Welcome to Arras
Arras is perhaps best known for its proximity to the battlefields of the First World War. Before reluctantly acquiring this dark fame, it was a pretty, provincial city dating back to Roman times, a cultural centre for Medieval poets, a hub of commerce for cloth merchants, and celebrated for its attractive Gothic and Flemish architecture around the Grand Place - as noted by Dickens. After 1914, Arras became a name mentioned in anguished battlefield poetry, and the last memory of thousands of young soldiers.
The city itself was badly damaged; and though it was rebuilt, in the Second World War, the town was the focus of a decisive British attack- its underground tunnels sheltered the citizens throughout its duration. Yet now, to see its lovely old buildings and peaceful Grand Place, surrounded by cheerful cafes and bars, it is hard to imagine what horror Arras has seen. It has recovered its beauty, but the UNESCO-protected Memorial Citadel of Arras, testifies to a history that is fascinating and saddening in equal measure.
Arras has two lovely main squares, made up of Flemish-style houses dating back to the 17th and 18th century, but the main focus of Place des Heros is the Gothic town hall and 75 ft bell tower, which visitors can now climb for a view across the city- alternatively, there’s a lift most of the way up. Although its origins are Medieval, it was destroyed in the Great War, and rebuilt in the 1920s. And from the soaring pinnacle of the belfry, visitors can descend and plunge deep underground, to Les Boves, the tunnels which concealed troops in 1917 as they prepared for battle- and where the townspeople sheltered, during the last war. Originally dug out in the 10th century, from chalk quarries, the network covers the entire town - not surprisingly, these subterranean pathways are atmospheric and echoing with history. Each guided tour lasts 40 minutes, leaving from the Tourist Information Office in the Town Hall.
Just beyond the other side of the Place, is the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste , on Rue Wacquez-Glasson. It was built in the 16th century, destroyed in the Great War and remarkably, rebuilt, in the Gothic Revival style. However, its most notable feature is the beautiful play of light through the stained glass windows onto the stone floor. Even the most committed atheist will be moved to think of the War dead of Arras in this peaceful and moving space.
If you're stopping en route, the Grand Place is an ideal place for lunch or dinner- there are several good restaurants and cafes, and plenty of parking spaces. Le Petit Theatre is a friendly, local pizzeria which offers good value, (7 Rue des Petits Vieziers 62000, 03 21 51 10 85), or Le Bouchot is a nautical-themed, high quality seafood restaurant, which is ideal for a relaxed dinner. (3 Rue Chanzy, 62000, 03 21 51 67 51.) Bars cluster around the Place des Heros, including Couleur Café, Le Vertigo and Café Tabac le Flash, all pleasant venues for a glass of wine or beer.
The Hotel De L'Univers is a 19th century building with smart, contemporary rooms and sleek, refurbished bathrooms. Parking spaces can be reserved in advance, in the cobbled courtyard. Wi-fi is intermittent, however- so the hotel is better suited to guests in need of quiet relaxation than business travellers. (3-5 Place de la Croix Rouge, 62000). Alternatively, stay at the beautiful old townhouse La Maison d’Hotes Corne D’Hor, a B&B which has a series of exquisitely decorated rooms, featuring Toile de Jouy fabrics and antique furniture, and which offers an excellent breakfast. This hotel is great value for money, and though there is no restaurant, it’s in the town centre. The charming Maison de Plumes, a small hotel in a country chateau, is a short drive from Arras, with rooms themed by different birds, decorated in a charming and tasteful Art Deco style. ( 73 Rue d'Aire 62134 Heuchin, 03 21 41 47 85)
Arras is a small town, and so is normally easy to drive around and there is plenty of parking in the centre. There are five large public parking spots to leave your car safely during the day – the biggest of these is at Grand Place, in the heart of the town.
BIKE Arras-Velo operates a bike rental scheme from the Place du Theatre, Grand Place and Place du Heros. It is €20 per day, per person or €16 for a group package.
WALKINGAs Arras is only a small town it's very easy to walk around the centre once you've parked.
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