Saturday, July 21, 2018

Giverny, France: Monet's Gardens

On a recent stay in Paris, my son and I took a side trip to Giverny, where Monet's home and gardens are located. Like many others, I have often dreamed of visiting the gardens where Monet spent most of his later years, creating the water lily paintings that have become so well-known and loved around the world. Even though our excursion turned into a bit of a nightmare, I was able to capture some lovely photos of this popular tourist destination.

(Be sure to click on the photos for a larger image!)

One of the famous lily ponds at Giverny.
Getting to the gardens involves taking a train, then a bus, followed by a short walk. We chose a Monday for our excursion, hoping to avoid the weekend crowds, unaware that it was a French national holiday. We had envisioned a day spent leisurely walking amidst the gardens and lily ponds of Monet's home. Instead, we found ourselves among hundreds of other tourists, including numerous French people on holiday.

When we arrived at Gare St. Lazare in Paris at 9 a.m. to get the train to Vernon, we discovered that there were only a few trains running that day (due to the holiday and ongoing train strikes), and the earliest one wasn't until noon. Not only that, but the only return train from Vernon would be at 6 p.m., giving us a short time to enjoy the gardens. (It takes about an hour to get to Vernon, then another 20 minutes to get the bus from Vernon to travel time is at least 2 hours each way, considering wait times, etc.) Little did we know that other obstacles would intrude to shorten our time even more. Rather than stand around the train station for several hours, we walked over to Galleries Lafayette and Printemps, two Parisian malls that have magnificent stained glass domes at their center. I'll be sharing photos of them in another post.

First view of  Monet's garden.
Once on the train, we were elated that the weather was perfect that day, with temps in the 70's, accompanied by blue skies and plump white clouds skittering around. Arriving in Vernon near 1 p.m. we quickly realized that most of the people on the train were also headed for Giverny, and four huge buses were lined up to transport all of us from the train station to the gardens. We were still in high spirits, though it took precious time to load everyone onto the buses. It's also possible to rent bikes in Vernon and bike to Giverny, and we might have gone that route if we'd had the entire day, as we had hoped. But given the shortened time frame, we joined the masses traveling by bus.

Jesse walking towards the entrance to the gardens.
Upon arriving in Giverny, we had another 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the garden entrance, where we discovered a line with hundreds of people waiting to get in. Thinking that the line would shorten after everyone from the buses was admitted, we opted to walk down the road to have lunch. We found a lovely restaurant with an outdoor terrace and feasted on galettes, though we ate quickly and weren't able to fully enjoy the meal or the view. In fact, I left Jesse there and returned to the line, hoping to save some time.

Alas, the line was no shorter than when we had left it, and we ended up waiting nearly ninety minutes to gain admission to the gardens. People were admitted one at a time, as there was only one person selling admission tickets, so the going was very slow. We were getting anxious by then, considering that we had less than an hour to view the gardens and get back to the parking lot at 5:10 p.m. for the bus ride back to the train station. If we missed that bus, we would be stuck in the area overnight, with little chance of finding lodging in the already overbooked towns of Vernon and Giverny.

Lovely flowers in bloom.
We finally entered the gardens after 4 p.m. and made our way quickly through it, unable to stop and enjoy most of what we were seeing. Fortunately, many flowers were in bloom, and bursting with color and beauty all around us. The famous lily ponds were across a road, and we went through a tunnel under the road to reach them. With so many people, it created a bottleneck, slowing down the crowds to get everyone through.  But it was certainly worth the wait! White wisteria blossoms covered one of the bridges, and the majestic weeping willows swayed over the lily ponds. In addition, the lighting was good for taking photos at that time of day.

White wisteria covering a bridge.

Wisteria up close.
I have read numerous books about Monet's life at Giverny, and would have loved to have the chance to sit and savor the views of his gardens.  I had hoped for a serene experience among the flowers, trees and lily ponds, instead of the rushed, Disneyland-type tourist event that we experienced. But at least we made it there! I know of others who visited during the early spring or fall when there were no crowds, but also no flowers in bloom, so we also lucked out in that respect.

