Cergy and Pontoise are towns in France that blend to provide a cultural hint of Paris – just down the road. They are situated about 30 kilometres to the north-west of the capital and both towns retain a distinct, individual identity. They lie below the southern edge of the Vexin French Regional National Park. This vast estate is a symbol of ecological evolution emerging from the vast hoard of local natural resources. Opportunities for sports, cycling, walking and ‘green living’ are in abundance there.
In 2004 Cergy and Pontoise, along with ten other smaller centres, became an official ‘agglomeration community’. Together they form a very interesting location to visit. Cergy- Pontoise is officially a ‘Ville d’Art et d’histoire’ implying a major role in the urbanity of France.
The association with Paris is very strong. Cergy-Pontoise is the second French home of impressionist art. Camille Pissarro spent many years living and painting there. Many of his greatest works depict the peace and beauty of French country living. Paul Cezanne was also a great contributor of similar artistic subjects originating from Pontoise. Pissarro and Cezanne were mutual admirers and many of their original works are exhibited in the town.
Cergy-Pontoise was also the origin for many life changing national events that occurred during the Franco Prussian War. This war resulted from Germany’s ambition to expand its territory in the nineteenth century. Germany had occupied all of north eastern France and was bent on advancing into Paris City itself. The history is presented in a number of museums in the agglomeration community. Cergy-Pontoise is a rather curious and understated offshoot of the wider France of today. It presents a poignant contribution to French history, culture and society. It also presents the reality of a much gentler market town environment and slower pace of urban life. These two principal towns are bound together eternally by a smooth bend of the river Oise that provides a form of mutual communication.
A sound place to begin a visit is from the main station in Pontoise town. Leave by the main exit and you are faced with the market. Beyond it, up the hill, rests St. Maclou Catholic Cathedral, a grand structure awhich surveys the town centre beneath it. The Church was elevated to Cathedral status in 1966 when Pontoise became a Diocese and is an official ‘National Monument of France’. The construction began in the 12th. Century and it retains many architectural features of ancient note.
St. Maclou is close to the surviving fortifications or ramparts of the town. They can be visited via a series of steps and within them there is much to relish. A museum presenting many of the paintings of Camille Pissarro is located in a grand bourgeois house on top of the walls. The works of many other artists from Pissarro’s period are also exhibited. The museum offers lofty views of the energetic River Oise, a powerful tributary of the Seine, flowing through the town on its way towards Cergy. Just next door to the museum, visitors can find the garden of the ‘five senses’. All of the plants growing are labelled by signs written in Braille. Their scents can be very easily identified and appreciated by people with visual difficulties. This little corner of the ramparts occupied by the museum and the garden is a wonderfully ‘cosy’ location with stunning views of the town centre spread out below.
Pontoise ‘centre ville’ is also home to two other significant art museums featuring contemporary works. The Travet Delacour museum is in a 15th. Century listed building in the town centre. The structure is an interesting art form in itself. The other museum is on the edge of town beyond the bridge over the river. It is in the medieval Maubuisson Abbey and is a must to visit. The building itself presents many ancient features that blend so well with the contemporary art works sheltered by them.
Take a regular bus from Pontoise station or walk along the uninterrupted 5km pathway running alongside the river. The view of the river and the natural countryside is magnificent. and the path leads directly to the enticing Port of Cergy.
This port is the biggest marina in the Paris area providing berthing to many privately owned and extravagant vessels. The port is also home to numerous restaurants, cafes, pubs and terraces. Visitors can walk across a bridge to enjoy the tranquillity of leisure locations and natural lake park lands wtith a view of the dynamic form of La Defense in Paris.
Cergy village itself is quiet, peaceful and feels quite isolated from the rest of the working planet. On the northern edge of the town though, visitors will find another great feature of Gallic cultural evolution. It is a vast, contemporary and architectural symbol called the Axe Majeur.
Cergy-Pontoise is about art and architecture from recent history but also about evolution and change in present times. Cergy-Pontoise presents itself as a guardian of ecology. It confronts the emerging realisation that we have to face about climate change and new life styles. Looking at this place with a view of old Paris on the horizon makes for a sobering to contemplation.
This collection of associated suburban living centres is easy to travel to from Paris. The RER line C can be taken from a number of departure points in the Capital and takes about 30-40 minutes.
Bob Lyons is a former pilot turned travel writer.