The Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) on the Place des Héros (And not the Grand’ Place) was destroyed during the war but has been recreated in its original style.
The dominating beffroi (belfry) is 77m high and is topped by the lion of Arras holding a golden sun.
The construction of the beffroi had begun in 1463, but it was almost a century later in 1554 before the work was completed. By comparison the original Hôtel de Ville took just four years.
The reason that the lion holds the sun is in reference to Louis XIV who came to the throne just after Arras had been captured from the Spanish.
Louis was not overly trusting of the loyalty of his new subjects, who decided that the small addition might appease the Sun King.
The beffroi had been finished during the reign of Charles Quint who allowed Arras to develop on a fairly independent basis.
The Imperial crown in Charles’ honour which surmounts the beffroi would not have gone unnoticed by Louis.
A beffroi is in fact the intricate box like construction of wooden beams that isolates the bells from the stonework. The word also means the wooden siege towers seen in the middle ages created in much the same style.
The local Tourist Information Office is situated in an office on the left as you go in and it is open every day except Christmas and the New Year.
From the office you can get tickets to ascend to the viewing platform on the beffroi (40 metres up and reached by a lift and 40 steps) or, alternatively, go under the town.
Below, in the basement are the underground chambers — the Boves. These can be visited on tours, and give a glimpse of an area used by the British army as a field hospital. The Boves are still used today by the locals and some sections have even been turned into restaurants.
During the war they were used for sheltering soldiers and afterwards the returning towns people took refuge there whilst they rebuilt their shattered town. In spring every year floral displays are exhibited in the Boves.
Do not confuse these however with the famous system of tunnels that were dug during the war and stretched out towards the front line.
The Wellington Quarry system was created by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company and can be found just out the Bapaume Road. It is very well sign posted : La carrière Wellington.
It is hard to avoid the imagery of war devastated Arras; photos abound at all the major sites and in the guide books and pamphlets. It is equally difficult to forget that everything around the two great squares has been rebuilt. Everything looks — so old !
The Petite Place (Small Square) was renamed the Place des Héros (Heroes’ Square) after the 2nd World War.
Its full title was intended to be the Place des Héros de la Libération but for one reason or another the title was cut short, which rather changed its meaning as well. Politics ?
Like many town centres in France, Arras is cobbled and the local guide points out that the two main squares provide 17,000 sq m of cobbles for your tyres. Not exactly bicycle friendly and they caused great discomfort to soldiers marching to war in their hob nailed boots.
The town’s two great squares are quite splendid providing a collection of 155 houses in the Flemish style. All of course has been rebuilt but there are still little signs as you wander around the Grand’ Place of the days of yore.
At No.46 you will notice a helmet carved on the wall. The hôtel du Heume was one of the hostelries used by the knights when attending the Duke of Burgundy’s jousting tournaments during the 15th century.
The cathedral, is a short walk away and the former Abbaye St-Vaast which houses the museum of fine arts is alongside it. Within the garden there are a number of monuments to British regiments (The Abbey was the GHQ of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940).
Not far from the Abbaye near the Theatre is Robespierre’s house and on the subject of things revolutionary, Arras claims to have invented the French National Holiday of 14th July. That they managed to celebrate it six weeks early they put down to impatience!
Here in the north of France we drink a lot of beer — wine is for southerners. There is a growing brewing industry in the Region with a number of local firms producing something more interesting than some of the bland blondes that you so often find in bars.
In spring the local breweries produce what is known as a Bière de Mars which in older times would have been the first brew of the season. They are first mentioned in the Annals of Arras in 1394.
The Cellier des Arcades between the two Places is an excellent location to seek out something a bit different. They also sell bar towels, glasses (Every beer should be served in its own glass) and other items. They have a very good stock of beers from the north of France and Belgium.
They are closed Monday mornings and Sunday afternoons.