Pontoise is located in a remote north-west suburb of Paris, in the metropolis of Cergy-Pontoise.
This “new town” was built in the 1980s and became a reference in urban design and cutting-edge architecture.
Cityscapes appeared in several films in the 1980s, such as Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriend and Girlfriend.
Even Cergy-Pontoise packs a punch, especially when you see Dani Karavan’s incredible Ax Majeur.
In Pontoise, you can go deep into the older side, where Impressionists like Pissarro painted the Oise, and there are a bunch of medieval tunnels under the street.
For day trips and night out, Paris trains are always only half an hour.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Pontoise:
1. Force Majeure
This huge monument is difficult to describe because it is made up of several things.
Ax Majeur was designed by Dani Karavan while the new town of Cergy-Pontoise was under construction.
Beginning with an observation tower, it is a dramatic group of sculptures that run along a straight line over three kilometers long.
Laser beams from the tower point out the route down the slope above the Oise and across the river.
The line passes through 12 stations, each with a special significance to the town: it includes the banks of the Oise, painted by the Impressionists, and the man-made islands built in the Sergi Pond on the other side of the Oise.
2. Gare de Cergy-Saint-Christophe
Train stations don’t usually appear on the list of essential attractions, but St Christopher’s Station is special: inaugurated in 1985, it embodies the bold design of this new town.
The clock above the entrance is the largest in Europe, a huge glass cylinder ten meters in diameter, conceived by Philippe and Martine Deslandes in collaboration with watchmaker Huchez.
More recently, the clock has been incorporated into the Axe Majeur, opening up the Tour Belvedere’s perspective.
3. Camille Pissarro Museum
The Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro was so fond of Pontoise that he lived here for 17 years.
This museum in the red-brick Louis XIII mansion on the plateau above the river has only one Pissarro work.
But this work, which depicts the banks of La Roche-Guillon on the Seine, is a wonderful souvenir for the Impressionists fleeing Paris to paint the West River.
The rest of the museum’s works are from this period and are represented by Cezanne, Daubigny and Paul Signac.
4. Musée Tavet-Delacour
A lovely 15th century Gothic mansion is home to the Pontoise town museum.
The building, commissioned by the Bishop of Rouen for the priest of Pontoise, is in good shape with corner towers and skylights. The exhibits inside are varied, with 20th century art and historical artifacts.
Constructivist painter Otto Freundlich and artists such as Matisse, Arp, Legros and Signovert had sizable exhibitions.
See also a group of medieval church sculptures and seven chinoiserie canvases that once belonged to Count Maupeou Ableiges.
5. Carmel de Pontoise
The oldest Carmelite abbey in France was founded in 1605 and is located outside the center of Pontoise, but is now surrounded by the streets of the new town.
The monastery is decorated with 17th-century art such as altar hangings made of embroidered red silk, Spanish-style lace altarpieces and a collection of paintings.
There is also a precious reliquary that went missing after the Revolution, but was rediscovered at an auction in Alençon and brought back to the monastery.
Carmel de Pontoise is a working convent, so only the church is open to the public, but there is a small shop here that sells handicrafts and postcards to raise money.
6. Tour of Old Pontoise
The buildings along the Pontoise River are hundreds of years old, and there are many small attractions to add to your itinerary.
Most of these are not open to the public, but should still be seen from the outside.
Moulin des Patis is an ancient waterwheel painted by Cezanne.
The Hôpital des Enfermés is a historic monument with an 18th-century façade that was converted from a hospital to a school.
The fortifications of Pontoise can also be seen on the river, and there are also forts on the hillside.
7. Souterrains de Pontoise
Beneath the old town of Pontoise by the Oise River is an underground world of cellars, vaults, tunnels, quarries and caves.
You can see them every Sunday on a guided tour led by the Tourist Office.
They first excavated chalk and limestone in the 1100s and expanded into the 1600s.
You’ll descend with a guide who will open seemingly innocuous hatches in the streets to reveal surprising underground spaces.
When you go, you’ll learn the stories behind these rooms.
