Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Spring flowers and glorious gardens

A few years ago on an autumn trip to France, I planned a trip to Giverny to visit Monet's gardens. I even bought a ticket to the museum when I visited the Orangerie Museum in Paris. Unfortunately when the day came to take the 45 minute journey out to Vernon, I was really unwell and ended up spending the day quietly in the Luxembourg Gardens instead.

But when I finally got there and stood in the dew soaked gardens of Monet's house and looked at the mass of spring flowers under a  deep blue sky, I couldn't be anything but grateful for that upset stomach a few years ago. Spring time in Giverny is absolutely breathtaking.

I caught an early train out of Paris and arrived at the village in time for the opening and headed straight to Monet's house and garden to beat the crowds that were enjoying a Sunday trip out of the city.  

Monet moved to Giverny in 1883 and lived in the house for the last 43 years of his life with his second wife and eight children in their combined family. He loved gardens as much as he loved painting and apparently he conceived a plan of how they should look and spent a lot of time having things constructed the way he liked. He was entranced by the light and the colours and reflections on the water - and we all know how famously that enjoyment turned out.

My first stop at the site was to walk through the house. Going through historical houses can often be a frustrating experience. You are crammed in with crowds of people, you can't touch anything and often the places feel so sterile that you can't imagine anyone has ever really lived there. But the proportions of Monet's house are surprising and the colour and furnishings really give it a wonderful feel. The studio sitting room on the ground floor is full of light and hung with paintings and the you can see that the large yellow dining room was used by families for the riotous dinners that were cooked in the blue kitchen. Upstairs, the light airy bedrooms have huge picture windows that look out into the gardens below.

The gardens themselves were an absolute delight to wander through. Around the house are the lawns, walkways and kitchen gardens. Then you walk down some stairs and through a walkway to get to the famous water gardens. There are pathways around the outside of the water garden where you can wander alongside a fast-moving stream that is set with cherry trees before you take the inside pathway into the pond.

Pansies, violas, tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, apple trees, cherry trees and hundreds of other flowers I couldn't identify - they were all there and all blooming furiously. The only thing that wasn't actually in flower were the water lilies on the pond itself.

It's slightly surreal to see the green Japanese bridge and the weeping willows draping gently into the water that featured in so many of the most well known paintings of the Impressionist era. I sat on a bench and tried to imagine what it must have been like when it was just the private home of a family but there were just too many gasping tourists to be able to really see it. I think that the tribe of gardeners who care for the property probably have one of the best jobs in the world to be able to work in such beautiful surroundings.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the village of Giverny. There is also the Museum of Impressionists, artists studios, restuarants and private homes. At the end of the village is the church where Monet and his wife are buried and there is also a monument to some soldiers who crashed their plane near the village during the Second World War. 

Between the perfect spring weather, beautiful surroundings and fabulous flowers, I had a perfect visit to Giverny and I won't forget it in a hurry. It's certainly been one of the highlights of my trip so far.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Four days in Paris is never enough

After a couple of restorative days with my family in Germany, it was time to pack up my bag of lovingly washed clothes (thanks Auntie!) and head to my next destination - Paris.

I've been to Paris many times, but there is always so much to see and do that I still haven't covered off my long, long list and I was hoping to tick off a few more places on this trip.

On the advice of a friend, I had booked a little hotel on the Champ de Mars, just down the road from the Eiffel Tower and about 15 mins walk from Invalides. It was a charming little hotel and I had a room up on the fifth floor (thankfully they had a lift there!) which looked down onto the street below and even showed a little of the Tower above the buildings around it!

I hit the streets and walked towards Les Invalides, which is dedicated to the military history of France. There is a veterans hospital and retirement home in one corner of the site and a number of different museums which showcase different eras of France's military history. I really enjoyed the display of uniforms and armour through the ages and they had interspersed it with portraits of known soldiers and stories of different battles. They even had displays of decorated saddles for their horses.

The Dôme des Invalides was the most spectacular building, with a large golden domed roof and it's a church with the burial site for some of France's war heroes, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte.

I walked around for a couple of hours and had a hot chocolate in the Angelina cafe in the grounds (another item I'd wanted to tick off my list as I'd heard it was some of the best hot chocolate in Paris. It was nice, but way too sweet for me and I didn't drink much) and then I wandered down to the Siene and along the banks until I came to the Eiffel Tower. The parks around it were full of people enjoying the evening sunset and also all the inevitable touts and beggars so I walked to the far end and settled on a bench to watch the sun set behind the fabulous monument and enjoy the evening. It's such a beautiful structure - I never get tired of looking at it.

