Paris, have a new attraction in the form of Le Jardin des Plumes hotel, a mere 10 minutes walk from the gardens.
The gardens at Giverny are easy to reach; if you’re driving from Paris, it’ll take about an hour, whereas if you take the train from the Gare St-Lazare to Vernon, it’s a 45 minutes journey. Then
you have to take a 15 minute bus transfer. It’s all too easy to reach the gardens, which are open from the end of March until the beginning of November.
Monet lived in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926 and apart from the many delights of the water-based gardens, you can also see such gems as his original studio. Nearby is the Musée des Impressionists, which replaced the Musée d’Art Americain in 2009.
There’s only one snag with the gardens at Giverny; they are an absolute magnet for tourists, who pack the place all summer, helped by numerous cruise ship passengers from ships that have docked in
one of the Normandy ports. In fact, so many tourists descend on Giverny, about half a million a year, that the whole exercise is self-defeating. However, there’s one way to beat the tourist scrum: explore the gardens as soon as they open in the morning. With this new hotel, this can be done very easily, since it’s only a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the gardens, an ideal stroll after breakfast.
The new hotel is the creation of a local chef, Eric Guérin, who already owns an hotel on the Atlantic coast of France. He has turned a 1912 manor house into a sumptuous hotel, a charming place to stay, and not too expensive, either. The room rate runs from €180 to €320 a night.
Talking about sumptuous places to stay reminds me of the glorious summer of 1976, when a heatwave scorched much of western Europe in June and July that year. It was a wonderful time, recreated briefly in Ireland last week when we had a week of true summer weather. Anyway during that summer of ‘76, my wife and I were on one of our frequent visits to the Champagne region, guided by a great friend, Colonel Francois Bonal. He was a great character, who had given great service to the French nation during the dark days of World War II. After retiring from military service, he found a new occupation that was much to his taste, in charge of the publicity for the Champagne Growers’ Association in Épernay. He was a great raconteur and in the best French tradition, a great womaniser. He was also a prolific author and wrote several definitive and massive works on the history of Champagne, which we still have at home. He was also a great traveller and well into his 80s,we would have cards or letters from him, sent from all kinds of obscure places round the world. He died in 2003, but we still have fond memories of his enthusiasm for life and in particular, the world of Champagne.
On that particular trip in 1976,we stayed in the Royal Champagne hotel, which is about eight km outside Épernay. It’s the last word in luxury and the guest rooms are particularly pleasant, almost like town house apartments, looking out on the endless vineyards. The hotel is very historic; just
over 200 years ago, any time Napoléon and his entourage were on their way to Reims, this was where they stayed. It was also where we set a personal drinking record. One night at dinner, having been told by our hosts that we could have whatever we liked, three of us, my wife, myself and a wine trade journalist from Glasgow, got through nine bottles of Champagne, followed up by large brandies
each, just to top things off. Yet next morning, when the sun was already blazing hot at 9am, we were out in the vineyards, totally unfazed by our boozy experience the previous night.
Épernay itself is a pleasant town, more agreeable to walk round than the larger Reims. The star attractions of Epernay include of course several Champagne cellars, including most notably those of Moet and Chandon. Other sights not too far from the town include the famous Verzenay
windmill, from where there are panoramic views of the vineyards. But I must admit, even though the classy Champagne cellars are a sight to behold, a visit to a small, artisanal Champagne house in a small village near Épernay was much more interesting, because of the great characters we met, not least the man who ran the place and treated the workers like family. But during that trip, one note jarred. We were taken on a tour round the great cathedral of Reims and we felt very discommoded because a funeral was going on at the same time. We felt as if we were intruding, unwisely, in an event that was deeply personal for the people attending and it highlighted the stupidity of so much present day mass
tourism, an idiotic and vacuous pursuit.