8. Église Notre-Dame
Although the main church of Pontoise was completed at the turn of the 17th century, it was built on top of a 13th-century cathedral that was destroyed in the French Wars of Religion.
The replacement was given a set of fine paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The church was restored in the 1800s with concrete floors.
To do this, many tombstones dating back to the days of the Old Gothic church were torn up.
You can find fragments of them in strange places, like on the steps of the main entrance and the stairs leading to the altar.
9. Île de loisirs de Cergy-Pontoise
If you like sports in July and August, you just have to cross the Oise to a huge activity center.
There is a 250-hectare site on the meanders of the river with about 150 lakes.
When the weather is nice, you’ll have a huge swimming area, as well as water sports facilities such as whitewater rafting, canoeing and sailing.
There’s more on land, including a children’s mini-train, tennis courts, tree-top rock climbing, hiking trails through the forest, bike rentals and mini golf.
10. Église Saint-Christophe de Cergy
The best thing about this church next door to Cergy is that it grabs your attention as soon as you arrive: it’s the Renaissance portal, which came from a part of the church that was never finished.
So all that stands is the portal to the courtyard, which was originally the interior of the new church.
Above it is a Romanesque bell tower built in the 12th century.
The interior of the church has been extensively remodeled over the centuries, but still retains traces of the past, such as the 11th-century arch and the capital under the tower.
11. Vexin Français
The avant-garde Cergy-Pontoise urban agglomeration is ironically the capital of an old rural area known for its agriculture and rolling chalk hills.
Vexin Français escaped the worst of the French Revolution, and the village is filled with houses, churches and castles dating back hundreds of years.
If you want ideas for a driving tour, head to Nesles-la-Vallée, famous for its fortified farms, Arthies and Haravillier, with their old pigeon lofts, and Amenucourt and Gargenville, with their communal laundry.
Vetheuil was Monet’s home, while La Roche-Guyon has a sprawling medieval fortress cut out of chalk.
Like Pontoise, this town a few minutes to the east was beloved by the Impressionists, who planted easels by the river and painted landscapes around the town.
No one is more revered than Vincent van Gogh, who died in Auvers in 1890. You can visit the hotels he passed by, as well as his tomb and the house of his physician Dr. Gachet, which the artist is famous for.
Van Gogh stayed in Auvers for a while and painted cityscapes, so you can compare his work to the streets as they appear today.
Château d’Auvers has a neat exhibition showing Impressionist masterpieces in rooms with period furniture.
13. Maison Castle
When it was completed in 1651, François Mansart’s Chateau de Maison was declared the Tour de France.
It’s interesting to say now, but people have never seen this kind of baroque architecture, and it becomes a curiosity when people see it from afar.
The owner of the shop, René de Longueil, the high-flying financial director, is under house arrest for an extravagant party arousing the suspicions of Louis XIV.
The palatial neoclassical interior is the work of François-Joseph Bélanger, employed by Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVI.
14. Forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Also to the south, this vast forest begins at the Maison Estate to the east.
Like all the large woodlands around Paris, it was a reserve for royalty, who would hunt deer and wild boars through a system of avenues through the woods.
This network of roads still cuts through the forest, providing walkers and cyclists with a clear path through oak and beech forests.
In some ways, this 35-square-kilometer park is better than true wilderness, as there are always traces of royal heritage here.
See if you can find Louis XIV’s Château de Var, or the Pavillon de la Muette, a Louis XV hunting lodge built on a medieval castle.
Paris will be waiting, and you won’t be able to resist its call to the shopping, food, culture and sights everyone knows and loves.
The RER C and Transilien lines will take you to the city center in about half an hour.
What you can do in Paris is entirely up to your taste, because whether you like food, music, art or nightlife, the City of Lights has something for you.
If you’re young and fancy a thrill, head to louche La Pigalle, the shabby 10th arrondissement, trendy Montreuil and edgy Le Marais.
If Pontoise’s association with Impressionism inspires you, the Musée d’Orsay, Orangerie, Monet are some of the best of their kind on the planet.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Pontoise, France
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