Between Paris and Rouen is an endearing little town on the Seine. There are streets of half-timbered houses, countryside châteaux, and numerous sights that you may just recognise from somewhere else.
That’s because they were painted by one of history’s greatest artists. Claude Monet lived just across the river and along with his friend Pierre Bonnard, is an inescapable presence in Vernon. He immortalised many of the town’s landmarks, and the museum one of Vernon’s “hôtels particuliers” contains two of his works.
At Vernon you could use impressionism as a uniting theme for all your activities: Visiting galleries, taking river tours and attending workshops, all retracing Monet’s steps.
Lets explore the best things to do in Vernon:
1. Vernon’s Streets
Vernon is just a small town and isn’t loaded with blockbuster monuments, but what it does have is a web of old streets with timber-framed houses from the 1100s up to the 1600s.
The oldest bits are around the collegiate church, and it’s worth going slow so you don’t miss anything.
The newer, residential parts of Vernon are still historic, and are a little grander, with long, arrow-straight avenues like Victor Hugo and l’Ardèche flanked by lime trees.
If you want to contemplate the Seine, Quai Garnuchot is a quiet lane with a grassy bank by the water.
2. Le Vieux-Moulin and Château des Tourelles
The Old Mill is a 14th century timber house balanced between two piles belonging to the ruined medieval bridge that once connected Vernon with Vernonet.
The rustic old house, with the Seine in the background is as photo-worthy as it gets, and the image regularly adorns postcards sold in Normandy.
Also handsome is the castle just up the bank.
The Château des Tourelles dates to the 1200s and has hardly been touched in 800 years: It’s a keep with four 20-metre-high towers, all bunched close together and capped with conical roofs.
3. Collégiale Notre-Dame de Vernon
Work began on this church in the 1000s but wouldn’t be completed for several hundred years.
So, as is often the case, there’s a medley of romanesque and gothic design from different periods.
The oldest parts are the choir and the transept from the late-1000s, while the ambulatory that surrounds the chancel is from the 1100s, making it one of the oldest in Normandy.
The marvellous rose window is in the flamboyant gothic style from the 14th century, and just below it in the gallery is the church’s organ, crafted in the 1600s.
Monet painted this monument six times in 1883-84.
4. Maison du Temps Jadis
One of the prettiest buildings in the town, the corbelled Maison du Temps Jadis is the Tourist Office for the Eure department.
Right next to the church, it should be your first destination after arriving in Vernon as you can get a map pointing out all of the significant buildings around the town.
The house also deserves a photo and some admiration, as it dates to the 14th century and is four storeys tall.
The timber framing and leaded windows are delightfully unsymmetrical: A little skewed, but all the better for it.
You can also beat the queues at Monet’s house by picking up your tickets here.
5. Château de Bizy
This imposing neoclassical estate is rather unusual as it’s a real, lived-in Château . And because this is a private residence the only way to view the interior is on a guided tour, which is given in French though an information pack is provided for English visitors.
You’ll hear about the aristocratic owners and the kings of France welcomed here, like Henry IV and Louis XV. The interior is appropriately lavish, with a gilded harp and harpsichord in the “Grand Salon” and paintings, sculpture, tapestries and period furniture throughout.
You’re free take a turn around the gardens, along a linden tree promenade and by the ageing fountains, one cascading down the slope.
6. Tour des Archives
The last remaining vestige of Vernon’s château is the circular former keep, which is in good nick considering it was built in 1123, by Henry Beauclerc, the youngest son of William the Conqueror no less.
The tower is 22 metres tall and is almost identical to the Joan of Arc Tower, built around the same time in Rouen, 60 kilometres to the north.
You can’t go inside sadly, but it’s a striking piece of history and connects with Vernon’s defensive walls.
7. Musée Alphonse-Georges-Poulain
This museum is in a gorgeous townhouse belonging to the Le Moine de Bellisle family, who occupied the property from the 1400s to the 1700s.
It’s one of those captivating small town attractions with a bit of everything: There are historical artefacts from around Vernon, taxidermies, a model of Vernon’s old château and a drawing cabinet with vintage graphic art and illustration.
But the museum excels for its impressionist art.
There are two paintings by Monet, joined by pieces by members of the avant-garde “Les Nabis” group, including Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton.
