Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On the Road: Biarritz

After three days in Bordeaux, it’s time to be off again, further south. As far south as you can go in France without being in Spain. Le pays basque - Basque country.
     It’s back to the train station via Tram C. Then a check of which platform the train leaves from... and for that I need to know that the train’s ultimate destination is Irun, just across the border in Spain. Then I look at my ticket to see which car I’m in because the platform is long and I don’t want to have to walk through the entire train, not to mention ending up at the wrong destination (see below). Luckily, French Rail has devised a neat little helper that tells me where my car will stop on the platform. I remember using that once to amaze some American tourists - "I’ll make our car stop right in front of us". Little did they know that I’d checked it out and walked them nonchalantly to the appropriate letter painted on the platform.
The train that started off from Paris to Tour at 300 km/hr, then slowed to 180 is now chugging across the countryside at what seems like a snail’s pace. This part of France - Les Landes - is all pine forest. Mostly maritime pine, like the pines of Jersey’s central Shore. Landes means moor, and before Napoleon III had it drained and all these pines planted, it was a place of grazing sheep and shepherds on stilts - which meant they could cover up to 20 km a day and see out over great distances. But now it’s all forest. In fact the biggest forest in all of France. In 2009, a hurricane-category storm decimated a large part of these trees, and some of the damage can still be seen from the train - tree-size toothpicks half blown over, stripped of any limbs and even some bark. Luckily for the "tree farms", most of the timber was still good to use and is still being sawed up into lumber. Both timber and lumber are piled neatly, waiting for transport.
Les Landes
The train stops in Dax, the nerve center of Les Landes, and half of it is unhooked to head into the Pyrenees. (Remember the two priests on the train down from Paris?) The rest of us chug slowly off into Basque territory. Gradually Basque-style houses start popping up through the trees... similar to Swiss chalets but with trim painted red or green, the colors of the Basque flag. The next stop is Bayonne, which any French chocolate-lover should revere because chocolate arrived in France via this port. It was also a whaling center, with its Basque crew sailing all the way to New England and the Great Banks as early as the 17th century... quite a sail for those days and those ships!
     Finally we reach Biarritz, a seaside resort made famous by Napoleon III and his Empress Eugénie. My friend Catherine meets me at the station under a grey sky. (It often seems to be grey when I come, although skies are usually blue pretty much year-round here.) Oh well! We won’t be walking around today anyway.

The next morning, the sun makes its appearance and we’re off and running. Well, walking. Unlike Bordeaux, there aren’t a lot of monuments here, but the beauty of the coastline is striking. Rocky, like the New England coast.  All attention here is directed at the sea. We walk uphill to the lighthouse, a sensible thing to have on a coast like this. Given that I spent my childhood summers on the Atlantic, I could spend all day just watching the sea. It’s always changing, always in motion. Out at sea, the waters look calm. No whitecaps. But near shore, in shallow water, breakers form... and that’s what makes this the capital for surfers. Today’s waves are too close together to make for a good run, but some boards are out anyway. They just bob about, waiting for The Right One, which doesn’t come.

     We make our way down to the sandy beach, where neither of us can resist rolling up our pants to dabble our toes in the water, which is wonderfully warm still for this late in September. Anyone who hasn’t understood the force of the ocean should rethink. Just standing knee-deep in the water, you feel the pull as the wave recedes. It scoops out the sand from beneath your feet and pulls your legs out from under you. It would be all too easy to drown here, pounded by the crashing of the waves. In fact, there’s a sign stuck into the sand that warns against swimming today. Tomorrow may be different, but none of the bathers is doing more than just getting wet today.
     It’s fun to watch the show on the beach. There’s a man with a dog - the beach isn’t off-limits to them - and he’s frantically digging a hole, spewing sand out in a roostertail behind him. And there’s a little boy who is too impressed by the crashing waves to want to be dragged down to the sea’s edge by his mother. There are two overly-tanned women of indeterminate age sunning themselves, bra-less and with only a string between their nether-cheeks. There’s a couple eating a home-cooked lunch out of Tupperware. And a lot of retirees just enjoying each other and the sun-and-sand-and-sea. The surfers tend to ignore them.

