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Weekend away: Arras
Citadel city

Weekend away: Arras

1 by Sarita RAO 8 min. 15.04.2023
Chocolate rats, a Vauban citadel, 10th century tunnels that housed Allied troops, and a famous sausage. Arras makes for an unusual city break
One of the last places to surrender to Julius Caesar, and birthplace of revolutionary Robespierre, Arras has the rat as its symbol
One of the last places to surrender to Julius Caesar, and birthplace of revolutionary Robespierre, Arras has the rat as its symbol
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Reach the capital of Pas-de-Calais, Arras, on the Scarpe River in three-and-a-half hours by car. Famous for its rats (chocolate ones), it has plenty to offer in terms of architecture, a citadel constructed by Vauban, 10th century underground tunnels used to house 20,000 Allied troops in the First World War, and of course, the famous Arras andouillette.

South-west of Lille, Arras was first peopled by Atrebates, one of the last gallic tribes to surrender to Julius Caesar. Its wool industry dates back to the fourth century, but this went a step further in the Middle Ages, when Arras became the centre for tapestry (in English, arras means wall hanging made from a rich tapestry).

It passed through many hands before a peace treaty in 1482 fixed it within the northern frontiers of France. However it was under Spanish rule from 1556 until 1659, when it was rejoined to France under the Treaty of the Pyrenees. 

The town’s rebellious nature continued as Arras is the birthplace of Robespierre, one of the primary leaders of the French Revolution, although the revolution, succeeded by two world wars, destroyed many of its ancient buildings. In later years, the town became part of the University of Artois and has an industrial history, including mining and textiles.

Today the town centres around a big and small square, Grand Place and Heroes' Square, both created in the 14th century to host trade fairs. On Saturday and Wednesday mornings they are home to markets amidst the gabled houses that were rebuilt to the original styles after the First Word War.

Heroes' Square and the town hall

Start your first day at the town hall, which is also the tourist office and sits on Heroes' Square. The Arras Belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands adjacent to it. Work started on the belfry in the mid-15th century but it was not completed for almost 100 years because half way through construction, work also started on the town hall.

The town hall was originally built in Flemish style with a gothic façade. A Renaissance wing and another wing by Napoleon III were later added. Unfortunately, the original building was completely destroyed during the First World War. The town hall was reconstructed from 1924-1932 although it appears quite ancient, with Gothic arches, gargoyles and gold embellishments.

Inside the building is a mix of ancient restoration and art deco, popular in the 1920s. Local artisans came together to reconstruct it and there is plenty of wood panelling with the symbol of Arras – the rat – and interesting art deco touches such as the lampshades and door handles. Coloured frescoes tell the history of Arras. In the hallway outside the Salles des Fetes is a medal presented to the people of Arras, a Cross of War, in recognition of their hardship and elsewhere you’ll find the carnival giants on display. You can climb the 16th century Belfry for some of the best views of the city.

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The rat is the much-loved symbol of the city (and you can even find it in chocolate form – see the section on culinary specialities). In former times, the “s” in Arras was not pronounced and “Arra” became “a rats” in popular imagery and language. Rats first appeared on the town’s official seal in the 14th century. They were later put on coins minted by Philip II of Spain in the 16th century.

Les Boves/Carriere Wellington

Under the town is a network of underground passages known as Les Boves, which were first dug in the 10th century and used for storage by the merchants living above.

During the First World War miners from New Zealand dug further into the chalk quarries creating a network of tunnels that housed some 20,000 Allied troops readying for the Battle of Arras. You can take a guided tour in English or French, with additional audio and projections onto the limestone, which takes about 1.5 hours. In spring the tunnels also host an underground flower and plant exhibition.

Grand Place, Arras Cathedral and Museum of Fine Arts

This charming square is filled with bakeries and places to grab a bite to eat. Ten minutes’ walk away is the cathedral and abbey.