One of the lily ponds, with weeping willow. 
We didn't have time to see Monet's house or to peruse the goods in the gift shop. As it was, we got to the bus just in time to head back to the train station. And then the train was late...and since it was the last train to Paris that evening, the train station was quickly crowded with people hoping to take it. Since it was the end of a three-day weekend for the French, they added a considerable number to the crowds needing to return to Paris. We had to shove our way into the train, and Jesse and I ended up standing like sardines in the space between the train cars.

Love those colors!
But then, a miracle happened. After about 10 minutes, the glass door of the train car opened, and a woman motioned me in. Everyone was chattering in French, trying to tell me something. Me? I didn't understand why, but they were urging me to take a seat in the middle of the car, that a young man was giving up.  I have ridden standing up on numerous trains and buses on my travels, and could have managed this one for the 60 minutes to Paris, but I guess I was the oldest person standing in that group, and welcomed the chance to sit down. I was so touched by the consideration of the French people, who waved me in and had to squeeze together while I passed by, that it brought tears to my eyes. Needless to say, I had a comfortable, pleasant return to Paris.

I would definitely recommend this excursion to others, with the caveat that it's not wise to travel on a French national holiday or when there are train strikes. Plan to go when the flowers are blooming and make sure you will have at least 3-4 hours to enjoy the gardens and other areas of Monet's home.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Spello, Italy: L'Infiorata

A view of the Umbrian landscape from Spello.
I've been traveling again, finally, after a long spell. This time I didn't bring my computer along, so I'll be writing most of my posts once I return home, where I will also be able to access photos from my digital camera. It's a laborious process trying to create posts on my tablet, so most of them will come later. And photos taken on my phone will have to suffice.

I traveled with my son for 16 days: ten were spent in Paris, and six in Italy. Now Jesse has returned to the States, and I have ten days to explore some new sights on my own in Italy. I came to Spello for the annual celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, L'infiorata, which takes place on the 9th Sunday after Easter.

Traveling with Jesse was a departure from my usual mode of going it alone. We were both eager to explore Paris in more detail than previous visits, and I had the chance to share Italy with him for the first time. The pace of traveling with him was a challenge for me, as we walked 8-10 hours (sometimes more!) almost every day, and we were out late many nights, which is not my usual travel habit. But we crammed in a lot of rich experiences during our time together. Staying in Spello will give me a chance to process the previous weeks, relax, recover, and write.

The first mention of the Infiorata was recorded in 1831, and paintings of the celebration started appearing in the early 1900's. Designs made with flower petals, leaves and herbs cover the village streets, creating a carpet of beauty along the winding, sometimes steep passages.

A design is laid down on the street, beneath a protective structure.
It was exciting to watch the Spellani at work on their flower creations. Groups of children and adults pulled or cut fresh flowers, separating the colors to fit the design. About 15 million flowers of nearly 65 different species are collected. Petals from different flowers are used either fresh or dried to obtain a wider palette.

More than 2,000 people of all ages are involved. During the "Night of Flowers", they might work 14 hours to complete the carpets.

Work on the designs began in the evening, and continued through the night on many of the more elaborate ones.

At sunrise, more than 60 floral creations ranging from 15 to 70 square meters cover the streets of the historical center of Spello. Soon after, a religious procession passes on the flower carpet, reminding the observers of the ephemeral beauty of the Infiorata.

The finished design.
On Sunday morning, crowds of tourists, mostly Italians, started arriving about 8.a.m. I had been warned to get out early, so I went out at 5:30 a.m., only to find that quite a few of the larger pieces were still being worked on. I went back out at 8:30, found the streets crowded and nearly all of the work complete. The designs are judged according to a variety of criteria, including age group, creativity and elaboration. A religious theme is always present.

The course of the Infiorata started at the bottom of the village, then wound around the steep streets to the highest point, and back down to a medium point. Though I walked most of the course, I found even more designs later in the day that I had missed earlier. My photos don't do justice to the designs, as it was difficult to get the right angle to capture the long or wide creations.

