In the northwestern suburbs of Paris, Cergy is part of a new town built in response to the post-war housing crisis. Cergy joined its neighbouring commune to create the Cergy-Pontoise urban agglomeration, whose population soared from a few thousand in the 1950s to 200,000 today.
So, given the youth of the town, there are many modern buildings, most of which are still fresh today and summed up by Dani Karavan’s spectacular monument to Ax Majeur. But Cergy is also where Pissarro and other Impressionists painted the Oise in the 19th century, and traces of the ancient center of Cergy and Pontoise are embedded in the metropolis.
Let’s explore some of the best things to do in Cergy:
1. Force Majeure
Ax Majeur is a massive 30-year project, a large-scale contemporary sculpture by Dani Karavan.
Consisting of 12 “stations” extending over 3 kilometers in a straight line, it is the modern icon of Cergy-Pontoise.
Each station is a different attraction, whether it’s the banks of the Impressionist paintings or the Esplanade with views of Paris and La Defense to the southeast.
Work began in 1980 and was completed in stages over the following decades, with the final touches not being made until 2010. You will start at the Tour Belvédère, a 36-meter tower with laser beams marking the route of the monument.
2. Musée Tavet-Delacour
You couldn’t choose a more refined setting for this art and history museum.
The site is the former residence of the Archbishop of Pontoise, commissioned by the Archbishop of Rouen at the end of the 15th century.
The artwork inside is from the 20th century, with works by Matisse, Legros, Signovert and Jean Arp, as well as by Otto Freundlich, a pioneer of abstraction who was attacked by the Nazis in their “Degenerate Art” exhibition.
The historical exhibits are interesting bits and pieces, some of which were looted from the Royal Basilica of Saint Denis during the Revolution, thus including a Louis IX skull, a lock of Philip II’s hair, teeth belonging to Henry III and IV, and Legs of the mummified Catherine de’ Medici.
3. Camille Pissarro Museum
As we mentioned in the introduction, many painters came to Cergy and Pontoise to set up easels next to the Oise River.
But few people love this place as much as the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who lived in Pontoise for 17 years and often painted water here.
Pissarro has a painting, Barges à La Roche-Guyon, that combines a large number of paintings and prints by the artist.
There are also works by Pissarro’s three sons and famous Post-Impressionists such as Cezanne and Signac.
4. Pontoise Cathedral
The beautiful old church in the heart of old Pontoise was elevated to a cathedral in the 1960s.
It was first completed in the 12th century and then expanded in the 1400s and 1500s, so there is a mix of styles, from Romanesque to flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance.
The oldest part is the nave and apse from the 1100s, while the mirror tower and main portal are newer, dating from the 15th century.
Proceed to the chapel of the apse to see the Romanesque capitals, while a large amount of wooden ceremonial furniture has survived.
See the choir screens, pulpits, choir booths and walls around the baptismal pool, all made in the 17th century.
5. Modern Architecture
While Pissarro and Cézanne were drawn to the lights on the banks of the Oise in the late 1800s, the new town of Cergy-Pontoise inspired the likes of Eric Rohmer and Henri Vinay in the 20th century filmmaker.
Both directors used the town’s modern architecture as the backdrop for their films.
Most famously, Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends in 1987 set the tone for a sleek, contemporary setting.
Travel around town, admire the simple functionalism of the architecture, and take photos of quirky sights like Gare de Cergy’s 10-meter clock (the largest in Europe) and the Inverted Pyramid of the County Building.
6. Cergy Village
Bordering the Oise is the old core of Cergy, which was here long before the town’s rapid expansion in the 1960s.
There are several old streets around the church of Saint-Christophe, very different from the modern buildings of Cergy-Pontoise.
You can see the old Neo-Renaissance town hall and a string of quaint 19th century farmhouses.
Other clues from different eras include the clergy’s old “laundry”, the 19th-century public laundry (Lavoir de la Guêpière and Lavoir de la Fontaine Rousselette), where the villagers of Cergy would come to wash their clothes.
7. Upper Pontoise
Before the creation of the new town, Pontoise above the river was a historic settlement of about 10,000 people that was once the capital of the County of Vessin.
Like the Cergy Centre, the old town still exists, with 12 French “Historic Monuments”. One of them is the Carmelite Abbey, which dates back to 1605 and is the oldest still functioning monastery in France.
Although the church is still in use, it is open to tourists, and there is a small shop selling artisan gifts and postcards made by the monastery.
