Day Fifteen, August 5: Vernon, Giverny, and Back to Paris. - Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Tour of Normandy - CycleBlaze

August 5, 2018

Day Fifteen, August 5: Vernon, Giverny, and Back to Paris.

The next morning when I paid, the man working the welcome desk, as part of the usual registration process, asked to see my passport. When I handed mine over he looked up, startled.

“You are American?” he said.


“We don’t get many of you here.”

“How many in a year?”

“Five or six, maybe. Maybe not even that.”

This seemed surprising since it was so close to a major tourist destination, but Americans did not seem to have camping on their radar for tourism in France.

Having learned my “you can’t take your bags in and there is nowhere you can leave them” lesson from Point du Hoc, I did internet research in advance for Giverny. Apparently the only place anyone knew of to leave bags was a café across from the Vernon train station. Upon arrival, I asked at the bar if this was possible. The bartender was a lean man with a scarf around his neck, who was mute. He first looked me up and down, like he was assessing whether I was a tourist and not a terrorist or a police informer. He wrote the price on a scrap of paper – five euros a bag. I shrugged in assent, since there was really no alternative. He led me through several doors and a hallway to a locked room, where several other bags lay. I paid him, and he locked the door after we left. Overall, it felt more like a drug deal than a valet service. I am still not sure if this was because storing bags for people is illegal (why was there nowhere else in Vernon or Giverny to store bags?), or it was just suspicion about terrorism.

The ride to Giverny was a pleasant three miles on bike paths. Feeling strangely light without my luggage, I flew along and bunny-hopped over curbs. At Giverny I was one of two bikes at the rack in the parking lot. Most tourists visit Giverny as a day trip by train from Paris or somewhere else, so they tend to arrive mid-morning or later. Arriving by bicycle I was one of the earliest arrivals at 9:30 in the morning, and the line to buy tickets was only five minutes long.

Bee heaven at the Giverny gardens.
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Arriving at major tourist destinations by bicycle is always an unusual experience: for me, the main destination when I go to France is just a small backroads, the tiny bakeries in remote villages, and the food. But for many other visitors to France, it was just destination after destination like Giverny: a nexus of people from all over the world in this highly developed and structured presentation of a specific part of French history. After a week of just being among French people in French countryside, it was a jarring re-entry into modern life.

Obligatory lily pad picture.
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Some of the main tourist destinations I just can’t handle: of the half-dozen times that I have been to Paris, I’ve never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It is just too many people, too much hype, too much waiting in line (although after reading about Gustav Eiffel in Frederick Brown’s For The Soul of France, I might persevere next time). For some destinations, the connection to another time and place makes it worthwhile. I grew up looking in Monet’s paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and my dad was a big fan of Monet, so I felt some affinity for him. I respect his quiet rebelliousness: the man just wanted to leave the city behind, look at nature and the French countryside, and represent it in his own particular way. As his paintings began to sell mid-life, Monet bought the house and land at Giverny, and then more land, and put time and money into developing the land into a spectacular botanical garden. He then painted the gardens that he had made.


The gardens were remarkable, but mostly in a sense of scale and variety of flowers. My main thought was not so much “wow this is beautiful” but rather “wow, how many people does it take to maintain this place?”. It was row after row of flowers of every possible color and description, packed densely together. It seemed like no plant was done blooming yesterday or ready to bloom tomorrow, they were all timed to flower on the particular day I arrived. A lot of that certainly was seasonal, but there must also have been a small army of horticulturalists working after hours to prune and plant.

Monet's Giverny Stove.
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My favorite part was not the flowers, but the kitchen. Not so much that it belonged to Claude Monet, but just as a window into what a high-end kitchen would have looked like at the turn of the twentieth century. The tilework is all blue and white, the stove a monumental block of early art deco iron and brass. The space itself was immense – four people could easily cook together in here without bumping into each other – and flooded with light, from windows looking over the gardens behind it.


And that was pretty much it. I rode back to Vernon, got my bags from the suspicious mute bartender, and got on the next train to Paris, made my way through the metro system and the regional train, and let myself into Maurice’s AirBnB, where I set to disassembling my bike for transport.

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