My dear friend, Dorothy, and I are skipping the beautiful city of Paris this time. We’re exchanging viewing paintings in the Louvre and Orsay for immersing ourselves into actual masterpieces, or at least we will try. We take as our mentor and inspiration Claude Monet, France’s sublime impressionist whose ambition was to document the French countryside. And so we set off after flying Los Angeles to Paris and picking up our rental car for our three day stint in the Loire Valley. From there, we will meander into Normandy. We will come to sense the tone of impressionism, capturing the essence of our surroundings and welcoming the embrace of France.
One would expect this flight to wear us out. However, the remedy for jet lag proved to be Beauty. Once past the congestion of Paris traffic, we entered the countryside of France on our drive to Tours in the Loire Valley. Our GPS was set, we discovered later, to avoid toll roads so our journey lasted four hours. But tired we could not be; the beauty of the landscape widened our eyes at every turn. Immediately, Monet’s haystacks paintings came to mind. Golden mounds dotted the roadsides, red poppies raised their heads, and every so often lavender fields blanketed the earth. The villages had few people out and about. Rather, it was Nature that engulfed us and assured us that all would be well.
The Loire Valley and chateau hopping proved to be synonymous. It was a good three days, but we needed to escape the confines of castle walls to follow in Monet’s footsteps. We needed to soak in nature, in varying lights and weather, if we were to embrace impressionism. So, off to Giverny we headed. Claude Monet lived here for 43 years, from 1883 to 1926. Upon discovering Giverny, he wrote to Alice, his second wife, “I long for solitude, away from crowded tourist resorts and sophisticated urban settings.” Ironically, today more than 500,000 people travel annually to this small village to the northwest of Paris. Monet’s home is a crowded tourist attraction, yet it beckons as an oasis of tranquility. A wealth of flowers and plants grow and blossom in an explosion of scent and color. Springtime met us with thousands of bulbs starting to bloom. One has to be impressed with 25,000 tulips blossoming plus mauve wisteria cascading from the iconic Japanese bridge. In our mid-morning and afternoon hours at the home, sunshine and rain danced on and off, enabling us to see, just as if Monet ordered, the effects of light and weather in differing conditions. The painter’s house seems cozy with its pink face and contrasting bright green shutters. It beckons as if out of a fairy tale. To me, the kitchen and dining room held special appeal. Monet, a lover of good food, wine and entertaining, usually had a hearty breakfast before heading out to paint in the countryside or aboard his boat studio. He invited friends to gather round his table for lunch, always starting promptly at 11:30 am. My impression was, “This is Monet’s beloved home. He is about to return. What great thanks we owe to him.”
In the early 1890s, Monet painted in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. He directed his efforts especially on the city’s cathedral, creating 30 paintings of this exceptional Gothic church that is topped by the highest spire in all of France. We sat adjacent to young artists as they dipped their paints into pallets. In Monet’s style, they spread upon their canvasses relatively small thin yet visible brush strokes. Just as Monet did, they would return at different times to depict light in its changing qualities. We liked Rouen for its stained glass cathedral windows that date back to the 13th century, its expert pastry creations, its 1389 Le Gros Horloge astronomical clock, its Medieval quarter of timber-framed buildings, and its museum and church honoring Joan of Arc. It impressed me as a city of old living well in the modern world.
Monet was raised in Le Havre, Normandy. While we didn’t visit this seaside town, we spent time in two close towns that he frequently visited: Honfleur and Etretat. Easily, Honfleur attracted impressionist artists with its beautiful light and landscapes. Eugene Boudin, born in Honfleur, was fascinated by the light and painted the skies, for which he was nicknamed the “King of the Skies.” He greatly inspired Monet and many other impressionists. Honfleur has become a popular town for second homes of Paris folks. And with no wonder. Fishing boats and nets line the quay. The wide sandy beach is perfect for collecting pieces of sea glass, observing the ever changing Normandy skies, soaking up the salty air, and listening to the crashing waves. Lopsided half-timbered houses line the town streets, and the largest wooden church in France, Saint Catherine, sits just above town center with its double nave topped with what appears to be the hulls of two ships, side by side. Sampling food and drink can take up a good portion of one’s day as Honfleur is known for its cheese, scallops, mussels, oysters, cider, and CHOCOLATE! To our good fortune, we joined a French group for a 90 minute boat trip on the Seine Estuary to Normandy Bridge given by Promenade en Bateau Honfleur. Since we did not understand the captain’s French, we had to rely simply on impressions, not details. And it worked! We basked in the sunshine, the salty air, the laughing fellow boaters, the sparkling glimmer of the massive bridge, and the nursery of birds at seaside. We wished to stay longer in Honfleur. We long to return. Its impressions are endearing.
Etretat served as another inspirational town for Monet and other impressionists. French actress Madame Thebault was a friend of Claude Monet, who spent many hours working on his canvases in Etretat. In 1905, inspired by the artist, Thebault began to create a garden at the top of the Amont cliff that would reflect Monet’s work with avant-garde elements mixed with impressionism. Here, Monet created his painting series Les Falaises a Etretat. A vine sculpture on the terrace of the garden pays tribute to Monet’s influence. The Jardin Impressions opens up a panorama of the English Channel and its cliffs of Etretat. Fortunate to all visitors, the 4,000 square meters park was restored in 2015 and reopened to the public in 2017. The beauty of the gardens pulled us into its embrace. It is whimsical, expansive, and ever changing. The wind would whip ever so often, only to be calmed by sunshine. Nature’s forceful play impressed us at Etretat.
