In the northwestern suburbs of Paris, Cergy is part of a new town that was built to answer a housing crisis after the war. Cergy was joined to its neighbouring commune, creating the Cergy-Pontoise conurbation, whose population rocketed from just a couple of thousand in the 1950s to 200,000 today.
So given the town’s youth, there’s a lot of modern architecture here, most of which remains fresh today and is summed up by Dani Karavan’s spectacular Axe Majeur monument. But Cergy was also a where Pissarro and other Impressionists painted the River Oise in 19th century, and there are traces of the old centres of Cergy and Pontoise embedded in the conurbation.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cergy:
1. Axe Majeur
A mammoth 30-year project, the Axe Majeur is a vast work of contemporary sculpture by Dani Karavan.
It is made up of 12 “stations” extending in a dead straight line for more than three kilometres, and is the modern emblem for Cergy-Pontoise.
Each station is a different point of interest, whether it’s the riverbanks where the Impressionists painted, or the Esplanade de Paris, which has views of Paris and La Défense to the southeast.
Work started in 1980 and was completed in stages over the decades that followed, with the final touches made as recently as 2010. You’ll start at the Tour Belvédère, where there’s a 36-metre tower with a laser beam plotting the monument’s route.
2. Musée Tavet-Delacour
You couldn’t pick a more refined setting for this museum of art and history.
The venue is the former home of Pontoise’s Grand Vicar, and was commissioned by the Archbishop of Rouen at the end of the 15th century.
The art inside is from the 20th century and has pieces by Matisse, Legros, Signovert and Jean Arp, as well as those of Otto Freundlich, a trailblazer for abstraction who was attacked by the Nazis in their “degenerate art” exhibition.
The historical exhibits are interesting odds and ends, some looted from the Royal Saint-Denis Basilica in the Revolution, and so including a piece of Louis IX’s skull, a lock of Philip II’s hair, teeth belonging to Henry III and IV, and the mummified leg of Catherine de’ Medici.
3. Musée Camille Pissarro
As we mentioned in the intro, many painters came to set up their easels next to the Oise in Cergy and Pontoise.
But few were as ardent in their love for this location as the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, who lived in Pontoise for 17 years and often painted the water here.
There is one painting by Pissarro, Barges à La Roche-Guyon, combined with numerous drawings and prints by the artist.
There are also pieces by Pissarro’s three sons, as well as noted post-Impressionists like Cézanne and Signac.
4. Pontoise Cathedral
The fine old church in the centre of old Pontoise was elevated to cathedral status in the 1960s.
It’s was first finished in the 12th century and then expanded in the 1400s and 1500s, so there’s a melange of styles, from Romanesque to Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance.
The oldest sections are the nave and the apse, from the 1100s, while the photogenic tower and main portal are a bit newer, dating to the 15th century.
Make for the chapels in the apse to see the Romanesque column capitals, while there’s also loads of wooden liturgical furniture surviving.
See the choir screen, pulpit, choir stalls and enclosure around the baptismal font, which were all crafted in the 17th century.
5. Modern Architecture
While Pissarro and Cézanne were attracted to the light on the banks of the Oise in the late-1800s, the new town of Cergy-Pontoise inspired filmmakers like Éric Rohmer and Henri Verneuil in the 20th century.
Both directors used the town’s modern architecture as backdrops for their movies.
Most famous is Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends from 1987, where the stylish, modern setting sets the tone.
Take a trip around town to appreciate the clean functionalism of the architecture, and to get a photo of weird sights like the 10-metre clock (the largest clock in Europe) at Gare de Cergy and the inverted pyramid of the Prefecture 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.
Set around the Church of Saint-Christophe are a few venerable streets that are quite distinct from Cergy-Pontoise’s modern architecture.
You can see the old Neo-Renaissance town hall, and a string of quaint 19th-century farmhouses.
Among the other clues from a different era are Clergy’s old “lavoirs”, communal washhouses from the 19th century (Lavoir de la Guêpière and Lavoir de la Fontaine Rousselette), where Cergy’s villagers would come to do their laundry.
7. Pontoise Upper Town
Before the new town was created, Pontoise, high above the River was a historic settlement of around 10,000, and once the capital of the County of Vexin.
And as with the centre of Cergy the old quarter remains, and here holds 12 French “monuments historiques”. One of these is the Carmelite Convent, dating to 1605 and the oldest still running in France.
Despite still being in use the church is open to visitors and there’s a small shop selling artisan gifts and postcards made at the monastery.
