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Exquisite impressions of Monet's Giverny, France

Seeing Giverny as Monet did, quietly watching the sunlight in gardens, is the best way to approach his legacy

"My greatest masterpiece," Claude Monet once said, "is my garden."

Looking at his garden here, I could not argue that this profusion of flowers and ponds was less than a masterpiece, reflecting the reds and purples and pinks of surrounding anemones, fuchsias and cosmos.

His greatest masterpiece? That's for scholars of the Impressionist artist to debate.

What's irrefutable is that seeing Giverny the way Monet did — being able to sit quietly and watch the sunlight play on the water — is the best way to approach his living legacy, an experience that has become more pleasurable in recent times.

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In Giverny, the village about 50 miles from Paris where Monet's garden still flourishes, Michelin-rated chef Eric Guérin created that possibility by converting a handsome, century-old manor house into a hotel and restaurant.

He named it Le Jardin des Plumes, the Garden of Feathers. (In France, la plume de l'artiste means an artist's inspiration and creation.)

Its opening supplied a missing piece for those of us hoping to experience Monet's gardens at their best and on our own.

My wife, Laurel, and I had seen Monet's famous water lily paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art — and maybe elsewhere, because they are in collections the world over.

For anyone with even a passing interest in French Impressionism, these oils — there are about 250 of them, the main focus of the last 15 years of the artist's career — are familiar and likely to trigger a restful, contemplative sense of peace and a desire to see the place that inspired them.

Monet's house, gardens and lily ponds opened to the public in 1980, and they quickly became a tour-bus day trip, hasty, programmed, crowded and lockstep, which seemed the opposite of the experience Monet created.

Le Jardin des Plumes, which opened in 2012, offers a quieter, more serene way to experience Giverny. The hotel has its own lovely garden and pond, and a Guérin-designed dinner in the stylish dining room is itself reason enough to come to Giverny.

But we also could have a superb breakfast in a bright, elegant setting, take a 10-minute walk down Rue Claude Monet to the house and gardens, then stroll around the ponds and tour the house museum on our own schedule, unhurried and minus the later-arriving crowds.

Fun and funky room

We arrived in late afternoon last fall after a short taxi hop from the railway station at Vernon, a 45-minute ride from Paris' Gare Saint-Lazare (also the subject of an atmospheric series of Monet oils).

Our room, one of the two thriftiest among the hotel's eight, was on the ground floor of a remodeled atelier (a shed or workshop). It was contemporary and, we thought, fun and funky, with a clamshell-shaped bathtub within the bedroom, along with a washbasin, a desk and a comfortable queen bed. The toilet was in a small annex.

For closets, there was a bank of gym lockers (too short and cramped to be very useful). One wall was natural stone, the floor broad-planked, and the other walls and accents red, orange or gray.

We had our own patio, but we preferred the large veranda behind the main house. Limestone, half-timbered, tricked out in teal blue, it was the work of architect Armand Picard, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel.

With its own pond (and a spiffy little house for the resident ducks), the inn's spacious grounds were an appropriate appetizer for the visit to Monet's gardens planned for the next day.

We read and relaxed before walking to the nearby Hotel Baudy for dinner. (It was Monday, and Le Jardin des Plumes wasn't serving.) The Baudy, a virtual museum, was cozy and central to Giverny's history as an artists' retreat. The studio once used by visiting American Impressionists is in the garden behind the hotel.

But my meal (a chicken-liver terrine and minced chicken in mushroom sauce) was dry and undistinguished. Laurel's, a light and delicious goat cheese terrine, followed by salmon, was much better, though far short of our meals at Le Jardin des Plumes.

Delectable start

Though the exterior of Le Jardin des Plumes' manor house is classic and original, the interiors of the public rooms are clean-lined Moderne — classic in another way.

The small bar and breakfast room has floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides overlooking the garden. Though a hot breakfast with ham, cheese and eggs was offered (about $24), we were more than happy with the continental (about $19): excellent coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, yogurt, jam, butter, honey and pastries that Laurel called "exquisite." The flaky croissants were so rich that even I didn't butter them, truly unusual.

Then it was off to be in the short initial queue when Monet's House and Gardens opened at 9:30 a.m.

A good strategy, Laurel thought, was to go first to the water garden, the lily ponds, because tour groups would enter the property near that area as the morning progressed.

This was a place to linger quietly. Monet would sit for hours on the benches here, studying the reflections on the water, which acted as a liquid mirror.

We did the same, admiring not only the lilies but also the blue agapanthus, black-eyed Susans, impatiens and weeping willows that ringed the pond.

Green arched bridges, quintessentially Japanese, were important accents in Monet's floral compositions.

Bamboo lined the feeder canal. Though the water garden is more

famous, the Clos Normand, the 2 1/2-acre walled garden behind Monet's house, is lovely as well, with its rectangular beds overflowing with colorful blooms. (A clos is a walled vineyard.)

Monet lived in his house in Giverny from 1883 until his death at age 86 in 1926. Michel, his youngest son (Claude had eight children), inherited the house and lived here until his death in 1966, when the Claude Monet Foundation was formed to raise funds to restore the gardens and the house.

Upstairs are the bedrooms: Monet's, his wife Alice's, and Blanche Hoschede Monet's, who was both his stepdaughter (Alice's daughter) and daughter-in-law, married to Jean, Monet's eldest son from his first marriage.

After the deaths of Alice (1911) and Jean (1914), Blanche, also an artist, took care of Monet in his final years.

Even more memorable for their bright and vibrant colors are the rooms downstairs, including the kitchen, blue-tiled, with blue-accented furnishings and dozens of copper pots and pans.

The adjacent dining room, whose walls and chairs are painted bright yellow, is lined with Japanese prints, an aesthetic that Monet favored and that influenced his water gardens.

The grandest room of all is his high-ceilinged, airy studio, later a reception room for dealers and now hung with reproductions of his work. Here it seemed as though Monet had just left for a stroll in his gardens and might well return any minute.

The gardens let us step back in time while connecting Monet's work with the exquisite realty in which he lived.

Exquisite ending

After a day of artistic masterpieces, it was time for a culinary one.

That evening at Le Jardin des Plumes, we were served shards of flatbread with fresh cheese and avocado purée in the cocktail room before moving into the dining room for an amuse-bouche: an eggshell filled with a yolk lightly cooked in olive oil, smoked squid and Mimolette cheese.

Starters were pork belly with shrimp and shredded butternut squash (Laurel chose this) or smoked salmon on a disk of deviled egg, more like a sauce (my choice). For an entree, Laurel chose pork cheeks with toasted bulgur, wine sauce and goat cheese; I had chicken with Calvados sauce and crème fraîche.

Dessert was a chocolate tart with passion fruit sorbet in a graham peanut crust.

For a meal to be as exquisite as Monet's paintings and gardens was a tall order, but our dinner in a peaceful setting was the unparalleled finale to our stay.

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If you go

Claude Monet's House and Gardens, 011-33-2-32-51-28-21, http://www.fondation-monet.com. Open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until Nov. 1 and will reopen in late March 2016. Admission is about $10.50 for adults, $6 for children (7-12) and students; children younger than 7 are admitted free. There is a shuttle bus to the gardens from the train station at Vernon.

Le Jardin des Plumes, 1 Rue du Milieu, Giverny; 011-33-2-32-54-26-35, http://www.lejardindesplumes.fr. Doubles from $197. Two-course meals, $38; three-course, $52; four course, $66.

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