     Like I said, there aren’t a lot of monuments in Biarritz. That’s not what this town does. What it does is holidays and leisure. There are two casinos - the old one and the new - because this once was a place for the über-rich to come and "take the waters" before the croupiers would "take" them for piles of money. It also has a modern thalassotherapy spa where you can be sprayed with water spewing out of a nozzle at gale force 7, along with other things such as seaweed wraps and Lord knows what else. I’ll have to try it some day. There’s also the Villa Belsa, built against all logic on a rocky promontory and standing alone in the line of fire from waves that started out from the opposite side of the Atlantic. And Empress Eugénie’s summer palace, where she and Napoleon III came every year, along with the nobility of Spain, Belgium, England, Germany, Portugal and even far-off Russia, That mansion is now the Hôtel du Palais, complete with yet another spa. (Most of the large hotels offer spa services.)
     We stop for lunch in the minuscule Port des Pêcheurs, which provides well-needed shelter for a small fleet of fishing boats. As we enjoy three different versions of fresh anchovies, flash-grilled shrimp and broiled cod, the waves build up in size and force, crashing over the breakwaters. I wonder how that fisherman on the pier expects to catch anything in all this turbulence, but maybe he’s just enjoying himself.
     After lunch we walk through streets closed to traffic for a braderie, which means all the shops have put their goods out on the sidewalk at reduced prices. A kind of city-wide end-of-summer sale. We take the local bus to the next town south: Bidart - much smaller and more typical of all things Basque. There’s a little church with a fortress-looking steeple and a model ship hanging from the rafters. There’s also a fronton for la pelote basque, or what people in Florida would call jai-alai... eusko pilota in Basque, which is a language different from any other on Earth. It looks hard-sounding when you see it written on street signs (town center = hiri barnea, seafront = itsasbazterra), but rolls off Catherine’s tongue in a warm bubbly way. She was born in the Basque hills nearby and this is her native language. When she went to grade school, she would get rapped on the knuckles if she spoke a single word of Basque. Then when she went to catechism after class, the priest would give her dozens of Ave Marias to say if she spoke a single word of French. That’s enough to turn people into schizophrenics!

     The sea is much calmer here. Or maybe it’s just the calm that comes at the end of the day. Whatever it is, this setting seems to have attracted people from many different countries, judging by the foreign languages I hear all around me. The waiter who serves us our apéritif tells us that Madonna was here for a while this summer. I don’t know how she heard of this place, snug in its Pyrenees setting, but I can see why she chose it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Road: Bordeaux - More than just claret wine

Bordeaux is a rich city, its wealth built largely on wine. But in even earlier days, another economic sector in which it excelled was the "triangular trade", and more specifically bois d’ébène - ebony wood - otherwise known as slaves.
     All college students in France depend on a university within their region. All students in a given region go to the university of that region, unless they’re studying certain special subjects which aren’t taught there. In Paris, it’s Paris - its own little region. In the provinces, universities are located in the major cities: Rennes, Grenoble, Aix, Montpellier, Lille, Bordeaux... etc, etc, etc. Until recently, all students from the colonies - of which France had many scattered across the globe - were governed by the rectorat of Bordeaux and went to college there. Which I always felt was cruel to the sons and daughters of ex-slaves whose ancestors had been sold into slavery by traders right here in Bordeaux.

