Category Archives: Explore Europe

Francois I at Chambord: Builder, Hunter and Salamander King

Francois I, after Jean Clouet, Public Domain

King Francois I was twenty-five years old when he inherited the French throne in 1515. He was more than ready, having sat in on royal councils for several years beforehand. After a military victory in which he claimed the Duchy of Milan, there was a brief period of peace between 1517 and 1520.

What was a young king to do? Tour France with his mother, of course. He and his mom, Louise de Savoie, were enjoying their tour when Francois received word that his wife, Queen Claude, had given birth to their first son in Amboise. Susan Abernethy has a very interesting post about Queen Claude’s trying royal life on her blog

thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/10/02/claude…

Detail from “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” unknown painter circa 1545, my photo taken at Hampton Court Palace

Francois was a contemporary of King Henry VIII of England, who of course was unable to produce a legitimate male heir. The two kings met twice, once at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and again in 1532 when Francois tried to help Henry VIII get permission from Rome to marry Ann Boleyn.

There was already a lodge on the royal hunting grounds at Chambord. But Francois dreamed of a really grand hunting lodge, and as a wealthy and energetic young king he had the wherewithal to make it happen.

“Francois I Kills a Wild Boar,” Alexandre Menjaud, 1827, my photo of Chambord painting

Early in his reign, Francois amused himself and the court by setting a wild boar loose in the courtyard of Chateau Amboise during a birthday celebration. Naturally the beast furiously tried to escape. The young king dispatched it with “un coup d’epee” (one stroke of his sword.) Everybody applauded. Three centuries later, in 1827, Charles X commissioned a painting to commemorate the feat of his ancestor. (To a modern eye, that feat looks like shooting fish in a barrel, but clearly Francois’s subjects loved it–especially the ladies).

Francois naturally made his mark with changes to existing chateaux like Amboise and Blois, but he wanted to build his own, from the ground up. And he took on a real challenge. The hunting grounds he chose were swampy and far from any road. He had no intention of actually living there–he just wanted to design his own chateau as a place to get away from it all. (He most likely spent only about 70 days at Chambord in all the years he owned the place). He (and subsequent kings) constantly expanded the hunting grounds until the estate was about the size of the inner city of Paris.

The castle itself ended up with over four hundred rooms and over two hundred fireplaces–way more than Francois I and his “little band” of hunting buddies needed for their getaways. But Francois always intended magnificence. In fact, placards and the guidebook explain that the very building–which Francois had a hand in designing–was intended as a sort of heavenly vision of what monarchy ought to be.

In the overwhelming magnificence of the place, the floor plan is not readily apparent. But the floor plan was important, and was never changed by subsequent kings even as they added their own ideas. The central keep is in the form of a Greek cross, with a spectacular skylit staircase at the center: a sort of new Jerusalem, a vision of what divine kingship should be.

The staircase is the first thing a visitor sees inside the chateau on the ground floor.

It’s a double helix, and legend (plus some documentation) has it that Leonardo da Vinci designed it. Francois did bring the aging genius to Amboise to live out his last years at Clos Luce, a mansion just down the road from one of Francois’s main homes, Chateau d’Amboise.

From the ground floor, a central open shaft rises all the way to the rooftop tower.

Way up on the rooftop, big windows form a “lantern” that lets daylight flood the space.

Two courtiers could start at the bottom of the staircase and go all the way to the top without seeing each other. (One can imagine the potential for aristocratic hijinks).

Courtiers could play peekaboo, which no visitor today can resist doing.

Francois I took the salamander as his personal emblem, and it’s impossible to walk through any of his castles without seeing salamanders everywhere. But wait, that salamander is breathing fire like a dragon!

Photo by Scott Camazine, English Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

It doesn’t look like the humble little garden animal I’m familiar with. And the garden animal is not what Francois had in mind. In a delightful blog post, Julianne Douglas explains why Francois chose this little amphibian. Dating back to ancient times, the salamander was believed to be able to live in flames and to put out fires by the coldness of its body.

