Be entranced by the Baroque beauty of the Pas-de-Calais capital on a city break
Arras has a timeless air about it. I’m standing in Place des Héros, the smaller and prettier of the city’s two main squares. Surrounding me is the smooth symmetry of 155 baroque façades, topped with curvy Flemish gables and tailed with porticos. At ground level, many of the 17th- and 18th-century townhouses have café tables spilling out into the square. The 16th-century Hôtel de Ville is a study in flamboyant Gothic, with the 75m belfry soaring behind and crowned with a glittering statue of Arras’ emblematic lion. It’s that golden hour in the late afternoon when everyone has finished work and is sitting in the sun with a beer or a glass of wine.
A similar scene awaits a few metres away in Grand’Place: it’s bigger, with more gables and, unlike pedestrianised Places des Héros, full of parked cars. But the baroque façades are there too, in greater numbers, punctuated by the lone crenelated rooftop owned by the Hôtel Les Trois Luppars.
Then you spot little art deco motifs and realise things aren’t quite as they seem. About three-quarters of Arras’ centre was destroyed during World War I and what I’m seeing is an exquisitely constructed replica created in the 1920s and 1930s; hence the art deco touches.
In the south-east corner of Place des Héros, I peer into the lens of a timescope and find myself in medieval Arras. This clever contraption gives a virtual-reality view of the square as it was centuries ago, when houses were made of wood. It also hints at a different side to Arras that lies under the cobbles.
A journey below ground
I head into the Hôtel de Ville – whose elaborate murals also celebrate life in medieval Arras – to meet Coline. She’s my guide to the Boves, a captivating subterranean world that goes back to the 10th century. As we walk though limestone quarries 12m deep, Coline explains how the stone was extracted through what looks like superhuman effort. When the quarrying stopped sometime around the 12th century, this vast network of tunnels became cellars for the shopkeepers and tavern-owners above, and many of the vaults are still in use.
Back above ground, I’m reacquainting myself with the wonderfully rich food of the Pas-de-Calais region. Even in this land of famously pungent cheeses, Maroilles stands out for its knock-your-socks-off aroma. No wonder it goes so well with the northern French take on a Welsh rarebit (succinctly called ‘Le Welsh’). I enter the temple of cheese that is La Prairie off Place des Héros, where I’ve never seen quite such a wide geographical spread of French cheeses along with mouth-watering charcuterie. Another Pas-de-Calais cheese, the nearly-as-pungent P’tit Dieu, swiftly becomes a favourite during a dégustation. From La Prairie it’s a short post-cheese waddle to Chez Marcel on Rue de la Taillerie, the lively little street that connects the two main squares, for a craft beer tasting in this light-filled, laid-back beer pub.
A wander through the arts district west of Place des Héros takes me through an architectural melange where the delight is in the detail. “Always look up,” they say, and they’re right. A bit of art deco here, some baroque there (especially the Italian-style Arras Theatre), a few Flemish crenelated rooftops; they all mingle and occasionally take you by surprise.
Arras and art
The following day I discover more of Arras’s history in its excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in Saint-Vaast Abbey. Landscapes by the painters of the Arras School, including Camille Corot, take me to the city’s past, as does an enormous relief map showing Arras before Vauban built the Citadel in the 17th century.
As it’s only a 20-minute walk, I head down to the Citadel and explore the huge complex of former barracks and parkland. The Mur des Fusillés stops me in my tracks, a sober collection of wall plaques in memory of the 218 Resistance members shot by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944. The youngest was 16.
It’s a foretaste of the assault on the emotions that comes with a visit to the Carrière Wellington. This quarry, dug by New Zealand sappers in 1917, was the home of 24,000 Allied soldiers before the Battle of Arras. It’s immensely humbling to walk through the tunnels, hearing the soldiers’ stories and letters home, seeing where they slept, ate and prayed, and knowing that so many would die on 9 April 1917. It’s simply one of the most moving museums I’ve ever seen.
As a final taste of Arras, I have the luck to be there during the Saturday market, which sets up general stalls in Place des Héros and Grand Place. But the star is the food market in Place de la Vacquerie behind the belfry. It’s everything a French food market should be, full of local cheeses, meats, vibrant vegetables, fruit, fish. Timeless, in fact.
By road: Mary travelled with DFDS Seaways from Dover to Calais, which is about one hour and 20 minutes from Arras and costs from £45 return.
Arras is easy to explore on foot, as its centre is quite compact. There’s a free electric bus service that goes to the Vauban Citadel if you don’t fancy the 20-minute walk from the centre. The Carrière Wellington is also about a 20-minute walk.
WHERE TO STAY
Mary stayed at:
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 50 85 37
Classy boutique B&B with five creatively designed rooms, garden and free bike hire – along with superb breakfasts. Doubles from €115.
WHERE TO EAT
Mary ate at:
Le Petit Rat Porteur
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 71 58 80
Bring a big appetite to this friendly vaulted bistro, which serves generous portions of Flemish dishes as well as slow-cooked pork cheeks.
Mains from €14.
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 59 75 24
Cosy vaulted restaurant serving classic northern French cuisine, including a melt-in-the-mouth carbonnade de boeuf.
Mains from €14.
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 51 74 07
Great option for a slightly lighter lunch, especially if you like craft beer. Fred specialises in tartines with innovative and delicious toppings, including hake and leeks.
Menus from €9.
WHERE TO VISIT
Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 71 26 43
Beautifully presented collection of medieval sculptures, French 17th-century art, an extensive collection of works by Camille Corot and paintings by Rubens and Breughel. Admission free.
Belfry and the Boves
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 51 26 95
Ride the lift to the top of the belfry for sweeping views, before taking a guided tour of the Boves. The belfry costs €3.30 and the Boves €5.50; a combined ticket is €7.30.
Tel: (Fr) 3 21 51 26 95
Engrossing war museum built from the underground barracks of the 1917 Battle of Arras Tickets from €7.20.
Within a 30-minute drive is the Louvre-Lens Museum, which features more than 200 works of art from the Louvre in Paris. The Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, where decisive battles took place in 1917, is less than a 20-minute drive away. There’s also the Ring of Remembrance international memorial near Ablain Saint-Nazaire and the Lens 1914-18 Memorial 20 minutes away.
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