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Short Break in Arras
Whether you’re on the ground, high above it or far below it, Arras has all the ingredients for the perfect short-break.
Think about a city break in Nord Pas de Calais and most people automatically head for the bright lights of Lille or the historic old quarter of Boulogne. But if you fancy a town that combines stunning architecture with great restaurants, fascinating heritage sites with modern retail therapy, start thinking Arras instead.
The capital of the Pas de Calais department is just 75 minutes’ drive from Calais but is all too often bypassed by Brits racing past on the motorway. And yet Arras is the short break or stopover that really does offer something for everybody.
The town’s biggest tourist asset is its vast twin squares, laid out in the 1300s to host trade fairs. Still lined with 155 gabled houses and galleried shops, the Grand’Place and the Place des Héros represented Medieval commerce on an international scale with merchants flocking from all over Europe. Visit on a Wednesday or Saturday and you’ll still catch the market stalls.
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Best start to any visit is the Tourist Office at the Town Hall on Place des Héros where a few euros will buy you admission to the Historama, a slightly whimsical but informative overview of the town’s colourful past. For a literal overview, take the combination of lift and stairs to the top of the ornate belfry – one of many across northern France given World Heritage Site status by UNESCO and lit to spectacular effect every evening.
The free tri-lingual Guide Pratique, updated annually, is packed with ideas and tips. To get your bearings, try following the 2km walking trail marked by studs in the pavement which takes in the two squares, plus the 18th century Italianate theatre, reopened this spring after a three-year restoration programme; the 18th century cathedral; and adjacent St Vaast Abbey, now the town’s fine art museum.
Arras was a prosperous place to live in the Middle Ages, becoming famous in the 15th century for its tapestries or ‘arazzi’ - Shakespeare scholars will remember Polonius who made the fatal mistake of hiding behind one to eavesdrop on Hamlet. See a rare example in the Musée des Beaux Arts.
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Vauban made his appearance in the 17th century, commissioned in 1667 by Louis XIV to build a fortress in his trademark star-shaped design. The prolific military architect surrounded France with a ring of fortresses and fortified towns, but the citadel at Arras is one of his finest achievements and is one of 14 currently being considered by UNESCO for World Heritage Site status on the 300th anniversary of his death.
A century later, Arras was the home town of Robespierre, key figure in the French Revolution, but it was World War I which really brought the town staggering into the international headlines. Archive photos from 1914 show the twin squares bombed almost to oblivion, the gabled houses, belfry and Town Hall reduced to piles of rubble. Only three houses round the great squares survived intact.
Two years later, the area was chosen by the Allied General Staff as the starting point for a diversion offensive and on 9th April 1917, the British First Army - made up of four Canadian divisions - launched a successful assault on nearby Vimy Ridge. The front was eventually pushed back by around 10 km.
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But Arras picked itself up after the Great War, determined not to lose its architectural glory. Thanks to a law passed in 1919 which stated that historic monuments damaged by war should be identically rebuilt, we can now enjoy the Flemish architecture of the two great squares just as they would have looked in the 18th century. But do look out for the red brick gables of Les Trois Luppars at the north end of the Grand’Place, oldest house in Arras and last rebuilt in 1467.
Vaulted arcades still line the perimeter of the squares, a shady spot to enjoy a meal on a hot day, a dry place to stroll in a shower. This is the place to stock up on unique craft items and food specialities, like the traditional blue and white china produced at Au Bleu d’Arras on Place des Héros. We were lucky to catch owner Maurice Ségard hand-painting a stack of bespoke plates to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Albert Roux’s famous London restaurant Le Gavroche.
A few doors further along we found the delicious Coeurs d’Arras, small hearts of spiced gingerbread made to a closely guarded recipe by patissier Sébastian Thibaut, and chocolate rats filled with crunchy praline. A local speciality from chocolate maker Yannick Delestrez, they commemorate the rat that has appeared on the town’s seal since the 14th century, a play on the words of ‘arras’ and ‘a rat’, the latter pronounced with a French accent of course.
Look along the arcades for the handmade soap shop and the beer emporium, the wine and cheese shop, and a wide range of eating establishments that includes La Faisanderie, the last word in local fine dining. Each property around the squares has its own cellar, but the trap doors and steps hide more than just another wine store.
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Arras is built upon a 10th century chalk quarry, abandoned in the Middle Ages as trade prospered and merchants needed storage space. So the cellars are linked together to form a vast network of underground passages known as Les Boves.
Guided tours run regularly throughout the day from the Tourist Office and it’s a unique 40 minutes through an underground maze, used for storage, shelter and even as British Army HQ during the Great War. Each new opening leads in a different direction but fortunately the multilingual guides know the area intimately.
Wellington Quarry, one of three linked quarries on the edge of town, enabled 24,000 allied soldiers to emerge unseen and launch their 1917 offensive. Visitors tour the tunnels in the footsteps of the soldiers who lived and waited there.
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We were treated to a tour of a very different kind of cellar at La Corne d’Or, a beautifully restored 18th century townhouse just off the Grand’Place and perfectly placed for enjoying the town’s many restaurants and watering holes on foot.
Once the guest ‘wing’ to the house of a wealthy town merchant, this stylish chambre d’hôte is now run by the hospitable Franck and Isabelle Smal. Guests have a choice of five highly individual bedrooms as well as unrestricted use of a delightful breakfast room and private lounge, complete with coffee, soft drinks and home-made cake. A real find.
If you’re interested – and who wouldn’t be – Franck will proudly show you his extraordinary cellar. The rumble of traffic over the cobbles fades as you descend through three levels to a vaulted brick chamber which, Franck believes, was once connected to a nearby church, long since destroyed. An unexpected and fascinating aspect of a town that is jam packed with surprises.
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