The Arras Belfry stands proud and tall in the Place des Héros adjacent to the magnificent Town Hall. Work began on this listed monument in 1463 and was completed in 1554 almost a century later. Halfway through its construction work began on the town hall – that only took four years to complete. In 1552 a Renaissance wing was added to this magnificent Flemish style building with its gothic façade; a further wing was built during the time of Napoleon III.
The buildings were entirely destroyed during World War I.
The people of Arras, bereft at the loss of the magnificent buildings rebuilt them over a period of years from 1924 – 1932. Accurately reconstructed “brick by brick” they are once more landmark beauty features of this magnificent town.
From the exterior the Town Hall and Belfry have every appearance of being ancient buildings – gothic arches, grimacing gargoyles, gold embellishments brightly glinting whatever the weather.
Inside the Town Hall the décor is a mix of ancient restoration and magnificent art deco – reflecting the trend in the days of its rebuilding. Our guide explained that artisans of Arras banded together, their skills put to work to recreate the glorious and much loved building – painters, carpenters, sculptors, and metal workers – artists who have left their mark.
Take a tour of the rooms of the Town Hall and you will find superb examples of art deco lampshades and door handles; larger than life muted colour frescoes reflecting the history of Arras with an art deco touch which reminded me of a Breugel painting; carved wood panels showing the rat – symbol of Arras, and scenes of everyday life in Arras through the ages, from ancient farmers to van drivers!
During the Second World War the building remained intact but was used by the occupying forces as an administration building – a plaque on the wall of one room records that from the end of 1940 to August 1944 some 200 sons of Arras were condemned to execution in that room and thousands more were imprisoned or sent to prison camps.
Visitors can ascend to the top of the 75m Belfry via a lift and stairs – not for the faint-hearted but absolutely worth it for the magnificent views over Arras, to see the huge bell – don’t be up there when it rings as it’s very loud – and the magnificent clock face.
Underneath the town hall is yet another discovery – this one even older – Les Boves.
The Boves are a series of underground passages first dug out in the 10th Century. A guided tour reveals that these passages have an extensive network running underneath Arras and were used by the wealthy merchants who owned and lived in the magnificent gabled houses around the squares of Arras. Running out of room in their own homes they stored their goods below ground – some of them even used it as a rubbish tip – chucking unwanted items down a hole in their floor and into the deep caverns below. In later years, allied soldiers in World War I sheltered in the tunnels before the Battle of Arras. Nowadays the Boves are used from spring to summer to host extraordinary garden designs – full of plants and flowers.
Take a tour of the Arras Belfry, town hall and Boves – details from the Tourist Office on the ground floor of the Town Hall – allow about an hour and a half.