If you’re heading to Normandy and interested in gardening, a visit to Monet’s garden at Giverny will be on your bucket list. It’s an easy hour’s drive from Les Iris and a wonderful day trip.
For those in London before April 20th 2016, a great warm-up is Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy. Bringing together an immense number of works by Monet and his contemporaries, the exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s to the 1920s.
It’s a blockbuster exhibit that brings many works together for the first time in living memory. Book ahead and expect crowds. The exhibition is free for under 16s, and the free Art Detectives guide kept our children engaged.
And if you can’t make it to London, the Royal Academy have produced an informative series of videos introducing artists’ gardens in northern France – Monet at Giverny, Pierre Bonnard’s garden at Vernonnet in Normandy, and Henri Le Sidaner’s garden in the medieval village of Gerberoy, Picardy.
What’s better than an attic full of the things someone once treasured, then grew up or turned in another direction, and now here’s the thing, dusty and worn yet special in some way just waiting to be discovered. Ebay thrives on this market of lost things but it isn’t the same, is it. There isn’t that physical thrill you get when you’ve sorted through the junk to find the very thing, shined it up with the palm of your hand, and imagined it into your life.
Maybe that’s why the brocante still thrives in France, this most sensory of cultures being reluctant to part with the thrill that comes with the hunt. Here are our latest finds, from consignment brocante type shop La Grange de Janna, just relocated from Honfleur to Pont-Audemer and helpfully open every day. Furniture, books, electronics, audio, vintage and modern – it’s all here in a cavernous warehouse.
At Les Iris the walls are fairly bare and we’re always looking for pictures that connect to our lives here in Normandy, while small enough to suit the cottage’s dimensions. The miniature oil of a vase of flowers will be perfect. The fashion plate will remind our daughters not to complain about the clothes they have to wear.
And the mandolin – an impulse purchase, redolent of Picasso, southern summers, Shakespearean serenades. It needs re-stringing and a polish, but is in good shape, and made by Masspacher in Paris. A fine old thing will get new life.
I recently shared results from our guest survey. Shortly after, another report packed with data fell into my hands, this time in the form of the rather grandly named 2012 Annual Report. In reality this is a bunch of interesting stats about visits and visitors to the Les Iris website, compiled by the lovely people, and their data crunching machines, at WordPress.
I check site stats regularly so there were no great surprises. Still, it’s good to step back and reflect on a full year’s worth of trends.
The most popular post of the year? It took a bit of extra data crunching to figure out that this collection of pictures of Les Iris and Normandy by one of our guests took first place. The pictures are re-posted below. They are mysterious and beautiful to look at. A Winter Market in France, Dinner by Michelin and Surviving DisneyLand Paris also proved popular.
As was the case with these pictures, some of the most valued feedback isn’t easily measurable. As a blogger, it’s the content and tone of the comments I pay close attention to. They keep me connected closely to readers throughout the year.
We keep a guest book in the cottage, and ask visitors to write or send reviews of their stay. Here is a letter we received from one of our guests. It’s a favourite: as with the pictures, it gives a real sense of people responding to and enjoying a special place.
My wife and I enjoyed our stay so much at your charming thatched cottage that I wanted to thank you and let you know what we found so attractive about it.
Les Iris is ideally situated in the heart of an idyllic village on the south bank of the River Seine. We found the renovated and modernised cottage very comfortable and well-equipped in the kitchen and throughout. We were only two, so confined ourselves to the ground floor, but next time, perhaps, we would like to bring family or friends as the property is spacious enough to accommodate up to eight adults with ease. It was really a most enchanting and pretty place and suited us down to the ground.
We alternated between eating out at the many good restaurants in the vicinity and self-catering, which was very easy to do. A particular memory was eating our dinner, whilst watching ships of every size, some quite large, making their way up or down the river to Rouen or Le Havre, their navigation lights glowing like fairy lights in the night, little more than 200 metres away. During the day, we were also fascinated by watching the wonderful bird life on and around the river.
Furthermore, we also felt very secure, with the off-road parking in the drive, the safe surroundings of a quiet and old-fashioned village and the elevated position overlooking the river, beyond the fence at the foot of the garden. In addition, when we sat outside, we valued the privacy afforded by the location of the cottage and its secluded situation.
There was so much to see and visit that a week was nowhere near long enough to do it all, but we tried hard. Normandy is such a large and historic region that one could spend months travelling around and finding new delights to explore every day. Particular highlights were visiting Monet’s house and garden at Giverny, the many Abbeys and historic sites dating back to 1066 and beyond, the old town and port at Honfleur and the museums at Le Havre and elsewhere.
2012 was the first year guests stayed at Les Iris. We worried a bit as we prepared the cottage last spring. What would go wrong? What had we forgotten?
We had forgotten a few things (more on that later), yet every single group that chose Les Iris for a holiday was a delight to work with. The cottage was treated well – like the home that it is. Guests were generous with their reviews, photos, and suggestions.
We ask everyone who stays at Les Iris to fill out a survey. Today we want to share the topline results from the survey this year. Of those who filled in the online survey:
We were delighted with these results. But we weren’t just after compliments (although please keep them coming!) We asked guests to tell us the bad stuff, so that we could make improvements. They did, and we’ve listened.
The cottage now has an iron and an ironing board. There is a new barbeque outside. We have added more, larger saucepans and more tablemats The TV has been put on a table with wheels so that it can be moved around for viewing.
A few guests asked for new garden furniture. We will look into this in the spring. Others asked for more TV stations and wifi. There is good French TV reception in the cottage. Wifi is expensive because the village is not cabled and it requires a special satellite dish. We are considering this. In the meantime, there is a mobile signal from across the river, and buying a travel bolt-on in advance from your mobile phone provider makes checking email and surfing the web while abroad more affordable.