Francois added the motto “Nutrisco et extinguo,” a Harry Potter-esque way of saying “I nourish and I extinguish.” Fire destroys, but it also lights and warms. So Francois, Renaissance man that he was, aimed to be the king who could conquer fire itself: thriving on the good things and stamping out the bad.

Julianne’s post is at http://writingren.blogspot.com/2009/10/salamander-in-chief.html

Guess what Francois’s favorite letter was? “F,” of course.

Chambord has endless ceilings with Francois’s favorite decor. In fact, every building that he occupied was soon plastered with the letter “F” and salamanders on every imaginable surface.

When nobles built their own chateaux during Francois’s time, they added salamanders in his honor. The fireplace above, at the enchanting chateau of Azay-le-Rideau, is an example.

The rooftop of Chambord is like a regal mini- city in itself–a fantastical collection of towers and turrets and whatnot.

The rooftop must have been Party Central back in the day, a place where courtiers could watch the progress of the hunt while playing hide-and-seek with each other. Then as now, a visitor could get lost in the magnificence. Notice the tiny people peering over the edge of the railing?

Chambord has plenty of luxurious furnished rooms, but somehow it has a much more outdoorsy feel than other chateaux. It feels breezy and open in spring (and no doubt drafty and chilly in winter).

Today, people enjoy themselves in the vast grounds: boats, bikes and golf carts stand at the ready. Sporty King Francois I would probably be pleased.

Sources for this article are the guidebook above and various placards in the chateau, many of which are in French. One more reason to improve my language skills! There’s also an excellent video presentation in one of the first chateau rooms, fortunately with decent English subtitles on one screen.

Learning Languages: Do You Duolingo?

One of my proudest travel memories is the time in Paris that a local asked me, in French, for directions. I directed her! In French! With words as well as flailing hand gestures! It was to a place I had just been, and I summoned up the words from somewhere in my high school memory (thank you, Madame Newton!)

Another time, I was walking along a Parisian street and fell instantly in love with a dog that looked very much like a fox (my favorite animal, the animal I’m happiest to see outside my house, my spirit animal). Was there possibly a French breed of dog that looked just like a fox? I had a long conversation with the woman on the other end of the dog’s leash. Her English as about as good as my very-elementary French, but we concluded that her lovely little dog was a mutt, one-of-a-kind, “particuliere.”

On my most recent trip to France, I rented a house in Chenonceaux from a lovely man who wrote me perfect emails in answer to all my questions. But when I finally met him, it turned out he knew way less English than I knew French. He carried a smartphone, and asked me to type my questions into his Google Translate app. He was very nice, and I’d love to have had some real conversations with him.

I can read French much better than I can speak it. But the nuances of newspaper articles and even museum captions escape me. And life is too short to be typing every foreign word into Google Translate.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a collection of French study books and CDs, which mostly gathered dust. (Just to show how long I’ve had good intentions, I even have some “Learn in Your Car” audio cassette tapes. I no longer have a car that will even play them).

After my most recent trips to France, I finally heard of the language-learning app Duolingo, launched for public use in 2012. As of 2018, it features 28 languages for English speakers, plus many more for native speakers of other languages. It’s a free app, with paid options ranging from about $6-8 per month to go ad-free. I decided to spring for the 6-month option to see just how much French I could learn in that time.

My grandchildren use the free version for both French and Spanish. They love it. (And I think it’s way better for them than video games). After a month, I’ve passed 16 of the available units; that leaves me another 80 to go. Will I be fluent if and when I finish the course? I doubt it. But I’ll know a whole lot more French than what I can remember from high school.