8. Claude Monet’s House and Gardens
Ten minutes away, on the opposite side of the Seine, is the house where Claude Monet lived for more than forty years up to his death in 1926. It can be pretty moving to sit down by the lily pond in his garden and know that you’re looking at a scene that inspired a style of painting that had never been seen before.
You’ll tour his house, unchanged for more than 90 years, and wander his gardens, which are a riot of colour right through to autumn.
The Japanese bridge in the Water Garden is still here, and you’ll get chills seeing his willow tree, wisteria and peonies just as they were when Monet painted them.
9. La Roche-Guyon
A quick 15 minutes upriver from Vernon is a little village that grew around an elegant château beneath a fearsome-looking defensive tower hewn from a chalk cliff above the Seine.
You can visit the château, which is mostly from the 1700s, together with the medieval tower above it, and there’s an extraordinary stairway winding up through the chalk and linking the two.
Once on the cliff-top you can look out over the village and the Seine as it meanders through the Parc Naturel Régional du Vexin Français.
In medieval times the castle controlled the river and many of the villagers lived in homes carved from the cliff right up to the 20th century.
10. Domaine de Villarceaux
Recognised as one of the “Notable Gardens of France”, the grounds of the Domaine of Villarceaux sprawl across 70 hectares and are connected to a manor house from the 1500s and a château from the 1700s.
The most famous former resident at Villarceaux was Françoise d’Aubigné, Louis XIV’s second wife.
Guided tours of these properties are available by appointment, and they’re full of paintings and period furniture from the 1700s.
But the water gardens are open to the public from spring to autumn and are fabulous.
Here intricately-patterned box hedges border a system of water features, with fountains, formal ponds, canals and an expansive lake.
There’s also a medieval-style medicinal garden
The 17th-century literary icon Madame de Sévigné gave Évreux the epithet “la Cité Jolie” (the pretty city). It took a bit of a bruising in the war, but is fine for a few hours of sightseeing.
The city is folded into the valley of the River Iton, and the best walks in the city can be had next to the river as all the main landmarks are nearby.
The belfry is right on the river and dates to the 1400s and is the only one remaining from this period in Normandy.
The Episcopal city combines the magnificent 15th-century gothic cathedral with the Bishop’s palace, which has a museum about the history of Évreux.
The traceries on the cathedral windows are stunning, and you have to see the walnut pulpit, carved by a monk in 1675.
At 45 minutes, Rouen is a must.
The first of many monuments to cross off is the cathedral and the delicate facade of the butter tower.
Yet again you’re following in Monet’s footsteps as he painted the portal of the cathedral repeatedly in 1894. After savouring the renaissance stained glass windows and the tombs of Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy, and Richard the Lionheart you can negotiate the streets around the cathedral.
Rue du Petit Mouton is a wonderful alley with 14th-century half-timbered houses that almost seem to bear down on you.
Your trip won’t be complete until you see the Musée des Beaux-Arts and its Monets, Caravaggios Renoirs and van Dycks.
A 40-minute drive north through green countryside and into the Lyons Forest will deliver you to an implausibly cute village.
Like La-Roche-Guyon it’s one of France’s “most beautiful villages”, centred on a ring of timber-framed houses around a covered marketplace from the 1600s.
The village is small but it speaks to the amazing preservation that you’ll need to see every corner before you leave.
There are antiques shops, crêperies and cafes inviting you to linger a bit longer.
14. Le Bois des Aigles
A bird sanctuary spread across five hectares of woodland, Le Bois des Aigles will go down well with the little guys and anyone with an affinity for birds of prey.
As you ramble on a trail you’ll come face to face with nocturnal and diurnal species like kites, falcons, a Chilean blue eagle, snowy owls and barn owls.
A visit will take just over an hour, and you should try to time it for either the raptor presentation at 11:30 or the falconry show at 15:30.
15. Chapelle Royale de Dreux
No more than an hour south of Vernon is the family necropolis for the Royal House of Orléans.
Historically, if there was no legitimate heir to the French crown someone from this family would ascend the throne.
There are 75 members of the family buried at the chapel, like Henri Count of Paris who was the claimant to the French throne (had it existed) from 1940 until his death in 1999. The 17th-century chapel was expanded in 1816 by Louis Phillipe I and contains cadaver tombs with rich sculpture, and an exquisite stained glass window in the dome.
If you come during the low season check opening times as the chapel is normally closed on weekends in winter.