Garden fit for a canvas

At Giverny, Mark Rowe elbows his way through the crowds, in search of Monet's peaceful scenes
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The Independent Travel
The scene: a pond, a dozen waterlilies, a weeping willow and a Japanese bridge. "It's like something out of a painting," said a voice above the clicking of cameras and whirring of videocams. If you have stood in front of one of Monet's waterlilies in a gallery in Paris or London and wondered if the originals bore any resemblance to the smudge that you see, then a visit to Giverny, home for 43 years to the Impressionist master, will go a long way towards satisfying your curiosity.

But you will not be alone in witnessing this restful scene. The sharp elbows that you need in front of any popular gallery painting will also be required here. I wondered what Monet would have thought of hundreds of people snapping away with their cameras, while just one solitary visitor took to capturing the scene on canvas.

Around 500,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Monet's gardens each year, most of them taking a day trip from Paris, just 56 miles to the south- east. The shop (a former Monet studio) meets the inevitable demand for Monet mementos and amid the usual posters and T-shirts you can buy Monet flower seeds and watering cans. You could describe it as Monetmania - or, given the French word for waterlilies, nympheas-mania.

The Water Garden is smaller than Monet's paintings suggest, and is surrounded by a drooping weeping willow, crawling wisteria and thickets of bamboo and azaleas. In the centre, the broad green leaves of the lilies change hue as the sun drifts behind clouds or is caught among the fingers of the pond-side trees. This secluded haven, which inspired so many of Monet's best-known pictures, is marked by delicate, arched Japanese bridges. Sparrows, thrushes and nightingales hover frantically above the lilies, indulging in a feeding frenzy on the surface-water midges.

Until 1883, Giverny was an anonymous village on the border of le-de- France and Normandy. Then Claude Monet arrived, purchased a house and gardens and settled down to the most creative period of his life. He lived there until his death in 1926. He was not just an outstanding painter, but also a hands-on gardener who established a tributary from the River Epte to form the Water Gardens. Untypically for an artist, Monet was recognised and paid accordingly during his own lifetime, and was able to plough financial resources into the garden and house. The Water Garden is located at the bottom of the gentle hill on which Monet's house stands, separated from the building and the rectangular flower garden, the Clos Normand, by a busy road. It is reached by a subway, though wheelchair users are able to enter through gates on either side of the road.

To enjoy the Water Garden or the Clos Normand in anything like the solitude Monet must have known, you have to start queuing at 9.30 am, 30 minutes before opening time, or come late in the day in the hope that the coach parties have headed back to the autoroutes. Alternatively, arrive the evening before and stay at the Hotel Musardiere, 100 yards from the gardens along Rue Claude Monet, a delightful hotel with creaky floorboards, old- world decor and a spiral staircase.

Today, the walled Clos Normand is full of climbing plants and shrubs to match every colour of an artist's palette: irises, rhododendrons, delphiniums and poppies laid out in neat rows and trellises. The house is covered in climbing ivy and roses. It contains none of Monet's originals, but his collection of Japanese prints has been hung on every available wall - and the yellow dining-room and tiled kitchen show that Monet had an eye for colour that extended beyond his canvas.

Looking at this immaculately maintained scene, it is amazing to think that it all nearly wasted away after Monet's death. The house fell into disrepair, and it was only in 1977 that the Academie des Beaux-Arts came to the rescue and, with the help of several large donations, restored the gardens to their original condition, so that they could be opened in 1980. The grounds and house now form the Claude Monet Foundation, which employs a dozen gardeners to maintain the site.

I watched as a gardener slowly nudged a boat across the pond, navigating a course between the huge, broad waterlilies, drawing sedge from the water with a long, spindly pole. He seemed naturally integrated into the landscape and must feature in several thousand photographs daily - I half-expected him to row to the bank and pass his cap among the watching throng for a whip-round.

Monet's Water Garden is open Tuesday to Sunday, 1 April to 31 October, 10am-6pm. Admission 25F (about pounds 2.50) includes entry to the grounds and house. Giverny is a short train ride away from Paris's St Lazare station. Buy a ticket to Vernon and take a taxi or bus from there. Hotel Musardiere in Giverny (00 33 2 32210318): rooms start at 300F (about pounds 30) per person per night.

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