What’s good about Duolingo:

  • It’s right on my phone, and it’s addictive. There’s a cheerful little bell tone for every correct answer, and a little musical fanfare for every level and unit passed. The rewards come around pretty quickly. Plus I earn “Gems” at various milestones, which turn into rewards like bonus lessons. I could also buy Gems, but that’s not happening.
  • It’s repetitive, mostly in a good way. It forces me to actually learn tedious things like verb tenses and demonstrative pronouns, which I have always just skimmed over. I’ve always gone straight for the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs, and winged it from there.
  • There’s a free companion app called Tinycards, fun digital flash cards for those times when I’m kicked out of class on Duolingo (more on that below).
  • Every French word and phrase is spoken. There’s also a feature where I could speak into the microphone, but so far I haven’t been able to get that to work on my phone. (If I actually repeated the words and phrases as they come around, I’d get much better at speaking).

What’s annoying about Duolingo:

  • Nothing is ever explained. I’m way too impatient to learn everything by trial and error. Fortunately I have the aforementioned resources that have been gathering dust for so long. Instead of making a ton of mistakes on a subject, I study up on it before I tackle a unit. I also cheat by looking things up on Google Translate.
  • If I knew nothing about the language, I’m not at all sure I’d have the patience to keep going.
  • The farther along I get, the fewer mistakes I’m allowed. After about two mistakes in a session, or at most three, I’m shut out. I have to wait a certain amount of time, sometimes hours, before I “regain health” so I can continue. This feature is to prevent binging (did I mention the app is addictive?) I can bypass this restriction by using a bunch of my earned Gems. After a certain amount of time, I can also bypass the restriction by doing about 20 “practice” review items. But still, I resent being thrown out of the classroom when there’s not even a teacher to answer a question.
  • A mistake can be just one letter, a typo.
  • It’s very time-consuming. (And did I mention it’s addictive?) The company claims that 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to a semester of college study in a language. I don’t really want to know how many hours I’ve invested in it so far–I suspect it’s already more than 34. I feel like I should be farther along.
  • Update about three weeks later: everything changed! After I had doggedly studied Duolingo daily for about 42 consecutive days, I was offered the chance to spend some of my hard-earned “gems” for the privilege of “learning at my own pace.” Magically, I was no longer kicked out of class for a mistake. Instead, the exercise was presented again, several times if I didn’t get the concept at first. Then it was repeated again, later in the session.
  • I poked around online to try to find out how it really works. It seems there have been many versions of Duolingo carrot/stick tactics over time. Whatever! I like it much better now and I’m very happy I didn’t quit in disgust (which I felt like doing many times).
  • I seem to be about a third of the way through the French curriculum. Will it make me fluent? No way. I think that would really take years. But I’ll be way better.

Some years ago I wanted to learn Italian, which is supposed to be one of the easiest languages to learn. I bought a very expensive set of Rosetta Stone CDs. I just couldn’t get into it, for the same annoying reasons listed above for Duolingo. Even the Idiot’s Guide and Living Language resources I optimistically bought didn’t help very much. Now I’ve read that Duolingo is much more efficient than Rosetta Stone. Aha! I wasn’t the only impatient person!

I did study “Reading German” in college, enough to actually read some Goethe and get an A in the course. So I can muddle along in the language, and I find it easier to pronounce than French. And German speakers are much more tolerant of a beginner’s attempts to communicate. (French natives are not at all shy about correcting a hapless tourist’s pronunciation or usage). I could study both German and Italian on the app at the same time as French, but I think that would be asking for trouble.

I’m off to France again in November. I’m going to force myself pull up my socks and use my hard-earned French. Wish me luck!

Talleyrand’s Chateau de Valencay

“We need grand houses for people who occupy grand positions.” This remark, by Napoleon Bonaparte, was aimed straight at his Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord in 1803.

When Napoleon told his people to jump, they asked “How high?” Also, Napoleon, at the time First Consul of France, was ready to help finance the purchase of a suitable chateau. So the Renaissance chateau of Valencay became Talleyrand’s new home in short order. A bust of Napoleon graces a mantel in the chateau.

The “Seated Portrait of Talleyrand” was painted by Francois Gerard in 1808.