The catheral at Arras is simple, but worth a look inside for the marble statues and colourful frescoes
The catheral at Arras is simple, but worth a look inside for the marble statues and colourful frescoes

Originally constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries as a Gothic structure, the cathedral was first destroyed during the French Revolution. The Abbey Church of Saint Vaast, was built in 1740 in neoclassical style. After the revolution, the church was designated to replace the cathedral and work was focused on a solid, simple building, which was finished in 1834. 

The interior holds a marble statue of the Virgin with Child by Jean Pierre Cortot, which was donated by Louis XVIII.  Sculptor Marcel Gaumont also created the pulpit which depicts Christ amongst his disciples. The soaring Corinthian pillars topped by stone vases give the interior plenty of light with which to view the frescoes.

Nearby, the Benedictine Abbey de Saint Vaast is home to the Museum of Fine Arts. The building dates to 1746, but again, was damaged by bombs in 1915. Works were donated from the Louvre and Cluny Museum in Paris and from the Luxembourg Museum. Together they make for an eclectic exhibition, with rooms dedicated to Gallo Roman architecture, medieval sculptures, paintings from the Dutch golden age and 17th century France. You’ll also find 18th century ceramics, graphic art, photography, pottery and of course, tapestries.

Arras Citadel

A little out of town you will find one of Vauban’s famous star-shaped forts. Built in the 17th century the Citadel of Arras is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Enter via Porte Royale and from there you can head to the Timescope at the side of Chapel Saint Louis (the oldest church in Arras). This takes you back to 1678, a decade after work on the citadel had started under the commission of King Louis XIV. 

Enter the citadel via the Porte Royale to see some of Vauban's military engineering
Enter the citadel via the Porte Royale to see some of Vauban's military engineering

At the time, Vauban had been promoted to Commissioner General of Fortifications, and Arras was placed at the centre of the second line of his famous Pré Carré – a double line of fortifications along
France’s borders.

The citadel has never been besieged, hence its nickname La Belle Utile. Pentagon in shape, it had five ramparts, and five bastions which housed powder magazines. You can walk around the three remaining bastions and the moat. Climb the staircase to the upper levels to join the 1.5km ramparts path for a panoramic view of the city, and six viewing points.

You can also still see the Governor’s lodgings with columns in the shape of cannons, and other weapons to remind the onlooker that this was also the fort’s arsenal. As with other parts of Arras the citadel was damaged by war. The Mur des Fusillés is a reminder of the 218 resistance fighters who were shot by a firing squad.

No longer a military structure, the citadel is home to a treetop adventure park, a cheese maker and a honey farm. In summer it also hosts music festivals including Main Square, which attract international bands. There is a small exhibition on its history in the Salles de Familles which is open from 9.00 to 17.00. The 72 hectare site also includes a wooded area. The 3km Tour des douves et du bois takes in the park.

French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras in 1758.
French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras in 1758.

Famous revolutionary Robespierre was born in Arras, but sadly his original house, which was a museum of arts and crafts, is currently closed. If you head to the gates to Arras, at Achicourt, you can still see a working flour mill (and buy a bag of flour).

Families might enjoy a trip to the Cité Nature which has three spaces – one for nature, one for insects, one for history – as part of its permanent hands-on exhibition area, which also has an indoor sensory trail.

It’s a 40 minute drive to the battlefields of the Somme, where the lives of one million soldiers were lost during the First World War. Today you can take a remembrance trail, littered with the remnants of trenches, shell holes, a war museum filled with artefacts from the time, and several war cemeteries.

Regional food specialities

Arras has been making andouillette sausages since the Middle Ages, and even has a festival for them in August. There are still some charcuteries (one dating back to 1880) which prepare them in the traditional way with pork and veal.

The symbol of the rat is synonymous with the city and you can have one with your coffee. Well a chocolate, praline filled, rat, which you can sample at Patisserie Thibaut located at Heroes' Square. If you don’t fancy a rat, try the heart-shaped gingerbread biscuits made with white honey, which were first sold on the streets of Arras in the 17th century. You can also sample the Mascaron, made with marzipan and shaped into replicas of the stone human faces featured on the town hall.     

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