Still, France always managed to keep producing something new, as in the brand new museum that has just been opened by the waterfront in Marseilles. It has an unlovely acronym that sounds like something you’d clear from your nose, MuCEM, short for the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean. The modern glass fronted design of the museum is absolutely breathtaking and from the top of the museum, you can take a walkway across to the historic Fort St Jean and then on into the city itself. While all the experts have praised the design of the museum, some critics have been less kind about the way the museum, which cost €191 million to build, is organised. However, one small section devoted to photographs of cities in the region it covers that have been shattered in recent history sounds most interesting. It includes Smyrna in 1922, Barcelona from 1936 until
1939, Marseilles in 1943, Jerusalem in 1948, Algiers in 1962 and within the past two decades, Sarajevo and Beirut.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual in France, in other words, President Hollande has put his both feet in it again. The other day, on the first French presidential trip to Japan since 1996, he managed to call the Japanese people Chinese, not wise, considering the long enmity between the two countries. But then, he’s not alone. On a recent trip to Paris, German Chancellor greeted the French President, calling him Francois Mitterand!
Talking about presidents, I heard a story the other day about a former Irish president, Mary Robinson, who devotes so much of her time to the developing world. She’s a remarkable woman, but an impeccable source told me that from the variety of official jobs she’s had over the years in Ireland, she now manages to collect no less than five pensions! Great work if you can get it.
On the subject of extravagance, I was intrigued by the fact that the Greek government has just closed down the ERT, the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, describing it as a haven of waste. The plan is to eventually reform it into a much small smaller organisation. The old ERT employed about 2,800 people, not dissimiliar to the numbers employed in RTÉ, the State broadcaster in Ireland. If it too was closed down, how many people would really miss it? To many people, its radio and television output is almost totally irrelevant to their everyday lives. The place is really a glorified State-sponsored job creation scheme. When analogue TV was turned off last October, we didn’t bother updating to digital. However, with the advent of the dark winter nights not all that far off, our thoughts are turning once again to having a television, providing of course we have multi-channel access to such channels as Channel 4 and BBC Four, which do seem to produce a variety of interesting
programmes. Sadly,in the months since last October, there hasn’t been one programme on either of RTÉ’s two television channels that we feel any sense of deprivation in not having been able to watch. So maybe the Greeks have the right idea!
All of which brings me to the places in France that we’ve least liked and there are just one or two. We hated Le Puy-en-Loire, in the Haute-Loire department. True, it has some fine buildings, like the 12th century cathedral and the tiny chapel perched high up on a pinnacle of rock, but I think that it’s overwhelming religiosity told against it. Another place we though was absolutely ghastly was Ales in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, 40 km north-west of Nimes. It was once a big place for mining and metal-bashing industries, but our only amusing memory of it is of the guesthouse where we stayed. The curtains had to be kept drawn all day, because of the heat of the sun, and the loo in our suite
was perched high up on a kind of throne, so that we literally felt we were sitting on the throne! Mind you, Nimes, even though it’s chock full of Roman ruins, such as the great ampitheatre, still used for bull fighting and concerts, and the Maison Carrée, one of the best preserved Roman temples
anywhere, it just didn’t appeal. Nimes has other attractions, too, like Les Quais de la Fontaine, embankments to the spring that provided most of the city’s water, and which were turned into the first civic gardens in France, way back in 1738. Nimes also has the 1986 Norman Foster-designed Carré d’Art, a museum of modern art.
Nimes has made many contributions to history and heritage, not least the fact that the word denim is derived from the Serge de Nimes textiles that were once made here. Yet despite all its history, we just couldn’t get to like Nimes, so it has gone on our fortunately very short list of place we can’t stand
in France. However, one of the great ancient architectural wonders of France, the Pont du Gard aqueduct, is a mere 20 km distant from the city, so that is sufficient consolation.
Just as I’m concluding this blog, the sun has re-emerged. Who knows, perhaps after all, we may have a summer that may challenge that of 1976, although I can’t promise to emulate that earlier
Champagne drinking epic!