The next day was Saturday so I walked into St Germain and wandered down towards the river. I stopped in Laudree for a delicious morning tea with mini croissants and a Madeline (my favourite little scallop-shaped cake treats) and a pot of tea and was rewarded with my only celebrity sighting of the trip. I never see anyone when I'm out and about (or maybe I just don't know who I'm looking at) but the amazing Australian actor Noah Taylor and his family were having tea at the next table and I was super thrilled to see them. I wanted to stop and tell him how much I loved 'The Year my Voice Broke' and 'Shine' but didn't want to interrupt, so I sent a mental message and moved on my travels. I stopped at an art shop to buy some of their beautiful watercolour paint and walked across the Siene and over to the Louvre to watch the crowds. Then I took the metro into Opera, which is in the heart of the shopping district and wandered around the shops for a little, enjoying the bustle of the Saturday afternoon shoppers.

When I headed back to my hotel, I found that an antique market had been set up for the weekend in the streets around the hotel so I wandered between the stalls, looking at antique lace tablecloths, beautiful china cups and saucers and a million different items that I would have loved to take home. But with no room in the suitcase, I bought nothing but a linen handkerchief and kept wandering.

For dinner, I had an amazing, superb picnic; sourced from the traders in the streets around me. I had a petite baguette from the boulangerie, cheese from the fromagerie, some salmon caviar and some jambon (ham) and a nice little salad from the deli. Sooooo good!

Germany to France - and back again

When you live just a few kilometres from the border, it only makes sense that you would jump over into France on a regular basis. Today we made the short drive into la belle France to explore a few of the local villages in the Alsace region. And eat lunch.

Our first stop was into the village of Haguenau. We parked on the edge of town and walked into the centre, with icy winds sweeping around us that made our cheeks glow and noses go numb. A sudden cold snap bought the temperature down and it was still only a very brisk 11 degrees at 11am.

After a warming coffee and croissant, we took a wander around the town, admiring the grey stone buildings and flashes of colour from flowering gardens. The town is a real mixture of French and German influences, with the traditional blue French street signs on ever corner, but many German influenced building styles.

The Alsace region has alternatively switched between Germany and France over the years and they historically spoke Alsatian, a Germanic dialect. Today they mostly speak French, but most people can switch into German easily enough which was helpful for my aunt and uncle - but not a lot of good to me. Luckily, the 10 words and five phrases I know in French kicked in and I was able to manage a few orders and payments in cafes.

I was feeling a little bit smug about remembering things I haven't spoken in nearly two years until we got talking to an old man in the street when our dogs were sniffing one another. He started chattered away in French until I had to admit that I didn't have the first clue about what he was saying. Then he thought for a minute and started speaking in slightly halting English. We talked for a bit and he said that in his youth he had learned a little English but hadn't spoken it in decades. I was so beyond admiring for this gent to be able to pull out enough of a language not used in so long to be able to have a chat to an Australian girl!

We feasted on a delicious lunch in a gorgeous little side street restaurant and then took a little walk around the town as we made our way back to the car. There were some lovely shops around and I was half tempted to go in and look at some sandles when I realised that the shop - in fact almost all the shops - were closed for lunch. The village is so traditional that they close between 12-2 every day for lunch. You'd never see that in Australia these days and I sort of had to admire them for keeping the work life balance going (although I really did want those sandles).

Our next stop was into the little village of Soufflenheim, which is about 20 mins away. The village specialises in pottery and we stopped into the Poterie Philippe Lehmann, who was an artist my aunt had read about and wanted to see. Their work was really beautiful and we looked at the red and blue blowls and plates and platters stocked around the showroom. It was all beautiful but there was no room in my suitcase for such heavy items so I only bought a little heart shaped hanging ornament.

Finally we wandered down the main street through the town to stretch our legs and enjoy the sunshine. It had warmed up to 19 degrees and the wind wasn't as cold so it was really nice. I dawdled at every strip of flowering tulips, hyacinths and pansys and admired the beautiful colours.

Then it was only a short drive down the autobahn and over the Rhine river and we were back in Germany and home again.

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