Be that as it may, I’m off to Bordeaux... to visit friends who used to have a restaurant in Montmartre. An excellent, reasonably-priced and friendly restaurant where I spent an inordinate amount of time and money.
     Thanks to the TGV bullet train (see my previous blog, Take (the) A Train), that trip now takes only three hours to cover a distance of about 500 km (300 miles). Because I arrive during lunch hour, I’m on my own to make my way to their new restaurant, La Guimbarde des Chartrons. It’s in a neighborhood called Les Chartrons because of the Chartreux convent founded there way back when the area was a marsh (think green Chartreuse liqueur). My instructions are to catch the Tram C right in front of the train station. I fight with the tram ticket machine because here - as in the Paris Métro and in the States as well - entry-level jobs such as ticket sales are now performed by machines that don’t ask for raises or apply for overtime or go on strike. Luckily, a not-too-soused panhandler comes up and helps me out, for which I give him a whopping euro, almost as much as the ticket, but hey, who’s counting? He was nice about it and very enterprising.
     The tram makes no noise as we glide along tracks laid into the streets. I’m glad I don’t have to drive in Bordeaux because this system is amazing but it makes it hard to know which part of the street is fair game for cars. It also keeps you on your toes crossing the street/tracks on foot! It’s the first tram system in the world to operate with power provided both from lines overhead and from rails below. An either/or, push-me/pull-me type operation that must have its raison d’être but I’m darned if I know what it is. I stand in the front car so I can watch the driver in his little plexiglass cockpit, safe behind a locked door. I have fun figuring out how it all works. He speeds up or slows down by sliding a handle forward or back as the lights along the tram line go from horizontal (stop) - plus an exclamation point - to vertical (go). So now maybe I can get hired if the writing of books and taking of photos don’t work out for me.
     The tram stop is near the Place du Marché des Chartrons, an octagonal building that used to be the neighborhood farmer’s market but is now a center for cultural events - which is pretty standard recycling of urban structures in French cities. It reminds me quite a bit of the old Les Halles market buildings in Paris that were torn down in the late Sixties. But as Lélia, Gilles and I have a lot of catching up to do - and as they have a large dinner crowd to serve - the rest of Bordeaux will have to wait until tomorrow.

Day 2: I’m not allowed to help set up the restaurant in the morning. Or I’m dispensed of working. Depends on how you look at it. Lunch comes early so that they can be ready for the customers by noon. But after the dust settles, Lélia takes me for a walk in Jardin Public, a huge public garden that didn’t deserve a name of its own, I guess. We sit and have a cup of tea while Tino, their dog, sleeps under the table. Mothers walk by with children, students push bikes, and then I spot something familiar on the pond: Canada geese! Even over here! Then it’s back to the restaurant to get ready for the dinner crowd.
     Not hungry yet, and prodded on by Gilles to see the riverside, I go on a photo safari. He was right in telling me it’s been greatly improved, and even resurrected from the rundown series of warehouses required by its port activities. They’re all gone now - moved further downriver, I believe - replaced by a wide esplanade of garden, cafés and pavement that attracts skaters, bikers and just plain strollers. A perfect place to watch the sun set on the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge), the churches and all the majestic buildings that colonial trade built. The way back to the restaurant is dotted with antiques shops and small bars that seem to focus on the young crowd. The sun goes down and the party starts, at least for some.
Pont de Pierre
Day 3: This is my day to explore the city in depth, because I leave tomorrow around noon. So I help with the setting-up (having watched very carefully yesterday from the sidelines) and the work goes really fast. If the tram-driver job doesn’t work out, I could always have a fall-back job here. Hell, I’d be willing to work for the food alone! So after our early lunch, I take off with my trusty camera.
     Bordeaux has a population of about a quarter of a million and covers quite an area, so I concentrate on the central bit, all within walking distance. After all, I have all day. First stop on my circuit is the tourist office to get a map of the city (as you can in most cities and even towns in France). On the way across the graveled Esplanade des Quinconces - one of the largest squares in France - I stop at a monumental fountain, a tribute to the local Girondins who were moderates during the French Revolution and many were executed as counter-revolutionaries as the blood frenzy took over near its end. The fountain was dismantled by the Germans, the statues melted down to get their 52 tonnes of bronze... and only completely restored in 1983.
     The mademoiselle behind the tourist office counter points me in the direction of the city’s biggest book store - Librairie Mollat - so I can (hopefully) find a book that’s been sold out in Paris. The streets are abuzz with people because most of central Bordeaux is pedestrian; some large streets are open to traffic, but - as in Paris - why would you want a car with such a good mass transit system... and so few places to park?
     Bordeaux still has six monumental gates, most built in the 18th century for show rather than for protection. I pass the Porte Dijeaux (1746) and end up at one of the largest squares in the city, where Church and State seem still to be vying for power. In the middle of the vast square, Cathédrale St. André - most of which dates from the 14th and 15th century but some going back to 1096 - and its separate tower, the flamboyant Gothic Tour Pey-Berland. Facing it, City Hall, where local boy Alain Juppé is still mayor... and also the Foreign Minister of France. Life wasn’t always this rosy for Juppé. In 2004 he was given a suspended sentence for a misuse of public funds - not for his personal enrichment but to promote the political party he represented. Most people feel he "took the rap" for Jacques Chirac. Juppé was elected Mayor of Bordeaux again after his ineligibility time was over, and he has proven a very good mayor indeed. Who knows? One day he may be President himself!
     I wander through the narrow, winding streets of the older section of the city - the part nearer the river - and end up at Eglise St. Pierre, equally old but more intimate by far than the Cathedral. As I come out, I look up and see a guy seemingly suspended in mid-air but actually perched on a tiny balcony, typing away on his laptop. A strange juxtaposition of eras, almost like time travel.
     The sky is still resolutely blue but the shadows are getting longer. It’s time to head back. And what better way to do it than along the river? I exit medieval Bordeaux onto the hugeness of Place de la Bourse, a testimony to the city’s wealth - if any were needed. 
Across from it is a reflecting pool not even an inch deep... just enough to amuse children and photographers alike.
     Although it’s a week-night, there’s plenty of animation along the riverside. On my way back to the restaurant, I pass picnickners, a father playing with his infant son, lovers on park benches - oblivious to the universe - and even in-line skaters practicing tirelessly. It’s nice to see these old docks given over to Life with a capital L. It’s helped me come to terms with this city and its slave trade past.
     I’ll leave Bordeaux tomorrow with a lighter heart and warmer feelings toward this sixth largest city of France. I think that calls for a glass of claret!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the road: Take (the) A Train, or A lesson in French geography and history