The original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but a very good copy presides over the Blue Salon in the chateau.

Talleyrand was an irrepressible ladies’ man, but his position required respectability, so Napoleon leaned on him to marry his mistress (who had once been a courtesan, but no matter). Catherine Verlée Grand had her portrait painted in 1783 by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The chateau displays a copy; the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The couple drifted apart by 1816, but Talleyrand gave her enough money to live comfortably in London for the rest of her life. I’m not sure what’s going on in the portrait. Is Catherine rolling her eyes because the letter she is holding just informed her of some new exploit of her husband? It’s tempting to think so.

Talleyrand was born into an aristocratic but not wealthy family. It appears he had a club foot, most likely congenital (although Talleyrand blamed it on a childhood injury). The foot brace he used as an adult is on display in the chateau. It seems that his limp never slowed him down for a minute.

Talleyrand carried himself with great dignity throughout his life. Today, we’d call it “attitude. The bust above is by the sculptor Despres, 1838.

And what a life he lived. His parents sent him to seminary, hoping he would have a church career as illustrious and lucrative as that of his uncle, the very wealthy and powerful Archbishop of Reims. He was ordained at age 25 and might have risen quickly through the ranks of the Catholic Church. In fact, he became a Bishop four years later. But the French Revolution changed everything. As a Bishop, Talleyrand represented the clergy, known as the First Estate, in the Estates-General of 1789. Soon he was an enthusiastic revolutionary, stopped practicing Catholicism, and was “laicized” by the Pope in 1801. (This seems pretty close to being excommunicated, but he had lost interest in Catholic distinctions by this time anyway).

Talleyrand somehow escaped the deadly twists and turns of the Revolution, even when there was a price on his head. He spent some time in America, a guest of Aaron Burr. Eventually, when the dust settled, he returned to France and settled on diplomacy as a career.

He soon made himself indispensable to Napoleon Bonaparte, holding high offices and cheerfully accepting the financial “diplomatic sweeteners” that came with power. He loved the perks of power, like fine ceremonial outfits. The blue-ribboned badge above is the emblem of the French Legion of Honor, the dove denoting the Holy Spirit.

The magnificent document case above went everywhere with the charming and wily diplomat. The bees were Napoleon’s emblem, and the sun hearkened back to the glory days of the Sun King himself.

As Napoleon lost power, Talleyrand nimbly shifted loyalties. He represented France at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and came home with a good deal for France and a fine table for his chateau.

By this time, Talleyrand had accumulated titles: Prince of Talleyrand and Prince of Benevento. He was still called back to public life at times, serving France’s restored monarchy. But he had plenty of time and money to lavish on the young woman who was probably the love of his life: his niece Dorothee, Duchess of Dino, who had divorced his nephew. Dorothee was devoted to Talleyrand, and he called her “my little porpoise.” Their relationship was scandalously “modern;” it seems they both had other lovers, but somehow it worked. The portrait above is by Francois Gerard, Public Domain.

The couple hosted legendary dinners at their table, which could seat 36.

Talleyrand reportedly spent at least an hour a day with his chef.

The rooms of the chateau have the faded elegance of a beloved home, meant to be lived in. Floors are creaky and some of the well-used upholstery is tattered.

In his old age, Talleyrand puttered around his vast estate and spent quality time reading and writing in his comfy study chair.

In spite of their sketchy living arrangement, Dorothee worked to persuade Talleyrand to return to the Church. On his deathbed, he summoned a priest to give him the last rites. When the priest tried to anoint his palms, he insisted on having the backs of his hands anointed instead: the prerogative of his long-ago rank as a Bishop. He also signed a statement admitting his error in leaving the Church, so all was forgiven.

Valencay is off the beaten path of the more famous Loire chateaux. In early spring, it was downright peaceful.

Just down the road, there’s a fascinating motor museum, entertaining even for people without much interest in cars.

Admission to the chateau includes a fine audioguide, which tells entertaining stories about the Prince.

