Paris lies is the center of Ile-de-France, the most populated region in the country with more residents than Austria, Belgium, Greece, Portugal or Sweden alone. It boasts the world’s fourth-largest and Europe’s wealthiest and largest regional economy. But one small corner of the region paints a very different picture. Just a thirty minute drive north from the Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, lies a ghost town where very little has changed since the mid-twentieth century, except for one deafening adjustment…
Goussainville-Vieux Pays was a quiet little farming village, 20 kilometres away of the hustle and bustle of Paris. At the heart of the village, is a the skeleton of a once grand 19th century bourgeois chateau, overlooking the town’s renaissance church with its rich history that residents once took great pride in. But in the 1970s, the fate of this calm suburban town changed drastically.
A quiet farming village no longer, in 1972 the residents of Goussainville were suddenly under the direct flightpath of the newly-built Charles de Gaulle Airport. The town was now so close to the country’s largest airport in neighboring Roissy that the noise from low-flying planes became unbearable to live with. Residents of the old village watched as neighbors deserted their homes in droves, unable to stand the constant noise of the aircrafts.
The chateau was built in 1860 for a Monsieur Théodore Frapart, whose father served as mayor of Goussainville in the early 1800s. As the town’s wealthiest family, it’s likely they were first to abandon their home in Goussainville, unable to tolerate the noise of jumbo jets flying overhead, disturbing their garden parties.
The house appears to have been the victim of a fire, which claimed the roof, leaving the interior with its ornate frescoes to the elements. It is still owned by Monsieur Théodore’s descendants.
As I teeter over the edge of the doorway (the floors fell through long ago), for a moment I can almost appreciate the quiet beauty of this decaying giant. A swallow has made a nest for herself in a corner above a crumbling cornice.
And then the thundering roar of a boeing 747’s engines shatters the sombre silence.
But noise wasn’t the only concern for the residents of Goussainville. A year before the airport even opened, during the Salon de Bourget airshow taking place in the proximity of the new CDG airport, a Soviet prototype plane to become a Concorde competitor crashed in Goussainville, destroying several houses and a children’s school that was luckily closed on that day. All six passengers on the plane and eight people on the ground perished. And then of course the airport opened, constantly reminding residents what might happen again. By 1974, the last 200 inhabitants of Goussainville had abandoned their homes.
Responsible for the abandonment of almost 150 properties in the village, the airport authorities were forced by decree to buy the abandoned houses and look after them. It had probably not been taken into account that Goussainville’s Renaissance church, Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul was ranked as a historic monument along with all of the buildings within its perimeter. Of the 144 houses, the airport acquired 80.
With no option to demolish them, they were walled up and despite the agreement, left to decay.
Even the 14th century Renaissance church began to deteriorate into a sorry state until 2010 when after years of abandonment, local authorities finally stepped in and began efforts to restore it. But still, the jets roar overhead.
The only place which still breaths life within this village is the Libairie Goussainlivres. Opened in 1997 and situated in a charming 19th century house this bookstore plays home to 700m of shelving stacked with an array of second hand books that line the walls of the living rooms. There you will find Nicolas who will happily greet you in a fashion that almost makes you forget the uninhabited silence this village holds.
However, there is no peace to be found in this seemingly picturesque suburban village. Upon arrival, you will be greeted with the screeching of airplane jets. Not more than a minute will pass before the sounds of chirping birds is eclipsed. You’ll have to raise your voice to finish your sentence.
A new and functioning Goussainville does exist today where most of the old residents moved. However it’s probably one of few towns in the world that can say it shifted itself several kilometers to the left. Meanwhile, in the old town, or the ‘vieux pays’ only a handful of faithful residents remain. In 2009, Aéroports de Paris sold half of the historic village back to the community for a symbolic price of 1 euro.
But if you were to take a little detour outside of Paris, you would still find this village frozen in time. The only evidence of a world moved on would be a few cars and the distinct and frequent noise of airplanes passing overhead. In fact the only time this village hears peace since the 1970s is during airport strikes or during incidents like the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded air travel across Europe.
Protected by its history by damned by the future, the fate of old Goussainville is an eerie paradox. Perhaps just a shadow of things to come…
For more Parisian discoveries like this, find all of Messy Nessy’s Parisian treasures when you pre-order my book “Don’t Be a Tourist in Paris”.