Arras France: Highlight of the Pas de Calais region

The Arras France Christmas market is a December highlight of this ancient town in Northern France.
The Arras France Christmas market is a December highlight of this ancient town in Northern France.

Arras is Amazing!  This historic city in Northern France is well worth discovering

By Jamie Kimmel

Welcome to Arras, France. Home to many chateaus, museums and World War One battle sites of Northern France. If you ever get the chance to travel here, a great place to start is the gothic Town Hall. Though not many Americans make it to this part of France it’s certainly worth discovering!

The Tourist Office can be found here on the first floor to provide travelers with helpful information and is the perfect place to start taking tours, of course. This striking building provides a glorious view of this ancient city–and it’s hard to beleive that all of this was rebuilt during the 1920s to look just like it did in the 17th century.

View from the Arras town hall in Northern France. Max Hartshorne photos.
View from the Arras town hall in Northern France. Max Hartshorne photos.

The Town Hall from Top to Bottom features a behind-the-scenes look at the Belfry, where the office is located. Travelers can enjoy a view from the watchtower during the Ascent of the Belfry. It ends with a glass of beer in the Boves. This tour can be purchased as a package on the City Pass.

Arras City Pass

Man-made beauty is all around Arras, which was rebuilt in the 1920s and sustained major damage during both World Wars.
Man-made beauty is all around Arras, which was rebuilt in the 1920s and sustained major damage during both World Wars.

In addition a tour of the Belfry, the City Pass provides a walk through the Boves; the underground passageways of Town Hall that were initially limestone quarries dug up in the tenth century that evolved into chalk mines (chalk was used to build houses), then cellars for storage, as it was paved over.

During World War I, the Boves were used as a shelter for civilians. A gem of the Boves is the underground garden that hosts an event, “Jardin des Boves” every spring. Many exotic, beautiful flowers and other plants (ivies, orchids, ferns, etc.) can be found here and the event features art by plastic artist and creator of the event, Luc Brevart.

Other things to explore with the City Pass include the Cite Nature and 100 Masterpieces from Versailles at the Museum of Fine Arts. Cite Nature is a former miners’ lamp factory refurbished by architect Jean Nouvel. It has been renovated into a cultural and scientific center emphasizing food, nature, agriculture and health and all of the questions we have surrounding it.

There are exhibitions addressing the environment and the history of agriculture and food. Cite Nature also has a discovery space for kids with organized activities, as well as

Marie Antoinette, former queen of France, part of an exhibit of a hundred masterpieces from Versailles on display in Arras through 2016. several gardens “or every type” and a discussion hall with a café atmosphere. People can enjoy music, live shows, tastings and chat with artists in this hall.

Wellington Quarry

Arras is known for its frequent performing arts events. One such event, Les Inouies, showcases internationally known composers and musicians under the idea that all music is popular, including “highbrow” music. They strive to make this highbrow music accessible to all. Many workshops, concerts and strolling musical performances take place during this event.Finally, the City Pass includes entrance into the Wellington Quarry. Also underground, this quarry was also turned into a chalk mine. However, its significance comes from it being converted into barracks for British soldiers during World War I. Some New Zealand tunnel diggers connected all of the tunnels for the soldiers and gave the quarry its name.

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Inside the Louvre-Lens museum in Northern France.
Inside the Louvre-Lens museum in Northern France.

The tour under town hall includes a multi-media exploration of the period when British Australian and Kiwi soldiers had to hold up down in the caves for ten days awaiting the order to strike. The battle of Arras, sadly, produced many casualties, the tour is memorable and poignant as you see marks made by soldiers and the various places they had to live while waiting for the battle to begin.

The site is now a memorial for the surprise attack against Germany during the Battle of Arras on April 9th, 1917 at 5:30 in the morning. A tangential option for this tour is a guided battlefield tour by car. Arras has many tours and memorials of several battle sites that happened throughout France’s history.

Artois in Arras

Another performance not to miss is Stories and Dreams. This is a son et lumiere (“sound and light” in English) show in a vast natural setting with nearly 2000 performers. The show flamboyantly depicts the epic milestones in Arras’ history. Arras has a plethora of festivals taking place any given time of the year.

