Looking for some stellar European family vacation ideas? Paris is for lovers, but it is also fabulous for “les enfants,” especially when active, happy, day trips are playfully inserted into the schedule. An indisputable favorite of both children and adults is Monet’s Garden in Giverny.
Look in a book
If you have the time prior to arrival, a brief visit to one of the museums in Paris showing off Monet’s paintings is a good introduction to this trip. Your children will also enjoy the book by Cristina Bjork and Lena Anderson, “Linnea in Monet’s Garden,” as preparation for the trip and as a look into the impressionistic painting style.
Make the train ride an experience
Just 45 miles from Paris, this explosion of outdoor color is open from March 29 to November 1 each year. Getting there can be part of the fun if your toddlers would enjoy the speedy, 45-minute train ride, made extra special if you are lucky enough to catch the view on the double decker cars. The train leaves Paris from Saint-Lazare Station with an early departure at 8:20 a.m., followed by several return times, early to late afternoon. You can certainly leave later, but the early train will probably be a little less crowded.
The train drops off at Vernon, just 3.5 miles from Giverny. From the train depot you can hop waiting buses headed to the gardens, or hail a cab. It can get crowded during the height of the summer tourist season, and sometimes there can be a wait for a second bus if the first one fills up quickly. Once at Giverny, entry to Monet’s Gardens is allowed from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with the gardens closing at 6 p.m.
Let them look and create
The gorgeous flowers of the Clos Nomand garden area greet guests with clever pathways and lovely bursts of iris, poppies, daffodils, tulips and peonies. The lush gardens are refreshing, colorful and full of learning opportunities if you do a little prep work. Bringing a box of colored pencils and asking toddlers to match colors to flowers, adding color names, is a start. Bring along a small sketchbook and they can even decide to create a little masterpiece of their own.
Even if you’ve not had the opportunity to introduce Monet’s art, not to worry. The gardens are still very enjoyable for those without previews. Do plan, however, for crowds and heat in the height of summer, bringing hats, sunscreen, water and snacks just in case. Note that the French, for the most part, do not ‘snack’, but eat regular meals. That applies to children as well, so there won’t be snacks readily available.
The grounds at Giverny are divided into three basic sections: the Clos Normand, the Water Gardens and the home itself. The Water Gardens are famous for the colorful green bridge over the lily ponds. Most toddlers will be enchanted by the color and scent of the flowers and greenery, as well as the water lilies floating on the surface of the ponds.
Put it into perspective
Opportunity is knocking here to impart a little plant biology, discussing why water lilies float (large surface area, lots of air spaces within the plant make the stem and leaves act like pool floats, waxy bottoms on leaves act as waterproofing), why you can’t make a bouquet with water lilies (stems are flexible and hollow so they won’t ‘stand up’ in a vase like earth-bound flowers), and how big water lilies are able to grow (some leaves are up to six feet in diameter—as tall as daddy!).
Everything a preschooler should know
The Clos Normand is just bursting with color and shape, inviting kids to count the number of different colors, or find the flowers with the least, and also the most, number of petals. If you pack a color spectrum chart, showing the rainbow of colors, kids can play a matching game choosing the color on the chart that most closely matches a particular flower. Asking toddlers to describe a flower’s shape can help develop language skills. In short, interacting with your child as they view the gardens, meeting their curiosity with excitement makes this a great adventure. What if you don’t know the answer? Wow, great question! Let’s look that up when we get home.
The house itself presents a brightly decorated residence full of interesting details that show off the graceful lifestyle of the French countryside. Ask children to find things in the house that match the colors of the flowers they have just seen, or things that they do not find familiar, and talk about their use. The entire tour embracing both garden areas and the house should take about 1.5 to 2 hours, putting completion at just around lunch time.
Giverny offers more than just Monet
With some delicious options, either at Les Nympheas restaurant across the street, or at the iconic Hotel Baudy in Giverny, lunch is, thank goodness, just a few steps away. If you’d like to hop the bus back to Vernon first, there are also several choices there, from pizza and pasta to authentic French gourmet cuisine along the Seine River. A short walk around the charming town of Vernon is also fun for those with energy and time to spare. After lunch, catch an afternoon train back to Paris; the short ride is just enough of a recharge for a happy evening back to the city of lights.
K. L. Turner is a freelance writer with roots in Illinois, Colorado, Idaho and Florida’s left coast. She writes with academic authority on all things water and with 3D experience about travel, wine and sailing. Follow her on Twitter @turnerkat