Claude Monet’s “Maison du Pressoir” (apple press house) in the little village of Giverny has been a tourist destination for Americans for years. The draw is no doubt for the master painter but also for the thousands of American students that flocked to Giverny and the Parisian art schools in the 1880‘s and 1890‘s. These students were seeking a more liberal experience and an opportunity to compete internationally. So, yes, the Maison du Pressoir is lovely, Monet’s gardens are magnificent and the little Giverny village is charming but there is so much more to see in this region.
A short drive from Giverny is Vernon, a medieval city that was created in the tenth century by the first Duke of Normandy, Rollon. Vernon continued playing an important role throughout the history of Normandy for many centuries and is located in the Seine Valley. Not surprising, both the town and the river were frequent subjects for the paintings of Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard.
Throughout the town are the half timbered buildings dating to the medieval days of Vernon. The Vieux Moulin or old mill has become a symbol of Vernon as it straddles two piers of what is left of the original bridge. The Vieux Moulin is reached by crossing the Clemenceau bridge and is next to the Château des Tourelles and the Arts Garden. The Tourelles Castle was built in the Middle Ages by Philipe Auguste as a bridgehead to defend Vernon. There were four towers that comprised this military fortification. One of these had been severely damaged during the second World War one is now being restored.
Within the city of Vernon is the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame on Place Barette-Vernon. This church dates to the Roman Period at the end of the eleventh century with the construction of the church continuing until the end of the twelfth century. In 1658 the pavement was raised about two feet to help protect the church from flooding. Do look for the two engravings on the wall to commemorate these floods. Of particular interest within the church are the enormous pipe organs and ribbed vaults. There is also a statue of Saint Adjutor, who is the patron saint of Vernon. (Saint Adjutor is known as the patron saint of bargemen, yachtsmen and swimmers.)
Not far from the church is the donjon, or tower, of the ancient Vernon castle dating to the twelfth century and Philippe Auguste.
Within short distances of Vernon are Château-Gaillard and Château de la Madeleine. Château-Gaillard is an impressive stronghold from the twelfth century and was built by Richard the Lionheart, who was the King of England and the Duke of Normandy. It is open daily except Tuesdays from 10am to 1pm and from 2pm to 6 pm. Château de la Madeleine is protected as an Historic Monument. It is privately owned but is open to the public during the summer months of July and August between 2pm and 6pm. Of particular note, is its majestic salons with a panoramic views of the Seine Valley.
Not to be forgotten is Château de Bizy, hidden behind trees that are several hundred years old. Here you can visit a beautiful château, its park, the water gardens, stables and its formal courtyard. Both the park and the castle are listed as Historic Monuments. The castle was built by Nicolas Jubert de Bouville in 1675. In 1721 the Duke de Belle-Isle bought the property and employed the architect, Contant d’Ivry, who enhanced the château and included the adjoining stables inspired by those of Versailles. The building was declared abandoned after the Revolution and was partly destroyed. Fortunately it underwent major restoration first with the Duchess of Orleans and then Baron Schikler. In the courtyard take special note of the pond. It is constructed with two ramps in order to enable the horses to enter and clean their hoofs.
The château is currently inhabited by descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brothers. You can visit the grand salon, the drawing room and the dining room as part of a private tour which is in french. (I think that it is worth going even if you don’t understand french and chances are there will be someone who can provide some information in english.) The rooms are all beautifully furnished with rare antiques and include extraordinary wood panelling, tapestries and one of the most beautiful pianos that I have ever seen. The chateau is closed to the public November through February. In March it is open on Saturday and Sunday and from April through October it is open 10am to 12noon and from 2pm to 6pm. I strongly advise checking in advance for opening hours and days.
If you can visit Vernon during the summer months of May to September, there is an artisanal market on Tuesday mornings.
So, after reading this, I hope that you do not limit your stay to Giverny. By exploring the Valley of the Seine you will better understand the draw that Giverny had on your beloved Claude Monet. Bon Voyage!
photos by Loui Franke
Loui Franke is author of Parisian Postcards: Snapshots of Life in Paris.