Carcassonne has 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites (Canal-du-Midi and the Medieval Walled City) plus 48 listed historic monuments, which I find pretty impressive. Arras also has 2 UNESCO sites (the Belfry and the Citadel) but 225 monuments. Well, it would seem that this city, 45 minutes north of Paris by train would be worth a visit. Since we were already in Lille this was going to be an easy train trip with 2 departures each hour so we would have time for sightseeing, lunch, and still be back “home” to the hotel for dinner. With so many choices of places to visit, where should we start?
How about beginning at the top? Not exactly since even if you take the elevator you still have to climb another 40 spiraling steps to the top of Beffroi d’Arras (The Belfry) to have a view from 75 meters (246 feet) above the city. We were content to stay at ground level to see this beautiful building that was originally completed in 1554 with the intent for the chimes to signal the opening and closing of the protective city gates. It’s been faithfully reconstructed twice and I can understand why it was voted as the favorite monument of the French in 2015.
Sharing the other 3 sides of the cobblestoned Place des Héros are dozens of tall, gabled houses with arcades below them (featured photo above) that would have been right at home in Amsterdam. At least 50 of these fanciful fronts explain while this one city has such a concentration of listed buildings.
We moved on to another square that could also have been seamlessly transplanted to the Netherlands. The Grand Place, like its neighbor, is surrounded by Baroque-style buildings with shops and cafés protected in the archways below. Under both of these squares are tunnels dug by Allied troops during the First World War that could accommodate up to 20,000 soldiers. The system runs from the center of town out to what was the war front that is now marked by museum entrance, Carrière Wellington.
Tunnel digging is nothing new for the residents of Arras — they’ve been doing so since at least the year 900. The limestone blocks removed from 12 meters (39 feet) below ground were used for religious buildings and the city walls. Over the centuries these spaces became caves to store merchants’ goods and hiding places during both World Wars. You can tour the tunnels but again like at the start of our visit we decided to stay at ground level.
About 80% of Arras was destroyed during WWI with much of it being faithfully reconstructed in the original Flemish style as on the Grand Place. Some neighborhoods, however, chose to go with the then-current 1920s trend of Art Deco. It was fun just to stroll down rue Gambetta that becomes rue St.-Aubert and then rue Ernastale admiring the homes.
Since we’d started the day at one UNESCO World Heritage site it seemed fitting to finish at the other, the Citadel. Military architect Sebastien Prestre Vauban is credited with constructing or redesigning at least 300 forts around France during the 17th century, including the one we visited in Belfort. In 3 centuries of defending Arras, this stronghold was never besieged and like similar properties around the country, it has been turned into useful spaces for the community. It now contains residential housing, businesses such as a cheese maker and a honey farm plus it acts as a cultural center for a variety of activities throughout the year.
Although today everyone pronounces the “s” at the end of Arras, originally it was silent so for centuries it sounded in French like the equivalent of “rat” in English which the city embraced as their emblem. Over time it has appeared on the city seal, on coins, and on the roofs of city hall and the cathedral. We found a more likeable version to nibble on while walking back to the train station. For 17 years the Pâtisserie Thibault has been making dark chocolate rats for all to enjoy.