue tulips greet the French sky. The exterior of Monet’s home is painted a distinct bubble gum pink, and many of the rooms are dedicated colors to bring the exterior floral palette into the rooms themselves. The brilliant yellow dining room and the blue kitchen, all have the natural wood of the furniture painted over to match the walls and ceiling. The effect is saturated and stunning.

But there’s a rub. The gardens are tended by flocks of gardeners who meticulously care for each individual plant. No spent rose is left to die on the stem; no iris lingers beyond its prime. Each flower inspires the appreciation of countless tourists, and then it is discretely whisked from the stage by the gardener’s deft fingers. No bloom overstays its welcome. There is a lavishness of attention for each bed of color; every cluster of cycads, every gaggle of geranium. This is the Yankees of gardens–a garden without a salary cap.

The spectacle of Giverny encourages the traveler to view some of the other gardens of Normandy. Get on the road. Hit the A13.3

First stop is the park and Rosary of Chateau de Mesnil Geoffroy in Ermenouville. Your hostess will be Princess Kayali. “Do I call you Princess?”I ask. “No, your Highness will do.” The wife of a Syrian Prince explains that she cannot compete with Giverny for scale: “Ours is a more modest affair. Our housekeeper is the one who must give out the tickets.” The highlight of the lovely garden is two modest wire chairs that allow viewers to await the onslaught of some 2.000 varieties of roses. Even though we are a little too early for the full rose parade, it is delightful to turn the chairs, view the chateau and dream about the “modest” residence. Seemingly on cue, the last of several Rolls Royces, a touring automotive cavalcade, crunch past the gravel drive as they exit.

Your next stop might be the bed and breakfast and personal gardens of Monsieur and Mme Leroyerin Longueville. Open the window of this 19th century home and look out onto the countryside and the single table and chair in the garden. This is a labor of love that is built from the ground up, literally. The 19th century home is adorned with the mistresses’ handiwork–pleated bedspreads, matching table clothes, and needlepoint samplers.5

Poor Monsieur Leroyer shrugs his shoulders as Madame chatters endlessly through a tour of their personal garden. Here visitors find fruit trees are espaliered against the garden walls, the present garden is viewed under the critical eye of people who can’t wait to get back to their serious work of gardening. “This side bed is well resolved in terms of color but the height is too even. Next year we shall plant with an eye toward more variety in dimension as well as organization of color.” At this lovely B&B (or is it “Li avec petite dejeuner?” Breakfast is jellies made from the garden’s apples, strawberry and fig. Perfect enough to make the croissant below the jelly jealous of the taste above!6

Drive over to the Jardins du Chateau de Brecy andview the gardens of Monsieur and Madame Wirth. You arrive in the traditional courtyard of the chateau and walk to the rear where you are met with a garden from the 17th century designed by Francois Mansart. Precise boxwoodthat embroiders the passage to the higher terraces greets you. As you walk up three levels in the gardens, a gate that opens to a meadow meets you. Here the meadow has been raised–with the help of some modern grading–some 30 feet to obscure the power lines in the distance. Soldiers of trees face each other and form a line of one-point perspective. It is a single vanishing point embracing the horizon and infinite blue sky of spring.A 15-foot lifeguard chair is hidden in the corner of an upper terrace to allow the discrete viewing of the gardens by their owners. A side garden away from the public’s view is where the owners’ grandchildren play. Even this garden is carefully arranged so the parent can view the children without having to view the nanny seated on the side. Every detail is taken into account to maximize the pleasure of the lords and ladies of privilege. As we leave, Monsieur Didier Wirth, dressed in snappy bright red pants and a striped shirt, master of the domain, lord of the manor, President of the Comite des Parcs et Jardins de France, bids us a gracious adieu. The world’s luckiest golden retriever returns to his post lounging on the marble entrance steps.8

On to the whimsical gardens of the Vendeuvre chateau. Built 1750-52. Here the count (his ownership of the chateau is seven generations and still counting), shows us around a garden full of water surprises. Pass through a gazebo and an overhead sprinkler triggered by a photoelectric eye douses you. Cross a Japanese bridge and metallic doves do their best to soak you. Move close to a tree and it branches explode in a shower. Jump from tile to tile in a pocket garden and five of the tiles erupt with streams from below. A sign offers a nude statue inviting you to touch a breast for the secret of love, and again you are tricked and drenched. Everywhere you turn, the garden is designed with liquid surprises. It is one of the largest gardens in Normandy and certainly one of the most curious.

Inside the chateau, you can view classic period furniture as well as more unusual objects, including one of the largest selection of ornate kennels (dog beds) in Europe an extensive collection of “automatique” mechanical toys. Each room has its share of eccentricities competing for space is a museum of heirloom furniture. The chaos of attractions inside compliments the whimsy and madness of the exterior.9

A visitor to Normandy might start with an interest in Monet and gardens but you are rewarded with much more. If you start with Giverny and enjoy walking, listening and smelling the garden, realize you are on the tip of the iceberg. Impressionism did not awake one morning as the brainchild of one person. Ideas evolve and respond to context and history. When looking at some of these gardens you can see the environment and context that gave birth to the gardens of Monet. A few days in Normandy, punctuated by charcuteries quiche, cheese and lovely wine. This is the kind of research that springtime in Normandy invites. Nice work if you can get it.15

If you go:

Chateau et Roseraie du Mesnil Geoffroy, Emenouville, M. et Mme Kayali

Tel: 02 35 57 12 77. www.chateaux-france.com/mesnilgeoffroy

Jardin de Brecy, Monsieur et Madame Wirth, Tel: 02 31 80 11 48 dwirth@wanadoo.fr

Museum et Jardin du chateau de Vendeuvre,Tel: 02 31 40 93 83. www.vendeuvre.com,chateau@vendeuvre.com

Lodging:

Longueville –West of Bayeaux: Chez Janine et Daniel Leroyer, 02 31 22 03 49—(Highly recommended). dan.leroyer@wanadoo.fr

Fontaine-sous-Jouy (near Vernon and Giverny): Chez Eliane et Michel Philippe Tel 02 32 36 89 05 emi.phillippe@worldonline.fr,www.chambre-fontaine.chez.tiscali.fr

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