I didn’t intend for a Japanese theme to my long weekend in France. For vacation my daughter asked to visit her old buddy from Maine who had moved to the Parisian suburbs. I’ve always wanted to see Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and our host, Elizabeth Webb, suggested the Albert-Kahn Gardens (above) in the outskirts of Paris.
In the 1880’s Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny. It was there that he painted his famous lily pads. Although Monet never visited Japan, he collected beautiful Japanese woodblock prints which are displayed in his house and well worth a visit on their own. Local carpenters recreated the Japanese bridge.
The flower beds were as cheerful as Monet’s green-shuttered pink house. The formal grid design of the upper gardens were distinctly French. The bulbs were planted by color type and carefully balanced. The blocks of bright color were reminiscent of the multicolored rooms inside: a sun yellow dining room with 56 Japanese prints, a pastel blue parlor and an azure blue tiled kitchen and many others. It felt more like an artist’s palette than a decorating scheme. I loved it.
The daffodils were fading, but the tulips were out in full force with the blooming fruit trees. The bright colors softened the regimented symmetry.
The lower garden with its serpentine of water, arched bridge, weeping willows and thick groves of waving bamboo felt understated and Japanese. All it seemed to miss was a teahouse to view the splendor. My favorite gardens are in Kyoto where every blossom or stone is carefully chosen, all working together in asymmetric harmony.
But even in Monet’s Japanese-style garden, the colorful plantings, blooming in reckless abandon, felt more extravagantly western . The pansies glowed in the sunlight as did the azaleas. In pockets of peaceful contemplation, I could appreciate how this garden became Monet’s muse.
I was sorry to miss the irises, roses and lilies pads but not the crowds that accompany them. Over a half million visitors come annually to the Giverny gardens that are only open April to October.
We had lunch at the Museum of American Art’s Terra Café. We ordered crostinis with an interesting fruit and vegetable salad and an excellent raspberry tart for dessert. My ten-year-old daughter enjoyed the American style kid’s menu. The service was fast, and the dining room, open to the gardens, was very pleasant.
If Monet’s Giverny is one of the most famous French gardens, the Albert-Kahn Gardens are the most obscure. Albert Kahn was a wealthy banker who dreamt of world peace. The museum houses his early photography collection, but it was closed for renovation. The gardens were designed to reflect his vision of internationalism. Kahn had traveled to Japan in 1909 on business.
The Japanese garden was too busy with layered stones, thick plantings and multi-level vistas to be Asian. There was a gaudy hill of solid azaleas with a spiraling path. It had an almost Disney theme park feel to it, but of course that made it all the more appealing to the children, who raced up the paths and skipped along the stepping stones. There was a delightful, playful quality to the garden.
The huge carp were genuinely Japanese. My daughter and I shared a Zen moment watching scattered rain drops falling on the pond, creating concentric rings. I’d love to return for a tea ceremony in the teahouse.
By the time we made it to the English garden, it was (appropriately enough) raining quite hard. It wasn’t the best example of English gardening, but daffodils blooming along a stream did bring to mind London parks.
We loved the rough, hilly paths winding through a conifer forest. The pines smelled fragrant in the rain and reminded us of hikes in Maine, although it was meant to invoke the Vosges Mountains of Kahn’s childhood. There was even an American meadow but not much was blooming.
It was a bit of a shock to come upon the traditional French garden after the wild forest. Early in the season, one could see how the crab apple trees were twisted and bent into geometric shapes and pinned like torture victims on a rack. Although all the gardens were artificial, it was only in the French garden that one felt keenly aware of man’s hand in shaping nature to his design.
The Albert-Kahn Museum and Gardens
14, rue du Port
Tel: 01 55 19 28 00
Open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-7 or 8pm
Metro: Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud (ligne 10)
€1.5 (free for under 12)
For dinner we continued the japonais theme. Elizabeth’s friend Akiko claims that Kunitoraya is the most authentic Japanese restaurant in Paris. It’s a simple noodle shop, and it did indeed feel like I was back in Tokyo.
In Japan restaurants tend to specialize in only one type of food so there are noodle shops, sushi restaurants, yakitori grills, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants and even restaurants serving just breaded fried pork cutlets. There are no “Japanese restaurants” in Japan – that’s a western export. As are large servings of meat or deeply battered tempura. Real Japanese tempura comes lightly battered and isn’t greasy so you can really taste the fresh vegetables.
Kunitoraya sells only noodles and a few rice dishes. My daughter ordered plain noodles in broth, and the rest of us had Kamaten-Udon (€15). We watched them prepare our meal from the noodle bar. All the staff appeared to be Japanese as were half of the clients – always a good sign.
I explained to our friends that you have to slurp the long, slippery noodles, the louder the more polite. The thick wheat noodles (udon) were the best I’ve had outside Japan as was the tempura. They came with a warm dipping sauce to which you add fresh ginger, toasted sesame seeds, chopped scallions and a raw quail’s egg (that had to be a French addition – it usually would be a raw chicken’s egg.)
Kunitoraya was in the Asian district that included many Japanese, Chinese and Korean restaurants. It was at 39 Rue Ste. Anne near Rue des Petits Champs and is open every day from 11:30am to 10:00pm. Great place for an early, inexpensive dinner with kids. You can sit at the bar or in the cave like basement at a table.
I rounded off the evening with a French motif: fine wine and cheese back home with my friends. It was a fun weekend of dual cultures. Like quails eggs on udon, France and Japan are a good pairing.
This post was part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Click on the link to see what else was blooming around the world on April 15th.