To many people France is Paris and the Riviera. Let me tell you that there is another France too, one so very much worth a visit. And today I will tell you about the town of Arras. (The French are rather inclined not to pronounce the last letter of a word, but for Arras, the […]

Arras (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Arras (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

To many people France is Paris and the Riviera.

Let me tell you that there is another France too, one so very much worth a visit.

And today I will tell you about the town of Arras. (The French are rather inclined not to pronounce the last letter of a word, but for Arras, the ‘s’ is indeed pronounced.)

Arras is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais province – département – of France and part of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. If you have no idea what I am talking about, do not worry, just know that the town is 182 km (113 miles) north of Paris, and actually closer than that to the English Channel – 110 km (68 miles). And it’s 152 kms (94 miles) from the Belgian capital of Brussels.

And know that Arras is really worth visiting.

You can even make it a day trip from Paris as the TGV (fast train) will get you there in 50 minutes from Paris’ Gare du Nord railway station. It is a non-stop ride. The scenery along the track is not great great, but that will probably not put you off as you will be tapping away at your mobile (cell) phone, laptop or tablet as this is what people do these days.

I have just made a 48 hrs one night visit to Arras and I stayed in a wonderful hotel which I will tell you about too in this piece.

First though, here is a little history about Arras.

The town dates to the Iron Age when its inhabitants were the Gauls who called the place Nemetocenna taken from the Celtic word of ‘nemeton’ which means ‘the sacred space’. The name Arras was first used in the 12th century and it apparently comes from the name Atrebates, a Gaul tribe.

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A typical Arras town house (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Today just over 43,000 people live in Arras intra muros (124,000 extra muros) and they are known as the Arrageois (males) and the Arrageoise (females) and many of them live in the town’s two- or three-storey townhouses which date back a century or two and have been constructed in the Flemish-Baroque architectural style. Here I must say that the town was badly damaged in our two world wars, the Germans bombing it first and then we the Brits fighting back and eventually on September 3, 1944 entering and liberating the town. In fact, three-fourths of the town was destroyed in WW 1 and were rebuilt.

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Honouring those who freed them from the Germans in WW 2 (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Continuing to honour those who had come to free them from the Germans in WW2 (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Continuing to honour those who had come to free them from the Germans in WW2 (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The most famous Arrageois must be the Revolutionary, Maximilien de Robespierre. Born in the town on May 6, 1758, he was guillotined in Paris on what is now the Place de la Concorde on July 28, 1794. You can read about Robespierre here. Just like Robespierre, the town of Arras too did quite badly during the French Revolution as during the Reign of Terror (from September 1793 to July 1794) 400 Arrageois were executed. Similarly, during WW 2 the Germans shot 240 of the town’s men whom they suspected were members of the French Resistance. (The Germans did not shoot women. You can read about that here.)

But what is there to see in Arras?

I will start by saying that merely walking around the town’s narrow, cobbled streets, which are lined with the Flemish-Baroque townhouses I have mentioned, is a delight. The shops you will pass will be small and family-owned and believe me the shopkeepers are all so friendly. I was looking at a beautiful handbag in the window of one such small shop and the owner stepped outside to say hello. I did not buy the handbag but afterwards decided that I will go back and buy it, but – alas! – I could not find the street again.

There are also many cafés, bistros and restaurants on those cobbled streets and weather permitting you can sit on their terraces. Do try a café gourmand: these costs about 5 euro each. What you will get will be a small tray with a black coffee and several small sweet things arranged around the cup of coffee. The sweet things can be a dainty apple or custard pie, ice cream, a brownie or for example a pancake – crepe: these vary from place to place.

A Cafe Gourmand (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

A Cafe Gourmand (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

You will also undoubtedly walk around the town’s two squares: the Grand Place and the smaller but by no means less charming Place des Héros with their Flemish-Baroque townhouses and cafés and restaurants.