There are six train stations in Paris, and each dispatches passengers off in a different direction. Today my station is Montparnasse and the direction is southwest. Destination: Bordeaux, to visit friends who used to have a restaurant around the corner from me in Montmartre.

     Montparnasse is a modern station that replaced the one pictured in this photo (one of my favorite old photos of Paris). It dates from the reign of President Pompidou, a man besotted with all things modern. And as do all French presidents, he put his stamp on Paris with modern buildings such as the Centre Pompidou museum for contemporary art - otherwise known as La Raffinerie because of its resemblance to a refinery tarted out in bright colored tubing on the exterior. He also bequeathed to Paris those parts of the city that are high-rises: Chinatown in the 13è arrondissement, the La Défense business center at the west gate to Paris, and the skyscraper in front of the Montparnasse station, which put a definitive kibosh on any other skyscrapers in the center of Paris.

But back to trains. They’re one of the wonderful things about France. Once upon a time, it might have made sense to take the plane. But since 9/11, security has added layer upon layer upon layer of time-consuming formalities for passengers, taking all the fun out of air travel. France being the size of Texas, it makes more sense to travel from city center to city center, eliminating travel time to and from an airport in the suburbs, as well as time spent running the rat maze of security checks. By train, it used to take five hours to go from Paris to Bordeaux; now, with the TGV bullet train, it takes only 3 hrs. And that’s with the top speed - 300 km/hr (187 mph) - only for the section from Paris to Tours... although the non-bullet speed is still a rollicking 180 km (112 mph). Within four or five years, the entire line will be TGV-ized and the trip will take a mere hour and 50 minutes! And the prices are reasonable as well. What’s not to like?
     The platform is announced on the big departure board and a horde surges forward. The train is complet - full to the last seat, including two priests who are probably headed for Lourdes, which is where half of the train heads after Bordeaux. The other half will continue on to the Spanish border.
     We leave on time and glide through the suburbs and into an ear-popping tunnel. When we emerge at the other end, we’re already in the country. Flat, fertile country called La Beauce - the breadbasket of France - which grows most of the wheat for all those warm, crunchy French baguettes. The first harvest - such as it was in this year of drought - was in June but the second-harvest bales are now rolled up and waiting to be shipped to flour mills.
     Also out the window are wind farms, huge modern windmills that have replaced their humble ancestors and now provide almost 10% of France’s energy needs. That’s not a lot, compared to nuclear energy at 80%, more than any other country in the world. Perhaps someday some modern Gallic Don Quixote will tilt at these towering windmills, but he’d need a very long lance.
     A man appears at the empty seat next to me. He must have almost missed the train and been forced to make his way through all the cars. Then he asks, "Is this seat free?" and it becomes obvious he doesn’t have a reservation; just hopped aboard. So no more double seat for me. He starts making calls on his cell, trying to book a car at his arrival down the line. The rule in French Train Travel is that, if you have to use your phone, you do so in the areas between the cars, where it won’t disturb anyone. He seems not to have gotten the memo. At the nth call, I glare at him. He stares back, oblivious that he’s being a nuisance. Suddenly my nose itches, so I scratch it. He misinterprets the message. Instead of "Hang the damn phone up, fool" he thinks "You have something on your nose" and rubs away an imaginary smudge. At least that makes me smile.
     All the way to Tours, tilled fields - some freshly-seeded with a winter crop - alternate with forests, of which there are many in France. And then we slip into a tunnel running under the valuable Vouvray vineyards. The tunnel was built in spite of the protests of these influential wine-growers who still claim the TGV disturbs their bottles every time it runs below their centuries-old wine cellars.
     Then we cross the Loire, into the "Garden of France", and the landscape changes to orchards and vegetables. I’m always struck by the number of trees farmers leave in their fields. Is it to provide shelter for the birds that they love to hunt and turn into yummy pâté? Or is it for shade after lunch as they work the fields? Or is it just the last remnants of ancient boundaries between neighbors who have moved away or been bought out?
