I'm going to stop telling people I've been to Claude Monet's garden. I keep having the same conversation over and over again: I see someone's print of Monet's water lilies or Japanese bridge, and I say, "Hey, I've been there," and they get all excited and ask what it's like, and then they look at me with big, expectant eyes while I consider my answer.
And the thing is well, the gardens are beautiful, no doubt. But sometimes a travel experience doesn't come out exactly the way you imagined it. And since so many people have the same vision of visiting Monet's garden -- picnicking on the shore of the pond, admiring the lilies, holding their loved ones on the bridge as the sun sets -- I've decided to tell a partial truth to let them keep their vision.
I brought the same vision with me to the charming little village of Giverny, just outside Paris. I even had my Santa Claus hat with me, eager to take my annual Christmas card photo on the Japanese bridge. What I didn't realize was that I would have to wait in line and then elbow my way up to the rail to be seen by my parents, on the bank with the camera -- or that they, in turn, would be waiting in line to stand in just the right spot to take the picture.
Claude Monet had a rare experience among artists: He was successful while still alive. In fact, he was darn wealthy. He bought a piece of land in Giverny, set up studios, and lived there for 40 years, painting and receiving visitors and admirers. He also convinced the local authorities (no doubt by flashing some cash at them) to let him divert and dam a creek to create the gardens and pond that are still being maintained.
What you won't see in Giverny, by the way, are Monet's paintings. There isn't one Monet original on the premises, although, oddly enough, there's an impressive collection of American impressionists.
The gardens are, in fact, spectacular. The upper garden, by the house, is very straight and orderly, looking more like a nursery than a garden. But it has a bonanza of blooms, especially irises, and offers boundless opportunities for photos and quiet contemplation, provided you aren't bothered by other people being in every part of your view. I'm into taking pictures without people in them, and getting one became a quest.
The lower, or water, garden is what everybody wants to see, and to reach it, you have to cross under a road through what can only be called a human funnel. It's not quite as bad as leaving a ballpark through a single exit, but it recalls the experience. This tourist conveyor belt carries you on a loop through the water garden, which is smaller than you probably imagine it, with crowds gathering at certain spots, like scenic pullouts on a human highway.
On my visit, the spot on the bank parallel to the middle of the pond, from which you can see the Japanese bridge, had about seven photographers. The spot toward the end, from which you can see the bridge and some lilies, had a dozen. The spot at the end, with the full-length view of the pond, had (I'm not exaggerating) a wait of a minute or two, depending on how "serious" the current photographer was. One guy had brought a tripod and clogged up the whole operation for several minutes.
The truth is sometimes, we visit places to see them and smell them and feel them, and sometimes, we visit places so we can check them off the list of places we've been meaning to visit, and sometimes, we visit places just to say we've been there. That last thought occurred to me as I was waiting my turn to take the same photo everybody else was taking. Why else would I spend precious time in Monet's gardens waiting in line? It's simple, really: so I could show people the Picture and say, "Here's that pond Claude Monet painted all the time."
The gardens really are beautiful, especially in May, which was when we were there, when the rhododendrons and azaleas were blooming and the purple wisteria hung thick from arches, creating a wall of fragrance. But the lasting image I brought away was of a mother and daughter on the Japanese bridge. They were in the perfect spot, right by the rail, holding each other and looking serene and beautiful in matching dresses while their man with the camera jockeyed for just the right spot on the bank.
I felt sure that the mom had been there once as a child in her mother's arms, if only in her garden vision, and she was determined to be there with her daughter. I envied and admired them because they had held onto their vision and were having their moment while the dad struggled to get the shot and people crowded all around them on the bridge, waiting to have their moment too.