Here are some of the lovely things guests said about the cottage.
“Les Iris”, a beautiful name for a beautiful cottage. Thank you very much for allowing us to stay in this lovely, idyllic part of France and Normandy. We particularly enjoyed coming back in the evening and sitting outside to watch the HUGE ships slowly chug past.
We enjoyed the peace and quiet of your home and tiny village. It was an added treat to be here as the trees all bloomed.
We enjoyed the short walks from the cottage around the surrounding area, watching the light change on the river through the day. Honfleur is a great day out – we went twice. Our favourite restaurant was the Risle-Seine in Bourneville. Fantastic traditional Normand cuisine at very reasonable prices considering the quality.
Your wonderful cottage very quickly grew on us and we are sad to leave. The garden is fabulous and such a treat for our younger girls to be able to run about in such space.
Thank you – and come again!
Autumn is all about apples in Normandy and, by association, cider. Normandy is the only region in France that doesn’t produce wine, but it makes up for it with an amazing array of cider and its more potent cousin, calvados.
We’ve tried much cider and calvados in Normandy. Everyone with a couple of apple trees seems to have a go at brewing. When we were house hunting in the region, no visit was complete without the owner offering a sample of their very own tipple, and we’ve seen more than a few dinner parties off with a bang by introducing their DIY calvados.
The nearest cider maker to Les Iris, signposted on the main road to Sainte-Opportune-La-Mare, is excellent. Like champagne, his cider comes in doux, brut and semi-brut.
He also maintains a vigorous vegetable garden, and sometimes sells extra produce alongside the cider. He takes the children into the garden, lets them choose their vegetables, and pulls the selected plants out of the ground, shaking off the rich dark earth. It’s the freshest lettuce and rhubarb in the world.
In our garden there’s only one very old and gnarled apple tree standing guard by the gate. One of these days it will go: until then, it insists on producing an abundance of large green-red apples that turn brown within seconds of being cut open. Still, we’re delighted to have a token apple tree, and one of these days we might plant another, of the cooking apple variety.
In Part 3 of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has Dolly decamp to her country house to save money. It’s an expedient move: the fishmonger, the woodmaker and the shoemonger are chasing for unpaid debts. Her daughter has been very ill. Her husband has been sleeping with the nanny of their six children. She goes away with her children, believing that the country will offer “salvation from all city troubles, that life there, though not elegant…[is] cheap and comfortable.” (I am quoting here from the award-winning translationby crack husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)
Country houses were no joke in those days. Here is Tolstoy’s own country house, the 32-room Yasnaya Polyana. This is a writer who knew the toll of seasons of hard weather on a country estate, and the real burden that supporting two residences can put on its owners.
The country does not live up to Dolly’s expectations. Her husband has been looking after the house. “Stepan Arkadyich, who, like all guilty husbands, was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort, looked the house over himself and gave orders about everything he thought necessary. To his mind, there was a need to re-upholster all the furniture with cretonne, to hang curtains, to clean up the garden, make a little bridge by the pond and plant flowers; but he forgot many other necessary things, the lack of which later tomented Darya Alexandrovna.”
What she finds is leaks, no cook, not enough cows for milk and butter, only roosters, and no one to wash the floors as everyone is working in the potato fields. The wardrobes open and close at the wrong times. There are no ironing boards.
Just when everything is looking bleak, a housekeeper appears and masterfully shapes up the house. “The roof was repaired, a cook was found, chickens were bought, the cows began to produce milk, the garden was fenced with pickets, the carpenter made a washboard, the wardrobes were furnished with hooks and no longer opened at will, an ironing board, wrapped in military flannel, lay between a chair arm and a chest of drawers, and the maids’ quarters began to smell of hot irons.”
With fast food, pressed clothes, and working cupboards, Dolly starts to feel at home in the country. The genius of Tolstoy is in these details. It’s not Anna Karenina who compels you through the book: although she gets top billing, she’s a cool and fairly flat character, what James Meek calls a mysterious absence at the heart of Anna Karenina. No, it’s the human truth in the detail, how the husband behaves when he’s guilty, and how the wife regains some order in her world by making the cupboards open and close at the right times, that drives the novel right through the centuries onto our shelves and screens today.
But back to our subject of country houses. For me, Dolly makes a mistake in thinking that the country should replicate the city. You see it happening all the time in magazines and property sections: glossy pictures of the second or even third home that’s immaculate, designer-perfect. Just the thought of all that work, to keep not just one but two or three homes looking decent, makes me feel exhausted. And I’m sure the husbands aren’t doing the upholstery.
A city house is on display. Windows are bay-shaped, made to be looked into. Curtains need to hang well, the carpets should be clean. Your clothes can’t be disheveled as you make your way blinking into the morning. The country is different: it’s the place where you go to not be on display. That’s the point of it. No corner shop, no delivery service, no wifi. Nothing for the children to do but scrabble around in the mud and make up adventure games. And for the adults it’s long walks in wellies, a bit of Tolstoy, and gallons of excellent cheap wine. Two changes of clothes is more than enough, you hardly get around to hanging them in the wardrobes which may or may not close. As Judith Warner writes in her perfect column about another chaumiere in Normandy: “Everything’s fine the way it is.”
We love feedback at Les Iris. We are always grateful when guests take the time to tell us what they liked, and what we could do better.
Best is when they share their holiday stories and pictures. One guest who stayed at Les Iris with his family recently shared these evocative and mysterious pictures of his time at Les Iris and in Normandy.