Arras is one of the jewels of northern France, a cultured city of 120,000 people, with 2,000 years of history, a rich tradition of architecture, painting, fine dining and commerce.
It is also like two cities – one above ground, the other below. The Town Hall sits on top of a series of caves dating from the 10th century, known as Les Boves. The restaurants around the two great squares have ancient cellars, where you can try regional specialties, such as coeur d’Arras (a smelly soft cheese) or a chocolate rat.
During the First World War, New Zealand tunnellers linked up the old chalk mines east of the city so that thousands of soldiers could live 20 m underground. The Wellington Tunnels are a must visit.
The two main squares, the Grand’Place and Place des Héros, are architecturally unique. In the 16th century, King Philip II forbade building here except in stone and brick. This was partly to ensure against fire but the result was a uniform façade of 155 houses in Flemish Baroque style.
The narrow-fronted houses were occupied by traders in the Middle Ages, when the city was famous for its tapestries, wool and lace. The houses were damaged and rebuilt after the First World War. They are spectacularly lit at night, when the bars and restaurants throng with bons vivants.
The city has a beautiful Museum of Fine Arts, and the new Louvre-Lens is 20 minutes to the north. The Scarpe River provides 10 km of walking tracks in the centre of Arras and the tourist office has maps for more serious hiking outside town. The city boasts a golf resort, a water sports centre, some beautiful gardens and a fabulous Saturday market that has been running for 1,000 years.
If you want to visit all of the sites on the Australian Remembrance Trail but don’t want to change hotels, Arras is the place to stay. There is a variety of accommodation and food and a choice of guides who specialise in the Australian battlefields.
Paris is 50 minutes by fast train, or two hours by road. The Eurostar runs through Lille, 50 minutes to the north, connecting to Brussels and London. The channel ports of Calais and Boulogne are an hour to the north-west.
On 9 April 1917, the four Canadian divisions on the Western Front fought together for the first time in a battle that has become, to Canadians, what Gallipoli is to Australians. The difference is that Vimy Ridge was a victory–but at terrible cost. Canada lost 3,600 men killed and another 7,000 wounded on the 7 km ridge. The Canadian Monument is on the highest point and commemorates both the battle and the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France and have no known grave. Vimy Ridge Memorial is on the D55, 10 km north of Arras.
THE RING OF REMEMBRANCE
This compelling new memorial, opened in 2014, gathers together the names of 579,606 soldiers from 40 nationalities, who died in the First World War in this northern area of France. The names are inscribed alphabetically, without rank or country, on 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel 3 m high, mounted inside a 345 m ring of concrete. The site is next to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the largest French war cemetery in the world and resting place of more than 42,000 French soldiers. Just north of Ablain-St-Nazaire.
The Louvre Museum has opened a spectacular new gallery in a contemporary building on the site of a former mine head. This new gallery, 20 minutes north of Arras, displays 205 works in chronological order, from the birth of writing more than 3,000 years ago, to the mid-19th century. 99 rue Paul-Bert, 62300 Lens. Open daily except Tuesday; closed 25 December, 1 January, 1 May.
THE SATURDAY MARKET:
One of the oldest in France, a rich bazaar of food, wine, beer, cheese, clothing, local produce and crafts.
A series of tunnels beneath the town hall, which have been used for protection and storage for 1,000 years. Take a guided tour, then climb the belfry.
The chalk mines of Arras go back centuries. In late 1916, with the Western Front in stalemate, New Zealand tunnellers connected various chambers, creating a network that could house up to 24,000 soldiers for several days at a time. Here’s your chance to wear a tin hat–they’re compulsory on the tour. The tour takes an hour–bring a sweater. Rue Deletoille, a short walk from the city centre. Open every day but closed on Christmas Day and from 1 to 27 January.