Travel can be ridiculous sometimes. In order to get a decent deal on a flight, we ended up flying from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then back the way we came to fly to France. After a seemingly endless flight to Paris with obnoxious college kids, we were relieved to pick up our rental car and head to Northern France and the Normandy region to start our trip.
Normandy may be best known for being the site of the D-Day landings during World War II, but it’s was also a hub for impressionist artists, like Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. With its rolling cliffs along the coast, beautiful landscapes, quaint towns, and granite architecture, it is easy to see why they all felt so inspired by the area. In addition, the area is known for being a major center for the production of butter, cream, cheese, and apples.
Our first stop was the town of Vernon, about one hour away from Paris. Vernon is a small town, filled mostly with shops and restaurants, but it’s a good base to start a tour of Normandy, since it is accessible to a lot of the major sites in the region. We checked into the Hotel d’ Evreux and Chester lugged our two suitcases up a very narrow, winding flight of stairs. The hotel is kind of old–the rooms are on the small side and some of the furnishings need to be updated (we were grossed out by the fact that there was a wooden floor in the shower stall and both wore flip-flops while showering.)–but the staff members were all very pleasant and didn’t seem to mind when we arrived a bit early for check in.
Since we actually didn’t feel all that jet lagged, we decided to head out to see the first item on our itinerary, Giverny, to see Monet’s house and garden. This was one of the sights that we were looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint.
Monet lived in Giverny for more than 40 years, until he died in 1926. He first noticed the village while looking out of a train window, and rented and eventually purchased a house and surrounding land there. He also had a passion for gardening, and created the flower garden and water lily pond, based on the design of Japanese gardens, which served as the subject of some of his most famous works. Walking into the garden is like stepping into one of his paintings. There is so much color everywhere (pink figures prominently. Yay!)–you just don’t know where to look first. Although it was pretty crowded the day that we visited, the gardens felt very tranquil and tucked away from the real world. It is easy to see how he found this place an endless source of inspiration.
You can visit the house to see Monet’s private apartments and studio. My favorite rooms in the house were the dining room, with its cheerful, bright yellow furniture, and the kitchen with its cool blue tiles and copper pots lining the walls. You can’t take pictures inside of the house, unfortunately, so here are a few I found on another blog (smart idea to buy the postcards in the gift shop!).
After leaving the house, we strolled through the single “main street” of Giverny, which is lined with bed and breakfasts and art galleries. Towards the end of the road, we came upon Monet’s church, and visited the monument where he and his family are buried.
On the way back to our car, we stopped for ice cream. It’s funny to me that this was our first meal in France, but we know how much I love ice cream, so it was fine by me.
That night, we ate dinner at Le Relais, the restaurant in our hotel. The restaurant showcases the traditional, hearty dishes from the region. Like many of the restaurants that we visited during our trip, the menu listed two prix-fixe menus (with a starter, main course, and dessert) at different price points. Although some restaurants did offer a la carte pricing, when we converted the Euros to dollars, the prix fix options tended to be the best value; even with wine, most of our dinners ended up to be the same or less than we would spend for dinner here at home. For the starter, I had the rillettes of salmon and cod. Rillettes are basically like a pate, but richer, because the fish (or pork, goose, rabbit, etc.) is salted and then cooked with some type of fat, until it becomes like a paste. It’s served cold and spread on toasted bread. If that sounds kind of gross, let me assure you, it wasn’t. In fact, it tasted a bit liked canned tuna (which I happen to like) Chester had the chicken liver pate, which was a bit like foie gras, only not as smooth and a little bit gamey tasting.
The main courses were the highlight of the meal for both of us, I think. I had the lamb stew with apples. The lamb was so tender that I didn’t even need a knife to cut it—pulling it apart with my fork seemed to work out just fine (I know, I’m classy). The sauce was rich and buttery, but the apples gave it a nice sweetness. I didn’t get to have beef bourguignon on this trip, but this was a close enough substitute. Chester had the strip steak, with camembert cheese sauce. The meat was seasoned well, but we both learned after this meal that you have to ask for your meat to be cooked medium rare, so that it comes out perfectly medium. Asking for the meat to be cooked medium resulted in it being a bit on the well done side. Both of our dishes came with mashed potatoes—I’m not usually a fan of plain mashed potatoes (mashed sweet potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes are another story), but I would eat the mashed potatoes in France by the bucketful. All of the mashed potatoes that I had there were just the perfect texture—not so finely mashed that they were like baby food and not so coarsely mashed that you got chunks of potato in each mouthful—with the just the right amount of salt. They actually tasted like potatoes, if that makes sense (and, I realize it probably doesn’t).
For dessert, Chester opted for the cheese plate, since we were in dairy capital of France. The server had a cheese board with six options, and Chester eliminated three right away since she said they were kind of strong. I’m not sure of the names of what we had exactly, but one was similar to cheddar and the other was similar to goat’s cheese. I had chocolate mousse cake, with that was filled with pears in the center. Liked most of the chocolate I had on this trip, that which was used in the mousse was rich, but a touch on the bittersweet side, so the pears provided a nice sweetness. If you find yourself near Vernon, I would recommend checking out this restaurant, even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, as it’s a lovely place to sample some of the specialties of the region.
Our meal was heavy, but after being up and traveling for as many hours as we had been by that point (I’m bad at calculating the time change—it was probably like 36 hours or something?), it was just what we needed to put us right to sleep so that we could get up early to hit the road for a full day of sightseeing in Bayuex the next day.