After two weeks in Paris, I had seen just about enough giant tan buildings for a lifetime, and was ready to go anywhere where green grass and trees weren’t used primarily as smoking spots. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the city. Exploring around the city was an endless series of surprises and shocks where I seemed to find a new wacky attraction around every corner, all while marauding with a rotating cast of shockingly open new friends all of whom I met at my hostel. All the same, I always find myself craving open air and mountaintops after a few weeks in a concrete jungle. My venture into the Norman countryside, where Claude Monet had drawn inspiration was a much appreciated, and much needed, getaway.
On my last full day in Paris, I finally planned out my trip to Giverny (by necessity more than anything), and planned on catching a train out at 11:40am. My girlfriend (who was visiting me from Cambridge, UK for the weekend) Segan and I had rented rollerblades for a midnight cruise around the city the evening before, so we had to return them to the shop before we could go anywhere else. Not wanting to waste any time in the possession of rollerskates (one never should), we decided to rollerblade from our AirBnB in the far North of the city all the way down to the shop in Place de la Bastille, roughly at the North-West middle of Paris near the River Seine. Although we were rolling along at a hot pace for a mile or so, aided by a shortcut one of my mistakes had fortuitously taken us on, we eventually ended up far off track thanks to my refusal to use directions (I stick to my principles!).
After weaving our way through some narrow streets, we arrived at the rollerskate shop about 30 minute later than we’d hoped, and had to scramble through two metro connections to make it the main train station on time. With 5 minutes to spare, we successfully wrangled our tickets from the machine and slid onto the train, ankles still sore from bobbing and weaving between Parisian mopeds all morning.
Arriving in Vernon, the small town where most trips to the smaller village of Giverny start, we continued the wheels theme of the day (and my life), by immediately renting two bikes from a shop we spotted just across from the station. Because I had inadvertently starved us all day, as usual, we headed downtown to grab lunch. The main square was everything I could ask for in a village: old, cobblestone streets, a local farmers market, ancient buildings packed close together (walkability off the charts!) and stores that all seemed to end in “erie.” (Think Boulangerie, Patisserie, Boucherie, Epicerie, etc., etc,) Segan and I walked into a local diner that made me love the town even more.
In almost every tiny New England town that I’ve traveled to for ski races, there’s one classic diner where all the local old men gather on Sunday mornings to exchange stories from the previous week on the farm. That strength of long-lasting community is one of the most important aspects of the kind of society I’d like to see in the world. Apparently France’s small towns follow the same tradition, as the diner was full of old French people who joyfully bantered with each other and all seemed to know the server by name. Having checked off all my initial aesthetic boxes, I headed out toward the Seine to see what else the village had to offer.
The riverbank offered one of the most stunning dioramas I had seen in a long time, especially as my isolation from nature had sharpened my thirst for fine and fertile country. Steep long ridges framed both banks of the Seine, and sharp white cliffs jutted out towards the town on the opposite side. Claude Monet’s home in Giverny is five miles upstream of Vernon, so we biked along a packed-gravel (a stellar surface) trail along the river’s edge until we arrived.
We made a beeline through the hordes of tourists to the first attraction I had to check off for the day, the House and Gardens of Claude Monet. While the dense flower gardens and in-house studios were gorgeous, what really blew me away was the water lily-pond that was the subject of Monet’s last twenty years of painting. Gazing at the weeping willows overhanging the flowering water and narrow Japanese bridge, I began to understand, for maybe the first time in my life, why someone would want to paint the same nature scene hundreds of times in a row.
After the garden, Segan and I took a brief stroll through the Musée des Impressionnismes, which was nice but easily overshadowed by the ensuing beauty when we got caught in a sudden downpour while unlocking our bikes from under a tree. Somehow, the hearty tree that we had chosen was thick enough to keep us dry. Full of impressionist natural appreciation, I was touched by how gracefully nature had rushed to my defense.
Leaving Giverny to return to the train station, the only thought in my mind was the white cliff I had seen overhanging town on the way over. When I see a cliff like that, so invitingly overlooking a wide river, lush green countryside, and an ancient village, no power on earth or Mt. Olympus can stop me from trying to get to the top. After a few wrong turns, I found a road the hill that eventually T-ed into a gated dirt road leading into the woods. Stooping under the gate (pretty sure it was legal!), I grinded my rental townie bike to the top and, lo and behold, I was at the top of my dreamt of cliff. Looking over the wide valley with its small, red-roofed houses, I remembered reading the famous Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville declare the Mississippi Valley to be “the finest habitation ever created for man.” With the view I had in front of me, I wasn’t sure why the de Tocqueville ever wanted to leave home. If I was to be dropped naked anywhere in the world in the year 10,000 B.C.E. (a question I consider strangely often) , the Seine river Valley would undoubtedly be my abode of choice.
Sucking in every last breath of the view, Segan and I stayed as late as we possibly could on the tranquil mountain top, before zipping down the hill in seven minutes and making it on our train back to the bustle of Paris with just a minute to spare.
Will often finds himself confused and disoriented in dangerous situations and usually, joyfully stumbles his way out. His one cool story describes the time his Subaru broke down in the Utah desert and he was forced to spend three days camping out in a junkyard until a distant friend gave him a free 1995 GMC Safari van. Nothing has gone wrong in Switzerland and Paris just yet, but he has all his muscles braced for an escape effort. Outside of frolicking around the merry world, Will likes skiing, mountain biking, and reading. He studies Social Studies and would like you to know that is a very important and meaningful subject.