Lining the cobblestone streets in the medieval town of Vernon are dozens of quaint half-timbered houses.
So happy we booked a hotel room for a couple of nights in the lively little town of Vernon (population 24,000) just 4 miles (6.3 km) from the tiny village of Giverny (population 500) and Claude Monet’s garden. Vernon is an attractive small town and we found a surprising number of historical sights to visit.
Vernon (French pronunciation: Vair nuhh) is a commune in the region of Normandy in northern France. It is a short hour’s train trip west from Paris Saint-Lazare station to Vernon–Giverny station. From the station it was a short walk to our hotel.
A Brief History
In 1179, at the age of 15, Philippe II became King of France and he reigned until his death in 1223. He built Château des Tourelles as a military base in Vernon in 1196, in his fight against the King of England, Richard the Lionheart. The castle consists of a square tower surrounded by four 65 foot tall (20 m) round turrets. It is one of the few castles in France which has remained unchanged for 800 years. Beautifully picturesque from the outside, the interior is not accessible.
After decades of conflicts between the Plantagenets (England) and the Capetians (French), Philippe II succeeded in putting an end to the English threat at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. During his reign, Philippe transformed France into one of the most prosperous and powerful countries in Europe. He acquired his second name “Augustus” for adding considerably to the crown lands of France.
(The Hundred Years’ War between the French and English was in the future and wouldn’t begin for another century.)
Le Vieux Moulin
At the same time (12th century) King Philippe II built the Château, he also had a stone bridge built. It would have been cared for and guarded by the Château des Tourelles.
Records show that in the 16th century there were 5 operating flour mills built on top of that same old stone bridge. 4 of the mills and the old stone bridge have all but disappeared. Le Vieux Moulin – the Old Mill straddling two remaining piers of King Philippe’s 12th century bridge, is the last remaining mill. A long gone waterwheel, that could have been raised and lowered depending on the water level, would have been beneath the mill. Visitors may not enter the ancient building but its awkward perch makes for an unusual picture.
Dedicated in 1072 “to the Holy Mother of God”, this is how Notre-Dame got its name. Notre-Dame means Our Lady. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, Notre-Dame Collegiate Church is considered one of the more beautiful examples of medieval architecture in France. Although many of the original windows were destroyed in World War II bombings, they have been replaced with magnificent abstract-style stained glass. The pipe organ dates back to 1610 and continues to work well.
(Monet painted this monument six times in 1883-84.)
Musée Alphonse-Georges-Poulain or Musée de Vernon
The collection in the Vernon Museum, in addition to showing a couple of Claude Monet original paintings, also highlights other artists who lived in and around Giverny.
There are paintings by Claude Monet’s step-daughter, who also became his daughter-in-law, Blanche Hoschede-Monet and by the American artist, Theodore Earl Butler who first married Monet’s step-daughter, Suzanne Hoschedé. After her death he married her sister, Marthe Hoschedé. We also enjoyed the paintings by Theodore and Suzanne’s son, James Butler and by Pierre Bonnard, one of Monet’s neighbors.
This is our first return to France in three years and the historical commune of Vernon on the banks of the river Seine did not disappoint. Vernon has the Notre-Dame gothic church and across from the avenue is the beautiful Hôtel de Ville or Town Hall. There a small but very good fine arts museum, the Old Mill and the pretty Château des Tourelles. We walked down narrow cobblestone streets lined by ancient half-timbered houses with asymmetrical doors, quaint cafés, bars and restaurants with beautiful wrought iron signs, mouth-watering pâtisseries and chic chocolate shops.
During an evening stroll on our final night we explored the town’s large annual street fair. They boasted having more than 170 booths offering mostly food items but gifts, crafts, art and activities as well. We spotted the Canadian flag in one booth and tried maple syrup, the best maple butter ever, maple flavored wine, rum and whiskey from a friendly Quebecoise now living in France.
How can you not love a town with a coat of arms that has 3 fleur-de-lis and 3 watercress bunches tied with a golden ribbon? No weapons; no ferocious beasts.
The village of Giverny (french pronunciation Jee-vair-nyee) is where Roman graves were discovered in 1838 and where evidence of grape cultivation from the Merovingian dynasty (5th to 7th century CE) was found. Giverny is indeed an old village but Claude Monet is likely responsible for making it the recognizable destination it is today.
The village has two main streets crossed by narrow lanes running down the hill. The Claude Monet Road runs straight into the village.
In 1883 the painter Claude Monet, his partner Alice Hoschedé, his two sons and her six children discovered the village and settled in. In 1890 they purchased 2.5 acres (1 hectare) with a farmhouse, a vegetable garden and an orchard which he immediately transformed into the gardens visitors enjoy today. His salmon-pink and green painted home is surrounded by an ever blossoming hectare of gorgeous color blocked flower beds.
Monet, who loved colors, chose all the colors for the interior as well as the exterior of the house. Dozens of paintings are hung in every room (reproductions only today) created by Monet, his family and friends Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Lila Cabot Perry and Paul Signac. Monet was enamored with the woodblock art of Japanese artist, Utagawa Hiroshige and for 50 years he passionately collected Japanese artwork, owning more than 200 pieces by the end of his life.
The second hectare of his property is the source of Monet’s greatest body of work – the famous water garden and Japanese bridge. The peak of the bloom season for water lilies is closer to July and we visited at the beginning of June, but we did spot a couple of lilies beginning to open in the pond. There are so many picturesque venues as you walk the perimeter of the pond – much needed to hide the plethora of visitors to the garden. See our link at the bottom for more photos of Monet’s Gardens.
Coincidentally in 1887 there were 7 or 8 parisian-trained, mostly American artists, besides Monet, working in the village. They too were searching for a quiet place to paint the “transcendent loveliness of the country”. However word quickly spread and by 1915 the number of artists living and painting in the tiny village had increased to more than 50.
We enjoyed a light lunch in the gardens of the historic Hotel Baudy, the same hotel that provided accommodations for many of those initial artists who arrived in Giverny. During the 43 years that Monet lived in Giverny, more than 350 other artists came to the area to paint the rural landscape and village. Although many were inspired by Monet and his impressionist techniques, the independent Colony of Giverny artists developed separately from him and reportedly, most, had little contact with him.
Giverny remains the home to modern-day Impressionist artists and we especially enjoyed the art of Florence Ramier. Her small gallery had a wonderful selection of her original paintings at reasonable prices.
Musée des Impressionnismes
The exhibition at the Museum of Impressionisms in Giverny was showing an unexpected and unlikely pairing of two 20th century major artists. There are 7 masterpieces by Mark Rothko opposite 8 paintings by Claude Monet. It is difficult to compare their styles but art critics claim the works are compatible. Monet is one of the founders of the impressionist movement and Rothko represents “abstract expressionism”. The artists did not know each but Rothko did admire Monet’s work and towards the end of his life, it has been said that Monet’s art tended towards abstraction. We found it challenging to see similarities other than the color range. Regardless, it was an interesting exhibition. Here is our created Monet and Rothko collage for you to compare.
Vernon is an endearing town that is worth a look around. Visiting Giverny, the inspiration for so many artists, and Monet’s Garden, is another box to check on our destination-wishlist.
Bonne santé from these Normans,
Ted + Julia