In addition, there are parts of the town’s ramparts at Rue de la Coutellerie and Boulevard Jean-Jaurès, while the Moulin des Pâtis is an 18th-century mill painted by Cézanne and is now a cultural center.
8. Église Saint-Christophe
Entering this church in the old town of Cergy is a strange but unforgettable experience: you will pass through a fine Renaissance portico and enter a part of the building that was demolished in the early 1900s, so it was Now as a kind of independent archway.
This leads to a courtyard where you can study the tower, whose lower level is as old as the 12th century but further rebuilt in the 16th century.
There’s a lot of history inside if you know where to look: check out the portal reliefs showing the lives of St. Christopher and Jesus in the Gardens of Tarmini, and the six capitals depicting biblical stories in the 1130s.
9. Île de Loisirs
Hidden in the meanders of the Oise is a massive 250-hectare site that can be used for water sports and various other outdoor recreational activities.
The six pools here are man-made, laid during the construction of the new city in the 1960s.
To this day, it is still a great place for Cergy-Pontoise residents to get active or to relax in summer: there is a beach, an artificial white water pitch, as well as a cable car and wave pool facility.
And that’s just water activities, as there’s also a climbing wall, treetop assault courses, archery and mountain biking trails.
10. Pontoise et ses Souterrains
There’s a small underground world beneath Pontoise, but if you want to see it, you have to be methodical.
Tours are available on Sundays and occasional weekdays, depending on the season, but you need to book in advance.
These are arranged by the tourist office and will guide you along the tunnels to the ancient quarries, stairs hewn out of the rock, cellars, water wells, underground chambers with stunning vaults and a tour from the 1100s to the 1600s A series of military installations from the 1990s.
When you go, the guide will explain the rooms as you travel from one period to another.
This town just minutes from the Oise River will forever be associated with another Impressionist master, Vincent van Gogh.
He was one of many painters, such as Daubigny, Camille Corot, Pissarro and Cezanne, who spent time in the town.
But this is also where he died, and you can visit the room where he took his last breath in Auberge Ravoux, as well as his grave.
If you’re curious about Van Gogh’s last few weeks in town, you can also stop by Paul Gachet’s home.
He was a doctor, befriended Orville’s artists, and treated Van Gogh in his final weeks.
You’ll know him from the iconic Dr. portrait.
Van Gogh’s Gachet, and his home appears in a painting by Cezanne.
12. Villa Savoye
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located just 20 minutes from Cergy-Pontoise in Poissy-sur-Seine.
In short, if you are an aspiring architect or love 20th century design, this mansion is a must.
It was designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret.
The Villa Savoye was a reference point for International Style and had a lasting influence on design.
It was built as a summer retreat for the Savoy family, who gave Le Corbusier complete freedom to apply his modernist architectural principles.
These required long horizontal windows to allow as much sunlight as possible, and an accessible roof with a garden and solarium.
13. Château de Maisons-Laffitte
About a 20-minute drive from Cergy-Pontoise, it is a landmark in every sense.
Château de Maisons-Laffitte is the most complete surviving building designed by the famous 17th century architect François Mansart.
Not only that, but this is one of the first Baroque buildings to be discovered in the country.
When it was completed in 1651, people from all over the world marveled at the innovation.
The ornate interiors are either left unscathed or have been sympathetically restored: they have a stunning central staircase, meandering four walls, and the apartment of René de Longueuil, who was financial director in the early days of Louis XIV’s reign .
14. Claude Monet’s Monet House and Gardens
It’s a half-hour road trip to Giverny, where Claude Monet’s home has been kept as if the artist had just gone out for a walk.
Monet lived here from 1883 until his death in 1926, and if you love his art, you should make a pilgrimage in person.
You’ll see his beautiful gardens, as well as the famous lily pond and bridge covered with wisteria.
But there are also buildings filled with Monet’s possessions, with interiors painted in the colors of the artist’s palette.
15. Going out
If you catch traffic, the country’s capital is less than 40 minutes away from Cergy-Pontoise.
We don’t need to tell you that Paris is virtually unrivaled in terms of culture, history, shopping, dining and nightlife, as well as attractions that everyone in the world will recognize.
Maybe you’ve reserved a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant or a seat at the Paris Opera a few months ago, or maybe you just want to visit the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame on a whirlwind tour.
Alternatively, you might want to follow in the footsteps of Pissarro, Monet and Van Gogh at the Orangerie, Orsay and Marmotin museums.
Well, your options are almost limitless.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Cergy, France
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