The ‘D’ roads of France hold countless fascinations, picturesque villages, the most delightful landscape and inevitably a very welcoming Auberge.
One short stretch of the D913 between the Seine and the Vexin Plateau in only a few kilometres offers contrast, interest and an intangible atmospheric quality; no doubt the same intangible quality which attracted Claude Monet to the area.
The road is never far from the willow and poplar banks of the Seine or the Epte. During the summer months it can be flanked by fields of wild flowers including of course, an impressionistic sprinkling of red poppies. Nowhere can you appreciate the work of the impressionists more than in this area where the landscape still provides scenes which inspired Monet and his friends to paint.
Before reaching Vétheuil, the road from Giverny passes through La Roche-Guyon. This small locality has developed at the foot of a 12th-century stronghold, which now remains the guardian of the village.
It is the château, however which provides the village with an air of regal importance. Unlike most château locations it is surprising to find this residence with no surrounding parkland or formal gardens. It lies at the western end of the village, sandwiched between the Seine and the high chalk cliffs which border the valley.
Originally, cave dwellers dug homes into the face of the limestone cliffs; in fact the château itself is honeycombed with cellars and was hollowed out of the rock. Over the centuries of course it has evolved into the magnificent facade we see today.
Created in the 13th century, the château has seen many changes of ownership and in more recent history it became the headquarters for Field Marshall Rommel during 1944. From here he was instructed to stop the huge numbers of English and allied troops invading the northwest coast of Europe. As the centre of such high level military operations it became known as the most occupied village in France.
It was also at La Roche-Guyon that Rommel served the final months of his career. On July 17th 1944 he was returning to the château when his staff car was machine gunned from the air by a British aircraft. His driver was killed and Rommel seriously injured. Following hospitalisation he was sent home to Bavaria.
During his stay at La Roche-Guyon Rommel became well-liked by the villagers despite the circumstances in which they found themselves captive. Insisting that his soldiers treat the village and its inhabitants with due courtesy and respect, Rommel’s compassionate style even ensured that no swastika ever flew above the château.
Today of course, a much more peaceful environment surrounds the village. The Promenade Fluviale beside the Seine is a pleasant retreat which overlooks the surrounding countryside and meandering river. On Sunday afternoons the promenade becomes a favourite strolling place, a picnic spot for families and a scenic location for artists.
Continuing towards Vétheuil, the D913 passes the intriguing settlement of Haute Isle, believed to be one of the oldest inhabited areas of the region. Until the 18th Century there were no houses above the ground. They had all been hollowed out of the chalk cliffs, not unlike the troglodyte dwellings of Touraine. Beyond a small graveyard, lies the Church of the Annunciation, entirely excavated out of the chalk cliff, a task which began in 1670 and completed some ten years later. Even the pulpit was carved out of the chalk.
It is now but a short distance to Vétheuil where a riverside setting and artistic associations provide a wealth of interest and atmosphere.
To lovers of the impressionist school the 12th-century church of Vétheuil is well known, perched high above the tumbling village overlooking one of the wide curves of the Seine. It fits beautifully into the landscape, the steep brown roof in harmony with the village below, built almost entirely of the cream stone so characteristic of the area.
Vétheuil was undoubtedly one of the more rural locations that Monet discovered and where he found nature. Once asked by a visiting journalist to see his studio, without hesitation Monet walked to the window of his house, threw it open and pointed to the landscape surrounding Vétheuil; “Voila !!” he replied.
Monet’s years at Vetheuil were mixed with sadness and elation. It was here that he and his wife Camille with their two young sons settled with Alice and Ernest Hoschedé with their six children. The Hoschedé family had lost their Chateau home through bankruptcy and Monet had become increasingly attracted to Alice. His paintings were not selling well and the entire household experienced a life of penury. At one time Monet was seen bartering a painting for children’s shoes.
Camille soon became ill and was nursed by Alice Hoschedé until she died at the age of 32 in September 1879. Following Camille’s death the relationship between Alice and Claude Monet enriched into a life-long bond.
The winter of 1879 was extremely severe and the village was cut off for weeks. Undaunted, Monet painted the ice flows on the Seine, enduring the extreme discomfort in order to catch the nuances of light and colour on the wintry scene. These paintings sold so well that in June 1880 Monet was relieved of financial burden and became firmly established in the eyes of influential dealers.
At Vétheuil Monet said he fell in love with the rural scene and concentrated on the weather and seasons as they played across the village and surrounding landscape. Today, Vétheuil still retains its rural beauty and original character, time it appears has simply passed it by.
On the day of my visit, after climbing the well-worn steps to the church I surveyed the surrounding scene before making my way back to the river. Here I sat and appreciated an impressionistic scene, much as Monet must have done more than a hundred years before.
Swifts circulated above me, darting in all directions over the open space beside the Seine. The birdsong background was broken only by the sound of wood being chopped across the river in Lavacourt. I watched the clouds form above the wooded hill behind the village and looking westward to Lavacourt, the skyline was broken only by willows and the impressionistic poplars. It seemed the very shapes of the trees and their position on the riverbank had changed little since Monet had included them in his paintings.
The area remained silent, so silent in fact that a passing barge could be heard for an age.
It eventually passed continuing on its way, the bargee’s wife checking the dryness of her blue and white washing hanging the full length of the deck.
The sky was brightening and a lone fisherman appeared, standing in the river in front of Monet’s trees. As I walked back to my car, there seemed to be roses blooming everywhere, fragrance in every alleyway. Monet would have liked that I remember thinking.
So ended another pilgrimage into Monet country and once again the D913 had transported a traveller back in time through a landscape which continues to speak of its past.
La Roche Guyon beside the Seine
La Roche Guyon Chateau and Castle
Haute Isle Church
The Seine at Vetheuil
Vetheuil and Church Steps
Vetheuil, Church Tower and Steps
Vetheuil, Steps to the Seine
Vetheuil, Steps and Cottages
Vetheuil, Poppies Beside the Seine