But I always buy the little guidebooks too, for the details that escape me when I’m trying to lose myself in the history of a place.

Valencay is a fine place to spend even a rainy day. In sunshine, it would be even better.

Join me next time for more explorations–I’m just catching up on all the chateaux I was lucky enough to see a couple of months ago!

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

St. Hallvard of Oslo

How many cities have their own patron saint? Oslo does, and May 15 is his feast day. Since the Middle Ages, images of local boy St. Hallvard have appeared on the city seal of Oslo, and elsewhere in the city. Above is a carving of St. Hallvard from the City Hall.

The entire City Council Assembly Room is dedicated to St. Hallvard. It was designed by Magnus Poulsson, with a beautiful tapestry designed by Else Poulsson and woven by Else Halling.

But wait, who is that woman lying at Hallvard’s feet in the first carving? Legend has it that Hallvard was a farm boy, born around 1020, who gave sanctuary to a poor pregnant woman who was accused of being a thief. He believed in her innocence. He allowed her onto his boat to get away from her accusers, and offered them recompense for the supposed theft. But they killed both the woman and Hallvard with arrows–three arrows for Hallvard. The carving just above shows him shielding the woman while bad guys shoot him. But what’s that round object in the lower left-hand corner?

According to legend, the murderers buried the woman, then tied a millstone to Hallvard and tried to sink him. But he would not sink. So their crime was discovered. Hallvard is usually depicted holding a millstone in one hand and three arrows in the other.

The tapestry is front and center in the assembly room.

I can’t tell whether Hallvard was ever officially declared a saint by any authority. The people just admired him and wanted to remember him. Christians saw him as an example of righteous self-sacrifice. A cathedral was dedicated to him in 1130, and it was the most important church in Oslo for several centuries. Its ruins are still visible in a park.

Anyway, I think the City Hall is the best place for Hallvard. In egalitarian, practical Norway, common people and their common lives are celebrated. Like the other fine art in Oslo’s City Hall, Hallvard’s tapestry shows people building, caring for others and for animals, enjoying a peaceful life, and generally getting along.

I know that every city and town has its own undeclared secular saints: people who quietly work for good and give of themselves. We need to celebrate them all, as Oslo celebrates its native son, St. Hallvard.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

If It’s Tuesday, That Must Be Talleyrand

Or, Why You Might Not Want to Travel With Me. I’m nearing the end of a 9-day trip to France, and for sure I know I married the right guy all those years ago. He cheerfully drives anywhere, this time from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Loire Valley and back, with at least two or three stops at sights every day. If you don’t like a slightly hectic travel pace, you might not want to tag along with us.

We based ourselves in tiny Chenonceaux, pretty central for the Loire Valley. (The town’s name ends with an X but the chateau’s name is Chenonceau).

And Chenonceau is the most beautiful and fascinating chateau anywhere, if you ask me. Plus Chenonceau always smells wonderful. Every single room always has fresh flowers, as no doubt they did in the days that Diane de Poitiers and later Catherine de Medici gazed out the leaded-glass windows at the River Cher.

Thanks to the wonders of our Garmin GPS to find places, and my trusty iPhone cellular data to double-check opening times, we covered a lot of ground on this trip. Also, we were seeing some of these places for the second or even the third time. (For us, history never gets old. It just gets more interesting).

Here are a few of my other favorite things from this trip:

Claude Monet’s Gardens and Home in Giverny.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau: a jewel of a Renaissance castle, recently renovated and sparkling on its own pretty little island.

Chateau de Cheverny: owned by the same family for hundreds of years, plus they have about one hundred happy hunting dogs.

Chartres Cathedral, one of the greatest medieval pilgrimage sites, always spectacular (even though I don’t understand why the interior was recently whitewashed. I have mixed feelings about the very controversial recent “renovation”). I really love the mismatched towers, pretty unique in cathedrals. What were the builders thinking, as the second tower went up? Who gave them permission? Well, it works for me.

