Travel: The tale of two ghost towns

Air travellers to Paris could find themselves landing in some unfamiliar places.
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The Independent Culture
The best airport in Paris is the oldest, Le Bourget, just a few miles from the centre. Next, both chronologically and geographically, comes Orly, nine miles from Notre Dame, the official heart of Paris. Charles de Gaulle is a poor third, born in 1976 and 14 miles out. But from this week, British travellers will be able to choose from two more: Cergy- Pontoise and Beauvais.

Until the Channel Tunnel came along, the busiest international air route in the world was London to Paris (it has since been overtaken by London to New York). On Monday, the route receives a boost with two flights a day, each way, on Debonair. You fly from Luton (32 miles from the English capital) to "Paris Express" airport, aka Cergy-Pontoise. The Official Airline Guide says it is "a mere 35 minutes from the city's heart".

Cergy-Pontoise is not your average tourist destination. Cergy-Pontoise, begun in 1965, is known for motorways and urban sprawl at the end of the RER line, but the old town of Pontoise was once the capital of the Vexin. That sounded promising and, thanks to the one-way system and complexity of the signposting, it is easy enough to find this historic remnant. We did - three times.

Sitting on a steep bank overlooking the river Oise, a potentially picturesque clutter of ramparts, villas and steep narrow streets winds up the hill to the neglected-looking cathedral of St Maclou, Pontoise's chief claim to a tourist sight. It is worth a look, with sculpted portal, Gothic interior and a few carved Romanesque capitals in the nave left from an earlier church. Most interesting, though, is the Baroque Deposition in a chapel to the left of the main door, with eight life-size marble figures in an alcove in the wall and, above it, a painted wooden Resurrection and a parade of nuns.

On a wet Saturday, however, you could take Pontoise for a ghost town. It did not bode well for lunch. Next to the cathedral, on the Place du Petit-Martory, the tourist office was closed. Back down at the bottom of the hill we hoped we could find somewhere to eat along the quais and crossed the river into St-Ouen-l'Aumone, another fragment of Oise village, where Queen Blanche of Castille founded the abbey of Maubisson in 1236.

A friendly cafe at the end of the bridge yielded a satisfactory steak- frites and a ham and cheese salad and seemed to be where the few locals alive congregate of a Saturday. Pascale, holding forth at the bar, was talking of emigrating - to Brittany. Could we blame him?

We persevered in our sightseeing mission back to the top of Pontoise to the Musee Pissarro, the first floor of a suburban-looking red brick house on the site of the long-gone chateau constructed by Louis VI the Fat in the 11th century. There is a pretty little Signac and a Lucien Pissarro although only etchings by Camille Pissarro himself, who lived in Pontoise in the 1870s.

Apart from one elderly parishioner, we were the only visitors at Pontoise's second historic church, Notre Dame, with a much-altered interior, the Gothic tomb of local saint Gauthier, and a Renaissance porch. Tablets giving thanks to the Virgin reminded us that the miraculous statue in the chapel on the right of the entrance once drew pilgrims.

As a tourist destination Pontoise airport could find itself suffering a similar image problem to Luton; still, it's only 20 miles from Paris. "Glasgow gains its first non-stop link with Paris", promises Ryanair. Its new service begins on Thursday. Glasgow's principal airport is Prestwick, 32 miles from the city it purports to serve. Travellers arrive even further from a city centre; "Paris Tille" airport is outside Beauvais, 50 miles north of Paris.

Beauvais is in Picardy and there is already something of a feel of the north: low rise, lowlands and a jolly group of Barbour-clad hunters back from a day's shooting chatting at the bar where we stopped for coffee. We did not have much luck with the tourist office here, either, although a notice on the door assured us that the closure was exceptionelle.

Still, the main sight is impossible to miss. The historic town was virtually flattened by Second World War bombing in 1940 but what has to be the strangest cathedral in France is a miraculous survivor, sticking up at the heart of Beauvais and dominating the basin from afar. It has the tallest Gothic vault in the world and a spectacular crown of flying buttresses. The feat entailed numerous construction problems, as first the choir had to be rebuilt and then the spire collapsed. The nave was never built at all and the church suddenly stops in a wall at the transept, which only serves to accentuate the impression of verticality.

On one side of the choir is a curious astrological clock made by the local watchmaker, Lucien-Auguste Verite, in 1865-68. It is a 19th-century extravagance of turned wood, gilt, dials and automata of extraordinary complexity (90,000 parts, 65 automatons and 52 dials); a ship sails past Jersey, and figures on the top enact a scene from the Last Judgement. Around the corner is a clock dating from the 14th century.

Next to the cathedral, a medieval gateway with bulbous fortified towers leads into the 16th-century bishop's palace, now the Musee Departemental de l'Oise, where we joined other international refugees from the rain to discover the city's illustrious heritage: carved wood details from destroyed half-timbered houses, stone sculptures, Nabis paintings, some fantastic Art Nouveau furniture and several of the tapestries for which the town was famous, including the History of the Gauls cycle originally woven for the cathedral.

The tapestry industry reached its peak in the 18th century and then stopped altogether when the factory was evacuated to Aubusson in 1939, but in the past couple of years there has been a revival. The Manufacture Nationale de la Tapisserie has opened in a converted abattoir and, during the week, you can watch weavers make tapestries here.

The Eglise St-Etienne is another survivor: more impressive flying buttresses, gargoyles, and a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque, although here what happened to the town is even more evident: the church stands on a traffic island.

For all that, though, it would be easy to come back to Beauvais for a lazy day or two.

Debonair (0541 500 300) will fly from Luton to "Paris Express" airport at Cergy-Pontoise from 16 November, and is promising a lowest flexible fare of pounds 90 return. Ryanair (0541 569 569) is to start flights from Prestwick, near Glasgow, to Paris Beauvais on 19 November, minimum fare pounds 70 return plus pounds 8 for the bus to Paris