For those considering a weekend break in the north of France, Lille is often the first destination that springs to mind – it’s easy to get to by Eurostar and its attractions are well publicised.
However – if what you’re looking for in France is a great weekend break in a town that can offer art, culture, a pavement café lifestyle, the friendliest people; a place of heritage and tradition, history and modern retail therapy – then consider Arras.
Arras is the capital of Pas-de-Calais and at just 75 minutes’ drive from Calais on the excellent auto-route, 50 minutes from Paris by fast train it’s very reachable. For those on their way further down France – Arras is the ideal stopover destination but beware – you won’t want to leave in a hurry.
For a weekend or short break – Arras has something for everyone whatever the time of the year. Famous for its twin squares which were created in the 14th Century to host trade fairs – the Grand Place and the Place des Héros are lined with gabled houses, fabulous shops and restaurants. Originally a place for medieval merchants from all over Europe to ply their wares – not much has changed – it’s still a place to go shopping and the weekly Wednesday and Saturday morning markets take place on the cobbles of Place des Héros as they have for centuries. The gabled houses are not all originals from the Middle Ages – many were destroyed during World War I but they were rebuilt “brick by brick” we were told. In fact – it’s impossible to tell the rebuilt houses from the originals.
Start your visit at the Tourist Office in the Town Hall on Place des Héros – you can’t miss this stunning building with its gold embellishments, gargoyles and Belfry tower overlooking the town. The staff are very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable – they are also extremely proud of their town and will help you make the most of your visit with guides, leaflets and information.
While you’re there you can take a tour of the Town Hall which is itself a tourist attraction. After the bloody battles of World War I the town was determined to return to its former architectural glory. The town hall was built by local artisans and the designs reflect the art deco trends of the time. Exquisite detailed wood carvings, larger than life murals with a distinctive art deco feel in light colours, fabulous lampshades and door fittings – a fitting monument to a town that had all but been destroyed. Indeed on the landing outside the marvellous Salle des Fetes a glass case contains a medal presented to the people of Arras – a Croix de Guerre, recognition of their suffering. In the hall the local “giants” Colas, his wife Jacqueline and baby Dédé reside when they’re not out starring at festivals.
Things to do in Arras
Climb the Belfry at the Town Hall – a 16th Century world heritage site with stunning views over Arras. You can reach the top via a lift and stairs (those not keen on heights may not be happy with this one).
Or descend under the town hall and tour “Les Boves” – a network of underground passages first dug out in the 10th Century and used by prosperous merchants living in the gabled houses around the squares for storage. A 45-minute guided tour of Les Boves reveals that the damp caves were home to British troops during the First World War. The tours are daily and the guide speaks both French and English.
Visit the beautiful Musée des Beaux Arts housed in an ancient abbey – catch the fabulous “Roulez Carrrosses“” exhibition of coaches, carriages and more on loan from the Chateau of Versailles until November 2013.
Museum memorial site of Wellington Quarry
Tour the Battlefield sites and museums – there are several in the area including Vimy Ridge Memorial.
Wander the town via a 1.9km marked walking trail called “Heart of the Town” which takes in the shops, sites and great architecture of the town (you can even hire an audio guide from the Town Hall to help you make the most of your walk).
The more energetic might enjoy a longer set walk (about 8km) called “Jardins and Monuments” which takes in the Citadel.
Visit the Vauban designed Citadel of Arras – the great architect of Louis XIV created many of these signature star shaped fortresses but this is one of his finest.
Check out Robespierre’s house – the notorious historical figure was born and lived in Arras. There is little sign of the perpetually unpopular “tyrant” of the French Revolution at this museum which was his home from 1787-1789, it is now a museum dedicated to guilds and travelling salesmen.
At Christmas Arras has one of the best Christmas villages in the north of France
Arras has a rural heritage and the town is surrounded by beautiful countryside dotted with ancient churches, farms, chateaux, windmills and picturesque villages.
Check the website for the Tourist Information office for details on all the above listings as well as more things to do and see: arraspaysdartois.com