Early in the day, a breeze made the purple blossoms of wisteria, dangling from a steel gray vine draped over a stone wall, dance. The busy aural embroidery of bird song that had awakened us an hour earlier had yet to fade. As we approached a man with a pungent pipe walking his dog on the main street in Giverny, an hour west of Paris by car, he nodded at us knowingly. "Vous serez les premiers," he said with a chuckle. "Bonne visite!"
To my astonishment, we really were the first ones to be admitted when the doors to the house and gardens of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet opened at 9:30 a.m. on this Thursday in mid-May. Once inside, we found ourselves alone exploring the handsome rooms of the house where the artist lived from 1883 until his death in 1926, and it was an exultant, almost shockingly intimate experience. In Monet's original studio, I fought off the temptation to ruminate on a tufted chaise longue covered in faded floral chintz. Sunlight streamed through the open windows of the large, high-ceilinged room, which he later repurposed as his smoking room and a reception parlor for dealers, artists and professional callers. Reproductions of Monet canvases perched on wooden railings shared space with caramel-colored pine wainscoting, a red Oriental carpet and a few wicker side chairs. The mise-en-scène was so perfect that I jumped when I heard heavy boots grind the gravel path just outside the open window, briefly fearing I might be accused of trespassing by a hugely famous and rather ursine artist with a bushy white beard.
To best experience the great painter's sanctuary adjacent to the banks of the Seine, you need silence and solitude -- most easily achieved by visiting on a weekday and arriving the night before, so that you can beat the tour-bus hordes on mad-dash day trips from Paris and the cruise ships docked in Norman ports. During the annual season -- this year from March 29 to Nov. 1 -- Monet's house and gardens, which are run by the Fondation Monet, will receive more than a half-million visitors. And for good reason: the estate is an exquisitely staged setting that enshrines both the artist's jaunty bohemian taste and his respect for the bourgeois rites of courtesy, comfort, leisure and gastronomy. The gardens in particular were a great source of pride for Monet: "My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece," he once said.
Until recently, the problem with this early bird strategy was that there wasn't really anyplace special to stay or eat in Giverny. But that changed last November, when the chef Eric Guérin, a local who now runs La Mare aux Oiseaux, a charming inn with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Brière region on the French Atlantic coast, opened Le Jardin des Plumes, just a 10-minute walk from the Monet site.
"I learned that this beautiful old house was for sale from my mother, who runs an art gallery just outside of Giverny," Mr. Guérin told me last year after a superb meal at his Brière inn. "Immediately I knew I wanted to buy the old house, a 1912 manor house built by the architect Armand Picard, who worked for Gustave Eiffel and also the Compagnie de Chemin du Fer Métropolitain de Paris, and create the hotel Giverny had been missing." Easier said than done, as it turned out, since even a chef as accomplished as Mr. Guérin had a challenging time getting a loan.
When the money finally came through, he set to work on reconfiguring the handsome limestone house with teal-blue-painted half-timbering into an intimate hotel, with four rooms and four suites, a cozy bar next to the reception area, and a dining room with a stylish décor by Mr. Guérin's mother, Michèle. The renovation spared the restaurant's vintage Art Deco tile floor and the marble mantelpiece around the original fireplace. But it otherwise eschewed belle époque nostalgia in favor of a calm, clean scheme of taupe and ash gray, glass dividers and tables with linen runners and contemporary tableware.
Arriving late on a sunny afternoon, my partner, Bruno, and I settled into our duplex suite. It included a sitting room with an overstuffed Art Deco lounge set; a bath with a glass wall prettily etched with water lilies (the only wink at Monet's oeuvre I noticed at the property), a soaking tub and separate shower; and an exceptionally comfortable bed in the sleeping loft reached by a flight of wooden stairs. We immediately headed out to take in the terrific exhibition of Paul Signac paintings (though July 2) at Giverny's charming Musée des Impressionnismes, which replaced the original Musée d'Art Americain in 2009. As I had hoped might be the case, we were almost alone in the museum at the end of the day, allowing us to savor the fascinating contrast between the candy-colored pastels Signac favored at the height of his career and the subtle but powerful composition of his canvases.