Misting the flower petals to keep them fresh.
By the afternoon, the carpets of flowers were drying out, and the crowds started to diminsh. By evening, street cleaning machines were whisking away all traces of the beauty and creativity that was evident only a few hours previously. I feel privileged to have had ths chance to witness Spello's Infiorata: it was well worth the journey to get here.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pre-Paris: By the Books

For me, travel is all about learning. Language, culture, history, art, literature, music, food....these topics and more all come into play when I make travel plans. Preparing for a trip abroad can start months or even years in advance, as I do research to learn more about my destination so I can make the most of my travels. For an upcoming visit to Paris, my preparations began more than a year ago, reading accounts of the lives of Impressionist artists whose art will be a focus of my stay. Monet, Renoir, Manet, Rodin, Degas, Cassat, Morisot all figured prominently in my research. I whiled away the winter months absorbed in accounts of their lives, through both historical fiction and non-fiction books, some of which I will list at the end of this post. Though I previously visited Paris in 2012, this visit will be devoted to zeroing in on specific areas of the city that I want to explore.

More recently, I've turned to blogs and memoirs written by people who live in Paris for my research, as well as more general fiction, even some chick lit titles, that take place in Paris. One of the most interesting books I've read recently is one by Liam Callanan, previously known for his novel-turned-movie, Cloud Atlas. His new novel, Paris by the Book, is an inventive rendition of the ever popular "American adjusts to life in Paris" saga. In the process of reading the novel I was introduced to several other iconic books and an area of the city, usually forsaken by tourists, that I hope to explore while I'm there.

Rather than go into the plot of Callanan's book (which I wholeheartedly recommend), I'll mention the children's books that are integral to the storyline: the Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans, and The Red Balloon, by Albert Lamorisse, which later became an award winning 1956 short film. Though I read the Madeline books as a child, and have vague recollections of The Red Balloon story, revisiting them as a guide to my upcoming travels has been a playful and enlightening approach.

I also learned about the Menilmontant quartier of Paris, which is the setting for the Lamorisse film. Located between Montmartre and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, it is largely untraveled by tourists, but is said to provide some awesome vistas. You  can view the Lamorisse film via these links:

Red Balloon,  original, grainy version and soundtrack

Red Balloon  superior, restored version, but lousy music 

Another series of books that take place in Paris was inspired by a real-life event in 2010 when a Paris apartment was discovered after being abruptly abandoned by its owner for 70 years. At least four different authors have used this scenario to create works of fiction, each unique in its cast of characters and plot, while using the real story as background. I've read most of these books, some better than others: the first two capture more of the facts behind the real story, but all of them are entertaining. For an account of the true story behind the books, use this link:
Lavish Paris apartment untouched for 70 years

The books:
The Velvet Hours - Alyson Richman
The Paris Apartment - Michelle Gable
The Paris Secret - Karen Swan
Paris Time Capsule; From a Paris Balcony - Ella Carey

I could go on and on about the treasure trove of books about Paris, but instead, I encourage your own research on the topic. Here's hoping the titles I've provided in this post will get you started on that journey. Enjoy!

Book list, about artists:
Claude and Camille - Stephanie Cowell (Monet)
Mad Enchantment - Ross King (Monet)
Girl in the Afternoon - Serena Burdick  (Manet)
Paris Red - Maureen Gibbon (Manet and his muse)
Impressionist Quartet - Jeffrey Myers (Manet, Morisot, Degas, Cassat)
The Painted Girls - Cathy Marie Buchanan (Degas models)
Luncheon of the Boating Party - Susan Vreeland  (Renoir)
Naked Came I - David Weiss (Rodin)
You Must Change Your Life - Rachel Corbett (Rilke and Rodin)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Dream of Italy

I recently learned of a new tv show devoted to travel in Italy, which gives free access to their programs online. I watched a few episodes on PBS, then found their website, which features all of the episodes for viewing. So far there are two seasons of episodes, showing some regions of Italy that are often overlooked.

Check it out!              Dream of Italy