Cergy-Pontoise

Between Paris and the Park

Market and cathedralCergy and Pontoise are separate towns in France that have been blended together to provide a cultural reminder of the grown up city of Paris just down the road. They are situated about 30 kilometres to the north west of the capital city and both towns retain a distinct, individual identity. They lie below the southern edge of the much wider Vexin French Regional National Park. This vast estate is special in itself. It 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 10 other smaller centres, became an official ‘agglomeration community’. Together they form a very interesting location to visit to provide some respite from the hefty cultural explosion going on in Paris. This assembly of towns has a combined population of around 200,000 people. Cergy-Pontoise is declared officially as a ‘Ville d’Art et d’histoire’ implying a major role in the urbanity of France.

PontoiseThe familiar 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. Pissarro is buried in the large Pere Lachaise cemetery in eastern Paris.

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.

Pissarro MuseumThis 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. About thirty to forty minutes on a frequently stopping train is about the average.

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 very French town market running along at full pace. Beyond it, up the hill a little, rests St. Maclou Catholic Cathedral. This is a grand and solid structure as it 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 location also presents lofty views of the energetic River Oise flowing through the town on its way towards Cergy. The Oise is a powerful tributary of the Seine.

Garden Five SensesJust next door to the museum, visitors can find the garden of the ‘five senses’. This is a small and enclosed feature. 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. Visitors can take in the stunning views of the town centre spread out below.

Pontoise ‘centre ville’ is also home to two other significant art museums. They both feature very contemporary works to excite the modern imagination. Modern art forms have really fired the French national interest in recent decades. The country has always presented the latest trends and now exhibits contemporary works as part of an evolving artistic sophistication.

Maubuisson AbbeyThe Travet Delacour museum is one of these. It 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.

Move on to Cergy village next. Take a regular bus from Pontoise station or a walk along the uninterrupted pathway running alongside the river. I did just that when I was there on a beautiful spring morning. The view of the river and the cover of the natural countryside was magnificent but the distance, I suppose, was about five kilometres. The path led me directly to the enticing Port of Cergy where there was plenty of opportunity to take some ‘lubrication’.

Cergy portThis 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. The gastronomic social activity is always busy. Visitors can also walk across a bridge to enjoy the tranquillity of leisure locations and natural lake parklands. It is a peaceful area to stroll and meander within sight of the more dynamic form of human existence going on at La Defense in Paris. This can be seen in the distance on a bright day. There is much provision for disabled visitors in this splendid area.

Cergy village itself is quiet, peaceful and seemingly almost 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.

Axe majeurThere are twelve components to this sprawling ‘Major Axis’. The construction extends from the top of the town centre all the way down to an astronomical island feature in the river Oise well below in the valley. It starts high up with a great, bright white architectural crescent of contemporary buildings surrounding a tall viewing tower or belvedere. It moves on through gardens commemorating the impressionist artists and the establishment of the principal of human rights. As the terrain falls downwards towards the river, there are 12 arching columns to accentuate the view of the Oise river and the greater Paris beyond. Steps down to an amphitheatre and a bright red elongated footbridge extending to the river basin complete the magnificent effect.

Axe majeurThis architectural symbol represents a modern and natural urban landscape. The twelve features and the twelve columns symbolise time, the pace of human life and the very planet itself. It is a very modern monument, a shrine almost, to a contemporary 21st. Century France. It is an enormous and impressive feature built to last for all time. The linear positioning of the symbols have been aligned with the Champs de Mars that radiates outwards from the Eiffel tower in the centre of Paris.

The Axe Majeur is served directly by St. Christophe station in Cergy. You can’t miss it. At the station entrance you will find the biggest clock face in Europe. It is 11 meters across and seems the definitive single example of France’s idea of a vulgarized art form.

Cergy-Pontoise is a deliberately preserved conurbation that marks the entrance to Paris. It is a lived in and living statement in a way to present France and its capital to the rest of the world. It is about art and architecture from recent history but also about evolution and change in present times. Cergy-Pontoise detectably presents itself as a guardian of ecology. It confronts the emerging realisation that we have to face about climate change and new life styles. Take a look at it sometime and view the old Paris on the horizon. It is sobering to contemplate the comparison.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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