     The train has slowed now, but we’re still traveling at twice the speed of the cars racing us down the road next to the tracks. We cross rolling hills until we reach the narrow gorge (a French word meaning "neck") that announces Poitiers. It was here that the French stopped the Moorish invasion, almost two-thirds of their way across France up the road to conquer Paris. A river crisscrosses back and forth below us, dotted with kayakers.
     There are pockets of industry here all along the tracks, including a car plant with trainloads of automobiles waiting to be shipped to market somewhere. There’s also a faded sign on an apparently abandoned building that says manufacture de chaussures. I doubt if any shoes are still made there, but the factory was ideally located next to the tracks to make shipping to Paris more convenient. It’s a sign of the way things used to be throughout France: goods made in the provinces and then shipped to the capital for sale.
     By noon we’re in Angoulême, with its recognizable citadel on the hill. I once came to this region as interpreter for a Philadelphia journalist covering the extradition of Ira Einhorn, who murdered his girlfriend and then jumped bail to flee the U.S. After barely missing him in Dublin and then Sweden, Interpol tracked him down 17 years later, living the life of a country squire in a tiny village in France. His long trial was held in Bordeaux and I helped cover it, but I haven’t been back to either city since.
     One of the traveling priests heads down the aisle of the train, the cross around his neck brandished high in one hand like a flashlight, as if to say, "Make way for the Lord!" They’re definitely headed for Lourdes, the place of miracles.
     Gradually, as the train rushes farther southward, the landscape changes. Now firmly in the méridionial part of the country, elm and chestnut have given way to scrub oak. The homely houses of the Paris region that first morphed into the lovely white-stone houses of the Loire Valley have now changed again into one-story houses with ruddy Spanish tile roofs. Even the church steeples change as you cross the regions of France. In the Bordeaux region they’re very tall and pencil-sharpener pointed. Each detail of landscape and architecture is a clue to where you are in the country.
     Half an hour out of Bordeaux, my neighbor starts with the cell phone again, this time booking tickets for a winter holiday. He’s becoming quite a bore. I don’t really need to know any more about him, and find him extremely foolish to be giving out his credit card number aloud in a crowded train car. Between these calls and his hogging the armrest between our seats, he has turned out to be a very inconsiderate voyager indeed. I’m glad I’m almost at my destination.
     There’s a long tunnel that smells of centuries of coal dust and diesel from generations of trains. Now all is powered by electricity, which means this could be deemed an atomic train (see above). Then there’s an old section of track that makes the familiar old kaCHUNK-kaCHUNK sound. It’s the last section where track hasn’t been seamlessly welded together on-site, creating a continuous ribbon running from one end of France to the other. It’s a process I know well, having had to translate it back in my professional days. There’s not one single seam to jostle passengers and let cars wiggle back and forth. Which is probably wise, because when a train traveling at 300 km per hour passes another traveling in the opposite direction at 300 km an hour and there’s only about 3 feet between them, the margin of error is extremely narrow.
     After the tunnel, it’s vineyards to the horizon. Then comes a small station with "Pomerol" marked on it. Pomerol is one of the very best Bordeaux wines, and the most expensive of them is the fabled Petrus - $3,000 a bottle. After that, we cross the Dordogne, brown with soil washed down by rainstorms in the mountains. Then the plains all around Bordeaux, created by alluvium from those mountains when the ice of the Ice Age melted.
     Soon comes the Garonne, which starts high up on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and empties into the Atlantic. By the time it reaches Bordeaux, it’s an impressive 500 m wide - five and a half football fields - and deep enough to accommodate sea-going vessels.
The TGV pulls into the station on time and disgorges a stream of passengers while rail workers disconnect the four front cars - destined for the Spanish border - from the other four, off to deliver my two priests to their place of miracles. I walk out into the sun shining benevolently on Bordeaux to find the shiny, sleek new tram waiting. The last leg of my train trip to lunch in the new restaurant of my old Montmartre friends.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is train travel in France.
Gare Saint-Jean, Bordeaux

