Put yourself in the picture: Holidaying in Monet's backyard
The water lilies, the famous bridge... Natalie Holmes took the family to France to see the places caught on canvas by Monet
Sunday 09 July 2006
It started with a book. Some years ago my daughter was given the tale of Linnea in Monet's Garden, by Cristina Bjork, about a girl who visits art galleries in Paris and Claude Monet's home in Giverny, the latter providing the inspiration for so many of his paintings. Ruby, now 10, wanted to make the same trip. Paris, art, gardening: such an adult weekend away, and yet requested by a child. What parent could resist?
August is when the water lilies are at their best, so we timed our visit for then. August is also when Parisians leave town, and we soon understood why. It was hot, sticky and the traffic fumes went straight to the back of the throat. Waiting for a Metro with my son James, aged seven, whining to announcements of line closures, security alerts and alternative bus services (all a bit reminiscent of London), I was wondering if I had made mistake. "It's just TOO French," said James.
Averting our gaze from the posters for Disneyland Paris, we headed for the Musée d'Orsay, home to the cream of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, intended as a scene-setter. The d'Orsay opened in 1986 in a former mainline railway station. The building is a work of art in itself with its five-storey atrium, magnificent clock, and terrace with glorious views over the Seine. Some of Monet's best-known paintings are here - Wild Poppies, Water Lilies, Rouen Cathedral - as well as those of his friends Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.The children were delighted to see so many familiar images. Their enjoyment was boosted by a craze new to me: the fine-art version of happy slapping, whereby you get someone to take your photo in front of a famous picture, then run on to avoid being ticked off in French.
The pleasures of the digital camera featured large at Giverny the following day. The home of Claude Monet in the later, successful part of his lifehas been lovingly restored. The garden was packed with the yellows, oranges and reds of sunflowers, nasturtiums, hollyhocks, dahlias and snapdragons. There is no lawn to speak of; the garden is made up of beds with aisles between. The number of visitors meant that we were shuffling around, while the children squabbled over the camera.
The day was saved by the water garden. The magical beauty of the floating water lilies still manages to surprise. The scene was luminescent, like the pictures. It called out to be captured, as if the garden were a film star perfectly made-up, ready for her close-up. The crowds and the squabbling and the queues no longer mattered. We were struck by the feeling of having been here before. Monet's boat was moored at the side as though he had just stepped out of it, exactly as it is in the famous painting, and the water lilies, the bridge and the pond were familiar from every angle. Ruby was in heaven: "I feel as if a fantasy I have had all my life has come true."
The studio where Monet painted is now a gift shop, and those familiar flowers grace a thousand fridge magnets. The great visionary himself gazed seriously from a 100-year-old photo in his gardening clothes - lookalike hats and aprons for sale nearby. But what really took me aback was that, amid the prints, posters, pencil cases and wash bags, Linnea had become a brand too: a doll in two sizes with her own stationery set. I may not know much about marketing, I thought, but I know what I don't like.
Yet there was something about being in that water garden - the colours, the calm, the beauty of the lilies - that, despite the expense, left us feeling richer for it.
Natalie Holmes travelled to Paris with Eurostar (08705 186186; eurostar.com), return fares from London start at £59. She stayed at the three-star Hotel Relais de Paris Lafayette (00 331 4246 3300; lesrelaisdeparis.fr), where a double costs €150 (£107) without breakfast. Musée d'Orsay (00 33 1 4049 4814; musee-orsay.fr). Admission €7.50, free for under-18s. A trip to Giverny with France Tourisme (00 33 1 4502 8850; francetourisme. fr) costs €45 per adult, €22.50 per child, admission included.
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