In Monet's Garden"

Seven-year-old Melanie was in a hurry. Not even the crowds of tourists, dismal weather or her older sister's indifference could slow her down.

She raced through the historic house in record time and wouldn't stop until she found exactly what she'd come to see. Finally, amid the trees and blooming flowers, she spotted the small, wooden footbridge. Melanie was as excited as if she'd been handed (ital) carte blanche (unital) at her favorite toy store. She ran back and forth over the little bridge, dodging the crowds of Japanese and German tourists, a big grin plastered on her face.

Of course, this wasn't just any footbridge, but the curved Japanese bridge overlooking the lily ponds Claude Monet immortalized in so many of his paintings.

We were in Monet's garden behind his big vine-covered house in the small village of Giverny, about an hour's train ride from Paris, walking amid the rows of riotously colored flowers -- bluebells and pink peonies, roses, nasturtiums, poppies and hibiscus -- that had given the great artist such inspiration and pleasure. After Monet's death, the gardens were left to ruin and were only restored in the late 1970s. Today, they draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

Melanie ignored the crowds. She got out her colored pencils and papers to sketch, ``just like Monet,'' she said seriously.

That chilly Sunday morning in Giverny, I don't know which pleased our second-grader more -- that we'd come all the way here because she'd wanted to see the place or because she'd fulfilled a fantasy she'd harbored for months.

``This is my day,'' Melanie kept reminding us and anyone else who could speak English. Vacations -- especially big trips across the ocean -- are a lot about making fantasies real, for kids as well as adults, whether they want to tour a castle, meet Minnie Mouse, sleep on a train, ride the latest theme-park thrill ride or shop at a world-famous department store. That's why on our recent trip to Europe, I made it a point to let all three of our junior companions -- Melanie, my 12-year-old daughter Reggie and her friend Emily Thomas -- have a say in the agenda. I wasn't just being nice: I discovered early on the kids were far more amenable to our sightseeing choices when they knew their picks were just as big a part of the itinerary as ours.

The two older girls, predictably, opted for the Eiffel Tower and to shop till they dropped, especially for World Cup souvenirs at the always crowded France 98 store in Paris and at Harrods in London.

Ever since I'd told Melanie months ago that we were going to France, meanwhile, she wanted to visit Monet's garden. It wasn't as strange a request as it might seem coming from a 7-year-old. Melanie had just been introduced to Monet and Impressionism in school, proudly bringing home the Japanese footbridge she'd painted in art class. She'd also read Christina Bjork and Lena Anderson's lovely ``Linnea in Monet's Garden'' ($13, R&S Books), which tells the story of a little girl who travels to Paris with her friend Mr. Bloom just to visit Monet's garden and see his paintings.

Melanie acted as if her trip to France wouldn't be complete without a visit to the garden, while the two 12-year-olds acted as if the excursion would be a big yawn -- until we said we'd stop at the soccer souvenir store that evening. Later, I realized that Melanie's insistence prompted us to do something we wouldn't have planned otherwise but all enjoyed -- even Reggie and Emily, who sketched in the garden alongside Melanie.

Getting to Giverny was relatively easy: a train ride from Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris to Vernon followed by a 10-minute bus trip -- along with all of the other tourists -- to Giverny and Monet's house, where he lived from 1883 until his death in 1926.

The house is furnished as it was then, from the blue-tiled kitchen to yellow dining room table, the white lace curtains and family photos in the bedroom.

But because of the crowds and the don't-touch-anything rules, the kids couldn't get outside in the garden fast enough.

Whatever Monet's house lacks for American children, they'll find down the road at the airy Musee d'Americain. In fact, a new summer program offering children's afternoon art lessons was just being launched when we visited, with the cost included in the museum admission. The museum cafe is a good bet for lunch, too. Even better, there's a family guide to the museum.

Curator Maureen Lefevre, an American, explained the museum was founded to explore the connections between French and American artists, including Mary Cassatt, Theodore Robinson and Theodore Earl Butler, who came to France in droves to paint at the turn of the century. Giverny was home to a large American art colony.

Melanie thought she would have fit right in. Later in Paris at the Musee D'Orsay, which houses one of the world's greatest collections of Impressionist art, Melanie recognized the garden in some of Monet's work: I was sorry we didn't get to The Orangerie museum in the Tuileries Gardens where Monet's huge water lily paintings hang.

Melanie didn't care. The gardens, she said, were more fun than museums.

Trains travel several times a day from Paris Saint-Lazare station to Vernon and back. Check when you arrive in Paris for exact times. The fares are less than $25 round trip: We used our multi-day French Rail passes for the trip. If you buy a ticket at the train station in Paris, ask about the ``Discovery for Two'' discount fares.

Monet's house and gardens are open from the end of March until November. Admission to the Claude Monet Foundation is 35 francs for adults, about $6, and 20 francs for children, a little more than $3. Call 02-32-51-28-21.

Admission to the Musee d'Art Americain Giverny is 20 francs for adults and 15 francs for children. Call 02-32-51-94-65 for more information about the new children's art program.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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