Meetings with Monet

Meetings with Monet

In 1872, Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise depicting the early morning fog in Le Havre’s harbor on Normandy’s coast, about 2½ hours north of Paris. Monet and his contemporaries escaped to these shores to paint en plein air (outdoors) in loosened cravats and corsets to capture on canvas a more experiential connection with nature. Sunrise gave birth to Impressionism, the 4-hour seaside picnic and another French cultural contribution—the afternoon dalliance.

From June 4-Sept. 26, the first-ever Impressionist Normandy Festival will celebrate the romantic art movement across the region. Planners can create an unforgettable group program that’s never been offered before, by combining the festival’s activities with art-themed experiences in Paris.

In the city of Rouen (between Le Havre and Paris), the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts will be the festival’s HQ, displaying some of the world’s greatest Monets, Pissaros and Gauguins on loan from around the globe. Just down the road at Monet’s home and waterlily pond in Giverny (pron: JEE-vair-ni), 60 paintings will be on temporary view by artists including Manet, Matisse, Renoir, van Gogh, Sisley and Suerat.

Nice place for a garden picnic with chilled beaujolais, crunchy bread and soft brie in the oyster-colored light.

“I have been meeting with tour operators and meeting planners from Japan, Germany and America, and all of them say, ‘We are including Rouen now for our groups visiting Paris in summer,’” says Yves Leclerc, director of the Rouen & Seine Valley Office of Tourism. He says some are interested in 1-day trips and others want three, “because then they can travel one day to Giverny and one day to the coast.” He adds that Rouen Tourism will be the DMC of record.

“This is our home, we know it best,” he asserts, while also mentioning Rouen’s new signature spa hotel, the 78-room Hotel de Bourgtheroulde opening in spring.

In November, Prevue joined American buyers and French suppliers for a preview of the festival. We gathered in the salon above Rouen Tourism’s office facing the gothic 13th century Rouen Cathedral. From this airy well-lit room, Monet painted the church 11 times in various weather and times of day, with another 19 painted nearby. Art critics call the series of paintings “the climax of Impressionism,” the last one of which sold for $24 million in 2000.

We sampled activities available for planners, such as a 2-hour painting class in this room. We toured the countryside to the spots overlooking the city where masterworks such as Monet’s Vue de Rouen were painted. Group lunches and art lessons are easy to combine with this tour. A docent led us through the Rouen Museum, which houses one of Monet’s cathedral paintings, Vue and dozens more.

And we enjoyed a gourmet lunch in the grand covered courtyard at the Rouen Museum, with Monet’s cathedral painting brought in on display for the occasion. Capacity is about 125. So what are some of the paintings groups can expect to see this summer?

“I have the list, but we are keeping secret for now exactly which paintings we will have,” says Monsieur Leclerc. “But, I can tell you we will have 10 Monet paintings of Rouen cathedral and the most Pissaros ever in one place.”

THE LITTLE BLACK DRESS Each September, Hollywood glitterati such as Brangelina and George Clooney descend on the annual American Film Festival in Deauville, near Le Havre. The classic seaside resort town is back in vogue with the new movie Coco Before Chanel, partially filmed in Deauville where the pert design ingenue debuted her “little black dress” before storming Paris.

Our “Red, White & Blue” buyer/supplier conference took place at the upscale 291-room Hotel Normandy Barrière in Deauville. The hewn timber hotel’s interiors are replete with updated period furnishings and flowery rosé and blue wallpaper, but the crowd is savvy and sophisticated. Meeting space includes 19 breakouts on-property and the 194,000-sf International Center of Deauville conference center across the street, between clay tennis courts and an Olympic-size swimming pool fronting the sea, while the yacht marina and polo grounds are just around the corner.

Standing shops for Hermès, Ferragamo, Prada et al are a 1-minute walk away. We loved the fresh seafood at Le Chatham brasserie (seats 250) in the city of Trouville across the river from Deauville. And definitely schedule time to explore the quaint harborfront cheese/wine shops and bistros in the authentic port city of Honfleur just 10 miles away.

“The historic aspect of Normandy is absolutely fascinating to me because it’s quintessentially French with an English flair, with the Tudor architecture,” says John Huffman, vp of sales for NJ-based Meeting Alliance, who also attended this trip. “And wasn’t Rouen magnificent? I always try to promote art and history in our programs, especially in France because it’s beyond compare to anywhere else.”

HILTON ARC DE TRIOMPHE PARIS There’s a Facebook group called Everything Sounds Sexier in French. Not when I speak it so I check into the modern Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris near the Champs-Élysée. The 463-room hotel is elegant, efficient and geared especially well for Francaise-challenged Americans on business.

The Duke Ellington music in the grand glass lobby meshes discreetly with the Art Deco theme and fluted gold-leaf embellishments throughout the six year-old hotel. The place is full of business suits but the vibe is all Parisian in The Purple Bar, lit up like a classy Jazz Age speakeasy. It’s here where I meet Stéphanie Rambaud, director of sales, for espresso.