Claude Monet, you have done your job! Dorothy and I have placed ourselves into your homes, settings, and paintings. Now it is time to take our lessons and apply them to other places we will visit in Normandy. We stay in Connelles, a small village adjacent to the Seine. We allow the river’s calming ripples to slow us down, to bless our time of meditation, and to reaffirm that all is well. While there, we spend a full day touring old villages and medieval castles with Mark at our Club Wyndham resort. We permit the history of Chateau Gaillard to enter our minds and souls. Richard The Lionheart built in, with the help of 4000 men in two years, upon his return from the Crusades. Tales of Richard abound throughout the area: hot-tempered, energetic, impetuous, cruel, phenomenal soldier, inspirational, poetic. We release the details of his life in the 1100s. We stand impressed with the battle remains of the fight for conquest between England and France for the beloved Normandy. This impression lingers with us as we visit La Roche-Guyon. This chateau is carved into a mountain wall. It took years and years to build it, with additional stories and passage ways added through the centuries. During WWII, Rommel set up headquarters here while he supervised the construction of sea walls to keep the Allies out of Normandy. War, intrigue, destruction set amongst beautiful areas of Nature; we wonder at the similarities between the 1100s and the 1900s. Monet has taught us that the essence of life often remains the same.
We spend three days in Bayeux, stopping on our way at the War Memorial in Caen. It is a world class museum documenting the atrocities and glories of WW II. We had learned many facts and details about the war. However, now we allowed its overriding impressions to take control. Evil men and evil doctrines almost conquered sanity and goodness. That is a daunting impression. The world is fragile, and I felt this dramatically here. In Bayeux, we viewed the famed Bayeux Tapestry. It is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 meters long and 50 centimeters tall that depicts the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, culminating in the Battle of Hastings. There are many ways to tell a story. The Tapestry was probably made in Canterbury, England, around 1070. Its scenes come alive in pristine details, and it is my impression of preservation through the centuries of priceless artwork that lingers. Easily, I stand in awe.
Normandy Sightseeing Tours (www.normandy-sightseeing-tours.com) deserves raves for sharing with us both Mont St Michel and D Day Beaches. For Mont St Michel, Gwen picked us up in Bayeux around 8:30 to accompany six other visitors from the United States. Via van, we drove 90 minutes to this Gothic style Benedictine abbey that sits atop a rocky bay perch. This is a magical island, a gravity-defying abbey, a stunning bay, a pilgrimage destination, an architectural masterpiece, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the parking lot, one can book a horse-drawn carriage, stand in line for a shuttle, or walk 1.5 miles to the entrance. We opted for the shuttle going and walking the return. Souvenir shops, hotels, homes and restaurants line the steep alley ways as one nears the monastery. Gwen is a wealth of information, telling us that from 966 onwards the dukes of Normandy, followed by the French kings, supported the development of a major Benedictine abbey on its site. The Abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds and manuscript illuminators in Europe. Surprisingly, my mind retreated to elements of impressionism, especially unusual visual angles and the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience. We accessed the Abbey by the Grand Degre, a large staircase of around 350 steps. Yes, that was our movement, and unusual visual angles welcomed us. We were climbing back into the Renaissance. I could imagine Monet basking in this site and giving his hearty approval.
Julie served as our guide/driver for our full day visit with Normandy Sightseeing Tours to D Day Beaches. Dorothy and I are history buffs and simple lovers of travel so we expected this day to be long remembered. We stepped on these historical beaches where so many died. We saw the German bunkers, landmine remains, and monuments everywhere. We learned of the incredible planning needed for Operation Overlord to succeed. We heard stories of the extraordinary courage of the first 156,000 soldiers who landed on D-day and the terrible sacrifice that continued all summer long. Julie shared information about the French Resistance and the German occupation during the four years before D-day. We came to somewhat realize why so many in Normandy had stopped to thank us for what our country did 75 plus years ago. Our hearts opened to impressions. They came most strongly at the cemeteries. First, we stopped by the German Cemetery at La Cambe. Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948 and contains more than 21,000 graves. It is beautifully maintained, a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in France. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was established by the US First Army on June 8, 1944 as the first American cemetery on European soil in WW II. The cemetery site covers 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,386 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular garden on the east side, are inscribed 1,557 names. At the memorial’s center lies the bronze statue “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” In the foreground lies a reflecting pool, circular chapel, and granite statues representing the US and France. We were there for the 5 pm lowering of the flag and taps. Impressionism enveloped me. I could see these boys as my sons. I could feel the heartache of their families as they received word back home of their deaths. I cried as a mother. The impressions linger.
Claude Monet coined the term impressionism. At the time, some criticized this movement and his art as “unfinished.” I wonder if that, in truth, is a compliment. I rather like being unfinished, having still much to learn, much to ponder, much to feel. We came to appreciate this learning, pondering, and feeling as we vowed, “OK, let’s be impressionists.” Travelling to France is pretty much an assured good trip, but this one proved superlative. Thank you, Claude Monet!