I know most people hanker after living in the south of France but I live in the north – in Pas-de-Calais. The southerners call it the North Pole!
So – it rains a bit… it doesn’t get as hot as the south.
But what we lack in sunshine here we certainly make up for in art, culture, tradition, heritage, history, cuisine, style and gorgeous towns and villages and I for one wouldn’t be anywhere else.
Arras has been on my radar for a while – a little over an hour from Calais on the excellent motorway it’s a really achievable trip from the UK and is just 50 minutes by fast train from Paris. The lovely, helpful staff at the Tourist Office in Arras suggested places I might like to visit while I was there and I have to say, they were brilliant.
I’d seen pictures of the 16th and 17th Century style houses in the famed squares of Arras and I knew there was a Museum of Fine Arts. I’d heard about the memorial site Carrière Wellington because the OH is a history buff and reads voraciously on the subject of WWI and WWII and shares facts with me whether I want to hear it or not.
What I didn’t know and was thrilled to find was a beautiful town full of elegance and charm – in its architecture, restaurants and bars, parks and squares, shops and galleries, museums and war memorial sites. There is a unique amalgamation of styles in this place from medieval through art deco to modern and it works – really well.
First off we did a tour of the Town Hall where the Tourist Office is located. You might think that sounds a bit dull – I don’t blame you! Let me tell you, it was anything but. The original building was destroyed during WW1 and afterwards rebuilt by local craftsmen. The façade looks ancient with its gargoyles, filigree wrought iron doors with green glass, beautiful brickwork and black slate roof adorned with gold statuary. Inside it is an extraordinary scene of art deco loveliness and there was a surprise encounter with the town’s giants (Colas, his wife Jacqueline and their baby Dédé) who live in the hall when not on tour.
In the rooms we visited, wall to wall life-sized murals depicting historic scenes in Arras – market days, tapestries being made, pottery. There were huge and amazing art deco lampshades, door fittings and ornamentation, fabulous wood carvings – colourful and joyful. It felt like an antidote to the horrors that had come before and Marion from the tourist office explained that people saw it as a rebirth.
Inside the Town Hall is the entrance to the Belfry and you can climb via a lift and stairs 75m up to look over the town. It was a sunny, clear October day when we went and you could see for miles. We had a wonderful view over the Place des Héros where the Wednesday market was taking place as it has for centuries. If you lean out you can see the enormous clock face – quite stunning and worth the ascent to see that alone. Inside a huge bell sat solemnly and I’m only glad that we got back down before it rang because you could hear its thunderous dongs from all over town.
Also in the town hall is the entrance to the Boves? Never heard of them? Me neither but we discovered that underneath Arras – accessible from almost every house in its beautiful squares – is a warren of underground streets called Les Boves! Once used by the houses for storage in medieval times, later lived in by soldiers during the Great War and now home to show case garden designs, filled with plants and artificial light, from spring to summer.
We stopped for lunch and to rest our feet at a restaurant on Grand Place at La Rapière which is next to a cinema the like of which I’ve never seen before – set in an ancient looking building with hanging baskets! There was a lot more to see so we needed sustenance!