Intent on being the first ones through the door at Monet's estate the following morning, we dined early on Mr. Guérin's cuisine, as executed by a talented young chef, Joackim Salliot. The light and flavorful spring menu included a smoked egg in chicken bouillon doused with Lapsang souchong tea, potato purée and chicken rillettes; grilled maigre, or croaker, threaded with bear's garlic and garnished with pickled onions; and saddle of lamb with bulgur and wasabi yogurt.
As I listened to the frogs in the garden below and caught a glimpse of a new moon through the larch trees, it was easy to understand why, at 53, Monet eagerly gave up the suburbs of Paris for this Norman village. In its serenity, he discovered a muse, as well as the ability to explore a sort of cultural muddling -- seen here, for example, in his exceptional collection of Japanese prints -- that would deeply influence 20th-century art.
By the time we had finished visiting Monet's house, the gardens were packed with people taking pictures of the tulips and irises with their iPads. So we did what the artist would doubtless have advised us to do, and escaped deeper into the surrounding countryside. We headed to lunch by following the Seine to nearby Gasny. It was a blissfully absent-minded pleasure to drive along the river's verdant banks, partly hidden by the long skirts of beech and willow trees that line the country roads. In the garden of the charmingly old-fashioned L'Auberge du Prieuré, we had a fine meal of soft-boiled eggs with creamed morel mushrooms and juicy steaks with an impeccably made red pepper-infused sauce Albuféra. Our soundtrack: the wisecracking of a bunch of middle-age French pharmacists and their wives who had arrived on lovingly polished Harley-Davidsons.
After lunch we visited the chateau of the celebrated de la Rochefoucauld family in La Roche-Guyon, which is sheltered by a steep chalk cliff and has an 18th-century riverside garden that was restored in 2004. The rest of the afternoon was spent reading against the soothing backdrop of the fountain and brook in the beautifully landscaped grounds of Les Jardins d'Epicure, where we stayed that night, an exceptionally pleasant hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bray et Lu, a town set amid the rolling hills and wooded stretches of the Parc Naturel du Vexin.
In the morning, a cornflower blue sky was filled with big, woolly white clouds, and the window above the hotel's breakfast buffet framed a bucolic tableau Monet would doubtless have admired: bordered by the leafy edges of a hedge, the lush green field across the road was inhabited at varying depths of vision by cream-colored cows, some standing and some sitting. There's no disputing the charms of Giverny. But the real discovery of a night or two in the country just outside of Paris is that so much of the same pastoral beauty that seduced the artist survives intact.
IF YOU GO
It's a 45-minute train ride (27.80 euros, about $35 at $1.25 to the euro) from the Gare St.-Lazare in Paris to Vernon, the town nearest Giverny, followed by a 15-minute bus transfer from the Vernon station (4 euros). By car, Giverny is 50 miles northwest of Paris via the A13 highway.
WHERE TO STAY
Rooms at Le Jardin des Plumes (33-2-32-54-26-35; lejardindesplumes.fr) range from 180 to 320 euros. The prix fixe lunch menu is 29 euros; prix fixe dinner menus range from 36 euros for three courses to 80 euros for seven.
The surprise at Les Jardins d'Epicure (33-1-34-67-75-87; lesjardinsdepicure.com; rooms from 110 euros) is the large indoor swimming pool; its terrace also serves as the hotel's dining room.
WHERE TO EAT
Aside from the excellent restaurants at those spots, L'Auberge du Prieuré (33-2-32-52-10-01; aubergeduprieurenormand.com) in Gasny has friendly service, a pleasant setting and good-value prix fixe menus featuring well-prepared traditional French comfort food.
In Vernon, Le Bistro des Fleurs (33-2-32-21-29-19; bistrodesfleurs-vernon.jimdo.com) is a popular spot offering a regularly changing chalkboard menu, which features dishes like homemade terrine de campagne and roast lamb.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.