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On the Road: Giverny without "Giverny"

Some days are just golden.
     This morning I went across the square for a pain au chocolat - again! - and the sky was blue and parents were walking their children uphill to the nursery or downhill to grade school. I sat and watched the French morning show over tea and my pastry. Then one of the segments talked about an exhibit at Giverny in Normandy. Which sounded like a brilliant excursion.
     I’ve visited Monet’s home and garden in Giverny about a dozen times, in all seasons. But each of those times, I was guiding tourists and in a rental car. This time there are no tourists. Only me. I can take as long as I want. And I can take the train, which I’ve never done. There’s one about every hour from the Gare St. Lazare, the train station Monet and other Impressionists painted. How very fitting, I think. And it’s a straight shot from my Métro stop. So I’m off, nez au vent as the French say. My nose in the wind (a sailing term).
     The train trip takes only 45 minutes, with one stop. Usually. On this occasion, we also stop a second time - for half an hour - because the train in front of ours has broken down. That gives me ample time to get to know the people sitting next to me. As usual, I initiate things. I point at the lady’s flowered scarf and say, "You’re going to Giverny." She asks how I knew. They’re Irish. And delightful. It starts raining. Things are looking bad: rain and a stalled train. What next? We keep our spirits up by talking for the "indeterminate lapse of time" announced by the train conductor over the PA. Finally the train starts up again and we make it to Vernon, where the shuttle bus stands waiting in front of the station. We pay our €4 for a round-trip ticket and the chatty driver delivers us to the village of Giverny. (There’s a bus waiting to meet every train, so you don’t have to worry about connections.) I point my new Irish friends toward Monet’s house-and-garden-and-lily-pond and we say our good-byes. Delightful people. Did I say that already?
Given that it’s almost noon, I’m feeling peckish. I’ve often heard and read about Hôtel Baudy, the living quarters of the American artist colony that formed around Monet, and which included John Singer Sargent and Theodore Butler. Although it hasn’t been a hotel for some time, it still serves meals, so off I go. First things first. Art can wait. I have all afternoon.
     Vincent, the waiter, seats me on the terrace and takes my order with a smile: an omelette Baudy (with potatoes and duck confit), some slices of tomato and cucumber on the side, a glass of chinon rouge and a carafe of water. When my food arrives, I think I’m back in the States. The omelette takes up the whole plate!
     "How many eggs are in this?" I ask Vincent.
     "Three," he replies.
     "Good Lord, how big are your chickens?!" I exclaim.
     In spite of my hunger and the beautiful weather and the deliciousness of it all, there is no way I can make it through the omelette, but I do my best. Vincent chides me: "If you don’t finish it, I’ll have to tack on a supplement. Or call the chef out here." I placate him by ordering an Earl Grey tea, which arrives in a delightful white china teapot all of its own.
     After lunch I take a peek at the studio in the garden, built by the Baudys for their artist boarders. The much-famed rose garden is past its prime in September, but some roses are still holding on and the garden is amazing in the intricate use made of the hillside. The garden seems much bigger than it is, offering secluded spots that are really only just around the corner from one another. And it feels much as it must have felt one hundred years ago.
     Then I take a walk through the village. There are still artists and art galleries. And bicyclists pedaling through town to some destination or another, most speaking in foreign tongues (i.e. not French). I stop to read the information signs the town has put up in front of all the historic houses to explain who lived and painted where and when.