Speaking of history, Arras derives its name from Atrebates, a pre-Roman tribe that existed in what is now France. Nemetacum was their capital before the Romans took over.

The name Nemetacum was used by the Atrebates meaning “nemeton”. A nemeton is a sacred space (usually a grove of trees, a shrine or temple) used by the ancient Celts. Even the word “nemeton” is related to the Nemetes tribe of what is now Germany and their matron goddess, Nemetona. Remnants of the capital can be seen at the Nemetacum site. Recent archaeological digs have uncovered the Schola des Dendrophores (The Gallo Roman woodworkers’ guild) at this preservation which was built in the third century. Also, archaeologists believe a nemeton (shrine, most likely) once existed at the Nemetacum Site.

The Louvre-lens, built in 2012, is a showcase for world class art in northern France.
The Louvre-lens, built in 2012, is a showcase for world class art in northern France.

Louvre Lens Museum

While staying on the subject of history, the next point of interest is the Louvre-Lens. Sure, everybody’s heard of the Louvre. However, the Louvre has recently opened a new $500 million museum in Lens. The Lens was once a coal mining town was taken over by vegetation after being abandoned in the 1960s and is also a park.

The infusion of hundreds of millions of euros to create this branch of the world’s most famous museum has been met with acclaim by locals and art lovers around the world.

The Louvre has made an interesting gallery out of it (Galerie du Temps), displaying works of art from different civilizations of the world, but organized to show them put together as they were made at the same moment in history.

It starts approximately 3500 BCE during the birth of writing all the way to the mid-nineteenth century. The sprawling gallery is a contemporary design of glass and metal and was put in place to give non-Parisians a chance to see native French art.

As far as leisure activities are concerned, a nice change is the Aquarena of the Val de Scarpe (not to be confused with the Aquarena in Texas.) This is a water park and spa with several pools for various reasons (Olympic-size for laps, paddle pools for kids, and liesure pools for traditional use.)

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There are water games and activities for children and a fitness center complete with a spa for adults. The fitness center includes cardio, weight-training and group fitness classes. There is an ocean spa for well-being treatments, a sauna, a light room and special balneo baths.

Accrobranches in Arras.
Accrobranches in Arras.

Arras has a special village that is more rural and secluded, but still open to the public.

Among this district is a cluster of chateaus that can be explored often through guided visits.

Two in particular, the Chateau de Givenchy and Chateau de Lignereuil are connected by the Lime Tree Avenue. This two-kilometer-long “L’allee des Tilleuls” has been declared a historic monument since 1942. Other sites to enjoy are picturesque windmills, farms with square courtyards, and original churches. Taking a walk through this district is almost like walking back in time.

Other Activities in Arras

For fun activities, not quite so stationary, one can

enjoy the “Cit’loisirs-Accrobranches.” These are essentially zip-lining circuits crisscrossing all over the woodlands of the Arras Citadel. There are six circuits in total each for differing age groups.

Arras has one of the largest city squares of any city in France. Many events take place here.
Arras has one of the largest city squares of any city in France. Many events take place here.

Part of Arras’ charm is the local crafts dotted through the city. Dany Delomel, specifically, holds classes in porcelain, wood, fabric and glass-painting in addition to having these crafts out for purchase.

Another fun (seasonal) event is the Arras Christmas market. This has become one of the biggest exhibits in Northern France amounting to at least 90 exhibitors as the years have gone by.

This charming festival features wooden huts, a skating rink, carousel, musical events and workshops all in the spirit of Christmas. There is also a Christmas village which lots of delicious, seasonal food. This event is held at the Grand’Place and has grown so much over the years, is has become its own pedestrian district.This region of France has so much to offer it is almost overwhelming how much one can include while vacationing here. Even the above-mentioned adventures are just a very small sample of Arras’ treasures.

Of course, no one can be expected to fit everything in one trip, but hopefully that inspires people to keep coming back. Keep checking things off that bucket list.

For more information, visit the Arras website.

Jamie Kimmel is currently an anthropology major at UMass Amherst. As a very active PIRALS, she loves all things magickal and artistic. She writes about both of these things in more detail on her blog IamWiccanHearMeRoar

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