Also, on Rue de la Coutellerie and Boulevard Jean-Jaurès there are portions of the town’s ramparts, while the Moulin des Pâtis is an 18th-century mill painted by Cézanne and now a cultural centre.
8. Église Saint-Christophe
Entering this church in the old part of Cergy is an odd but unforgettable experience: You’ll pass through a fine Renaissance portico, accessing a section of the building that was pulled down in the early 1900s, so it now stands alone as a sort of archway.
This opens onto a courtyard, where you can study the tower, which is as old as the 12th century at its lower level, but was rebuilt further up in the 16th century.
If you know where to look inside there’s a lot of history to uncover: Check out the portal bas reliefs showing the life of St Christopher and Jesus arriving in the Garden of Gethamene, as well as the six capitals from the 1130s illustrating bible stories.
9. Île de Loisirs
Tucked into a meander on the Oise is a gigantic 250-hectare site set aside for watersports and all kinds of other outdoor recreation.
The six pools here are man-made and were laid out in the 1960s when the new town was being built.
And to this day it remains a superb place for the Cergy-Pontoise’s residents to be active or relax in the summer months: There’s a beach, an artificial white-water course, as well as facilities for cable-skiing and a wave pool.
And that’s just the water activities, because there’s also a climbing wall, tree-top assault courses, archery and mountain-biking trails.
10. Pontoise et ses Souterrains
There’s a little underground world below Pontoise, but you have to be organised if you want to see it.
There are tours on Sundays and on occasional weekdays depending on the season, but you need to book ahead.
These are arranged by the tourist office and will beckon you down tunnels to ancient quarries, staircases hewn from the rock, cellars, wells, underground rooms with stunning vaults and a host of military installations from the 1100s to the 1600s.
As you go the tour guide will explain these chambers as you journey from period to period.
This small town a few minutes up the Oise will forever be associated with another Impressionist master, Vincent van Gogh.
He was one of many painters, like Daubigny, Camille Corot, Pissarro and Cézanne to spend time in the town.
But this was also where he died, and you can visit the room in which he drew his last breath at the Auberge Ravoux, as well as his grave.
If you’re curious about van Gogh’s last weeks in the town you can also stop by the home of Paul Gachet.
He was a doctor who befriended the artists in Auvers, and treated van Gogh in his last weeks.
You’ll know him from the iconic Portrait of Dr.
Gachet by van Gogh, while his home appears in a painting by Cézanne.
12. Villa Savoye
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 20 minutes down the road from Cergy-Pontoise, in Poissy by the Seine.
Simply put, if you’re an aspiring architect or love 20th-century design, this edifice is indispensable.
It was designed by Le Corbusier, together with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret.
Villa Savoye is a reference point for the International style, and has had a lasting influence on design.
It was built as a summer retreat for the Savoye family, who gave Le Corbusier total freedom to apply his tenets of modernist architecture.
These entail long horizontal windows to allow as much sunlight as possible and an accessible roof that has a garden and solarium.
13. Château de Maisons-Laffitte
About 20 minutes from Cergy-Pontoise is a landmark in every sense of the word.
The Château de Maisons-Laffitte is the most complete remaining building designed by the eminent 17th-century architect, François Mansart.
Not only that, but this is one of the earliest examples of Baroque architecture to be found in the country.
When it was completed in 1651 people came from far and wide to marvel at this innovation.
The opulent interiors have either survived unscathed or been sympathetically restored: They feature an astounding central staircase, winding up the four walls, and the apartment of René de Longueuil, who was Superintendent of Finances in the early years of Louis XIV’s reign.
14. Claude Monet’s Monet’s House and Gardens
It’s a half-hour road trip to Giverny, where the home of Claude Monet 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 owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage.
You’ll see his beautiful gardens, complete with the famous lily pond and bridge garlanded with wisteria.
But there’s also the building full of Monet’s possessions, and with interiors painted with colours from the artist’s palette.
15. Day out in
If you beat the traffic the nation’s capital is less than 40 minutes from Cergy-Pontoise.
We don’t need to tell you that Paris is almost unmatched for culture, history, shopping, dining and nightlife, along with sights that everybody in the world will recognise.
Perhaps you’ve booked a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant or a seat at the Palais Garnier months ahead, or you just want to see the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre-Dame on a whirlwind tour.
Or it could be that you want to follow in the footsteps of Pissarro, Monet and van Gogh at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée de l’Orsay and the Musée Marmottan.
Well, your options are almost limitless.