There’s also a little Norman-style church where Monet is buried. It’s easy to find his grave. It’s covered - planted - with flowers, identical to his garden. And he’s buried with most of the members of his family, although the cross above it all is for Suzanne Butler, Monet’s step-daughter and wife of American Impressionist Theodore Butler, who also paid to restore the organ inside the 15th century church.
     The village itself is a strange mix. All the turmoil is down at one end, around Monet’s house and garden. The rest of the village is left to its 500-odd residents, not all of whom are artists. (A gendarme’s van is parked outside one home.) It has a few galleries and one antique shop and a real estate agent, but no place to do your food shopping. A few houses date back to the Middle Ages but most were built in the 19th century. And flowers are everywhere, as is birdsong and cricket-chirp.
Having walked the length of the village, I decide it’s time to focus on the reason for my trip out here in the first place - the Clark Collection: From Manet to Renoir. It’s on loan to what used to be the Musée d’Art Américain founded by Daniel Terra in 1992 to "explore the historic and aesthetic connections between French and American artists", and so was heavy on Impressionists - thus the choice of Giverny. Unfortunately for the museum, it more or less died with Terra in 1996, barely hanging on for another decade. Luckily it was taken over in 2006 by local authorities, working with the Musée d’Orsay Impressionist museum in Paris. This season it’s hosting an impressive (pun intended) collection of some 70 paintings built up by Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and his wife Francine. They were particularly fond of Renoir - which accounts for why there are 20 of his works - but there are also paintings by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas and many others.
     The museum is a beautiful piece of architecture in and of itself - three different levels set into the hillside, windows near the ceiling and only facing north, as an artist’s studio would be. The floor is of honey-colored wood and walls are painted in one different bright color for each level, colors that set off the artwork. Although he lived in the house at the corner of my street in Montmartre, I’m not a particular fan of Renoir - largely because his women are always overly ruddy-faced. But these works of his are from his earlier period and my favorite is Venice, the Doge’s Palace (1881), with blue sky and water in feathery strokes. Monet’s Geese in the Brook (1874) is a precursor of his later white turkey canvas yet a style a bit apart from his usual. Moss Roses in a Vase (1882) by Manet manages to look like the flowers were just arranged in fresh water a minute ago. But for me, both ears and the tail go to Berthe Morisot for The Bath, showing a pale young woman, her arms upstretched, tying her hair in a knot, unaware we’re all staring at her. She seems so frail, as if Life hasn’t dealt her (m)any hard blows yet. That’s only my impression, but that’s what Impressionism is, isn’t it?
     After the museum, it’s time to start back to Paris. I have no idea what time it is because I don’t wear a watch. Judging by the shadows, it’s probably around 5:00. I head back to the drop-off point, hoping there’ll be a shuttle bus in my not-too-distant future. When I come around the corner, there it is... with just enough room for a few more of us, standing in the aisle. In only five minutes we’re back at the station, with a train announced in only half an hour. Enough time to buy a bottle of water, which is good because it’s turned out to be a warm, sunny day and I’ve not only got a bit of a tan but also a parched throat. As I sit on the platform, who should round the corner but my Irish friends. It appears they were somewhere on that same bus. And now we cement our friendship during the ride back to Paris - no stopping on the tracks this time. We say good-bye - again - in the Métro, with cheek-kisses all around and promises to keep in touch.
     Sunshine, fresh air, good food, fine art and new friends. Plus a piece of Impressionist art of my own that I bought at one of the galleries in Giverny. A bit of today to mount on my wall.
     Yes, it’s been a golden day.

Musée des Impressionismes
99, rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny
July 12 to October 31 from 10 am to 6 pm
Entrance fee: € 6.50 and 4.50

Hôtel Baudry
81, rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny
Aprul 1 to November 1 for lunch and dinner
More information:
American art colony in Givernywww.vernon-visite.org/rgb3/colony_giverny.htm