Chateau de Blois, layers of history plus a generous serving of murder and mayhem.

And as for Talleyrand? He was the right-hand diplomat of Napoleon Bonaparte, among many other things in his gleefully scandalous life. He pretty much did as he pleased and had a wonderful time. His Chateau de Valencay is lovely in a faded-elegance way, and very entertaining.

Just above, the fairy-tale towers and turrets of Chateau d’Usse.

I have lots more just to list, but I still have a couple of days to see as much as possible. Time to plan what else to see. I’ll finish my trip list later. Naturally, I took a ton of photos and picked up a ton of guidebooks. I’ll post much more about each of these sights and all the rest after I catch my breath. To be continued!

Monet’s Garden in Giverny

Claude Monet was not always the rich and famous inventor of “Impressionism.” In fact, “Impressionism” was not always a revered art movement, or a way to sell countless silk scarves and coffee mugs. In 1872, the 32-year-old artist exhibited a painting titled “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, rising sun”) which was ridiculed for being a mere Impression, not a real painting. But he persevered.

In 1876 Monet’s young wife Camille became ill with tuberculosis, common in those days. She was weakened further after giving birth to two children. She died at age 32 in 1879, apparently from uterine cancer on top of everything else. She never saw the gardens at Giverny; they did not exist in her lifetime.

In 1876, Monet and Camille had been invited to the chateau of businessman/collector Ernest Hoschedé, where they met Edouard Manet and other artists. His wife, Alice, became a good friend to the young couple. Then disaster struck. Hoschedé went bankrupt, abandoned his family, and fled to Belgium in 1877. Alice began caring for Monet’s two children, along with her own six children. She and Claude decided to join forces and bring up their children together. Neither of them had much money, and there were years of hardship.

They were finally able to marry in 1892, once Alice’s estranged husband died.

After all their troubles, it seems they happily raised their large family and grew old together. In their house, I loved this photo of the two of them feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice.

But during their years of poverty and somewhat scandalous living arrangements, the couple lived in rented houses which Monet hated. In 1883, he caught a glimpse of Giverny from a train window. He rented the existing house and began cultivating a garden.

His painting career was taking off during these years. Soon he was able to buy the house. He and Alice entertained all the important artists and writers of their time. Today, reproductions of the paintings of Monet and his friends are informally displayed on shelves, as the originals were in his lifetime.

Monet added various rooms to the house. His own sunny corner bedroom featured some of his favorite paintings, now replaced by reproductions.

He especially liked Renoir’s serenely sunbathing lady. So do I.

I imagine there must have been a kitchen garden in Monet’s time. The blue-and-white-tiled kitchen was large and equipped to serve a big family and plenty of guests.

If I could choose one time and place to time-travel to dinner, it might be to the cheerful yellow dining room at Giverny.

As in Monet’s time, the house is full of the Japanese prints that he and so many other artists had begun to collect. Japanese art, which had only recently become widely available outside Japan, strongly influenced all the artists of the time.

As his garden grew and thrived, Monet always had something beautiful to paint close at hand.

Above is a detail from “The Garden at Giverny,” 1900, now in the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Eventually Monet was able to buy adjoining property with a stream. He created his famous lily pond with its Japanese bridge.

Alice died in 1911. Monet lived and painted his beloved garden right up until his death in 1926, at the age of 86.

Is Monet’s home crowded and touristy? Oh, yes. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and the crowds get worse every year. The gardens are large enough to absorb quite a few people, but the house must get unbearably packed. I think the house should have timed entries.

On a weekday morning in late April, I arrived early and there were plenty of people. By the time I left at noon, the line to get in stretched at least a full city block. If I encountered a line like this, I would leave for awhile and come back in late afternoon. The light would be better anyway, and the tour buses would have left.

Still, there’s magic to be found in Monet’s gardens, in any season. I’d cheerfully go again tomorrow–but I’d arrive even earlier.