“We always receive great feedback from US meeting planners about the hotel’s Art Deco style,” she says. “It’s not what people expect, it’s quite fun, yes?” Rambaud explains the Hilton was purpose-built for groups, and “the spacious rooms and suites with modern technology that does what it says it should always makes a great impression with planners.”

Grab the 33 rooftop suites with terraces overlooking the city or 8,600-sf interior garden. The 19 breakouts surround the ground floor with loads of natural light streaming into the glass-enclosed rooms that open out into the gardens.

I tell Stephanie I’m interested in visiting lesser known cultural venues that cater to corporate groups, like the Jacquemart-Andre Museum. So I ask help with directions.

Meet Tony Le Goff, chief concierge. He pulls out his card, a map and draws directions for the 10-minute walk. Then he calls ahead so I can avoid what “certainement” will be a long line, before floating back beaming with pride. I love this guy. “Just go to the front of the line and show them my card,” he says with a brilliant smile. “Voila!”

I glide through the queue and into the private mansion built in 1875 to house banking scion Édouard André’s collection of art. He had a thing for the Venetians apparently, with Bellinis, Carpaccios and Botticellis spread around the many upstairs rooms. Visiting exhibitions take over anterooms like the Greco/Dali show coming in March. This—is Paris.

Downstairs, the overtly opulent and majesterial Second Empire Painting Room, Dining Room, Le Grand Salon and Music Room—with a Tiepolo fresco on the 50-ft ceiling—were designed to entertain guests. They still do, together hosting elaborate sit-down dinners for 270, much like the banquet scene in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). Look into booking the elegant café for more casual group meals.

THE PARIS OPERA Phantom of the Opera fans will fall victim to the exhaustive eloquence of the neo-baroque Paris Opera, which can host elaborate champagne recitals for up to 1,200. This staggering 1874 building is at the epicenter of French culture.

Next door to l’Opera, InterContinental Paris Le Grand is the essence of classic Paris—the Grand Dame hotel. Entering the massive salon is like walking through a threshold into another century. Everything is hushed among the crowd sitting in red velvet chairs below the grand chandelier and glass roof. I order my first-ever glass of rose sancerre because this seems like the place to do it.

InterConti’s Opera Salon ballroom is a national monument, as is its restaurant. Café de la Paix is the definition of café society, where Oscar Wilde held court on the terrace and Prince Charles dines when in town. The 16€ French onion soup is a rite of culinary passage. (editor’s note: the 55-room sister hotel, the InterContinental Paris Avenue Marceau, opened off the Champs-Élysée two days before press time.)

By the way, if you’re around the opera house, walk to Harry’s New York Bar. After ordering a pastis, I notice the barman making an inordinate amount of bloody mary’s. Always the investigative journalist, I see a Newsweek story on the wall dated Jan. 2, 1967 explaining the drink was invented here in 1920 to allay hangovers. And I learn in For Your Eyes Only, James Bond loses his virginity here. Today, it’s an old boys club but post-war Parisian cool to the hilt. Capacity is about 50 max without upsetting said barman.

THE ART COMA Hyperkulturemia is a psychosomatic illness that causes people to become dizzy, hallucinate and faint when exposed to great art. The Louvre Museum (hosts 3,500) can do that to you. Within walking distance to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, The Westin Paris is a historic 1878 hotel but last year’s complete renovation is eminently sophisticated and even sultry. The aptly named le First, restaurant boudoir paris is all plush violet settees and gold taffeta curtains with a contempo French menu. The Tuileries Bar is like a secret refuge with dark woods, oil paintings, red leather chairs and dark crimson walls.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Heike Ströhmann, key account manager, meetings & incentives. “You have a landmark building with a contemporary feel, there’s not all that heavy red velvet.” She adds that Yves St. Laurent held all his fashion shows in the Imperial Ballroom. “We do amazing galas there recreating the ambience of a night in Versailles with valets dressed in imperial livery and powdered wigs.” Through August, an all-inclusive 4-night package runs 2,000€ for two.

Ströhmann recommends three museums for group events. We can’t agree enough about the Rodin Museum, centrally located on seven acres in the heart of the Left Bank. The former residence and atelier of sculptor Auguste Rodin houses The Thinker and The Kiss sculptures in the formal gardens. It was originally the Hotel Brion, built in 1731, and you can deeply feel the presence of Rodin throughout the many rooms, especially those still with the artist’s tools and unfinished sculptures. Outdoor tents cater up to 1,500.

The nearby Orsay Museum (hosts 600) houses the world’s greatest collection from the Impressionist schools. The Degas ballerinas are in a protective lowly lit room that feels like a church. This is a must, after Mona/Venus across the river.

And last is Ströhmann’s fave, the Orangerie Museum. Never made it to this one, but she explains that eight huge Monet paintings wrap around the walls inside two contemporary oval spaces, breathing diffused light through the ceiling windows. “Aaah, it’s incredible,” she says. “You stand in the middle of the room and you’re swimming in Monet.”