The Grand Place (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

The Grand Place (Copyright Marilyn Z Tomlins)

To many visitors the town’s most beautiful building is the ‘cathedral’ on Place des Héros. This ‘cathedral’ is in fact the town hall. Once indeed having been a cathedral which was built between 1463 and 1554, the building was so badly damaged in WW 1 that it needed major reconstruction. Its belfry at 75 metres (246 feet) has always served as a watchtower and today visitors can go up there for a panoramic view over the town and its surroundings. A lift will take you up almost to the top, but you would have to climb the last 40 steps. The building is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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You can also visit the Boves – les boves – which is a maze of underground galleries which once – in the 10th century – had been limestone quarries. At the end of the limestone mining, the galleries, 10 metres (32 feet) beneath the town, had served as storing places for the wares of the town’s merchants – fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and wine. Then, during WW 2 the galleries had become air raid shelters. Needless to say that the galleries can be visited only with a guide and at set times.

You cannot visit Arras without visiting the town’s museum, the Museum of Fine Arts – le Musée des Beaux-Arts.
The museum is said to have the best collection of art works after Paris’ Louvre and I can vouch that this is so. I even at times while I was there said to myself, “Wow, this museum is better than the Louvre”.

The Museum (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The Museum (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

The museum is located in the Saint-Vaast Abbey. The Abbey and the Cathedral beside it (the latter is partly under canvas at present for a clean-up and renovation) date from the 7th century. In fact, their construction led to the creation of the town.

Currently and until March 20, 2016 the museum has an exhibition of One Hundred of Paris’s Palace of Versailles’ masterpieces – le château de Versailles en 100 chefs-d’oeuvre which is on the ground floor.

As wonderful as this temporary exhibition is, the museum’s permanent collection which is on the first and second floors, is … simply magnificent.

On display are artwork (paintings, sculptures and ceramics) of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Dutch and Flemish Schools, the French and Italian Schools.

I will name only the following three masterpieces you will be able to admire – three paintings.

Rubens’ Saint François Recevant les Stigmates (Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata)

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Pieter Breughel the Younger’s Le dénombrement de Bethléem (The Census at Bethlehem)

Bruegel the Younger's Census at Bethlehim

Bruegel the Younger’s Census at Bethlehem

And my favourite : Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize’s Le Spectacle de la Folie Humaine (The Spectacle of Human Folly).

The Glaize masterpiece

The Glaize masterpiece


On this painting we can see the ways humans can kill humans: beheading, crucifixion, hanging, boiling alive, burning at the stake, whipping, torture etc etc.

I must also mention the museum’s Mays Hall – la Salle des Mays.

Arras salle des mays

The Mays Hall

In the Mays Hall on the second floor are seven huge paintings.

These paintings, all higher than 3.5 metres (11 feet) are part of the Mays Collection of paintings of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. From the years 1630 to 1707 it was the customs for Paris’s goldsmiths to each year gift a painting to the Cathedral. The rule was the painting had to be no lower than 3.5 metres (11 feet) in height and had to portray a scene of the Christian Apostles or Saints. In the year 1707, the Cathedral having received 76 such paintings and having run out of space to hang them, the custom was discontinued. Unfortunately during the French Revolution the paintings were removed from the Cathedral and dispersed with only 45 of them having survived. Fourteen of the paintings had ended up in the Arras museum, but only half of them are on display today because the others need to be restored – and funds are needed to do so.

The goldsmiths’ gift was offered to the Notre Dame Cathedral each year on May 1 which explains why the paintings are known as the Mays Collection.

Believe me that it is worth making a trip to Arras just to see the museum’s seven Mays paintings.

Another Arras street and ready for Christmas (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

Another Arras street and ready for Christmas (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

I do not usually recommend hotels, but I will tell you that the Hôtel les Trois Luppars on the Grand Place is excellent. The address is Number 49 Grand’Place, 6200 Arras.

Their email address is: contact.3luppars@wanadoo.fr but you can have a make a reservation on their website: http://www.hotel-les3luppars.com/ where you will also see their rates.

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The hotel is the red-brick building (Copyright Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

The hotel is inexpensive, clean and the buffet breakfast is an excellent start to the day. The hotel though does not have a liquor license. It also does not have a restaurant, but there are almost as many eating place in Arras as there are cobble stones.

Place des Heros (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Place des Heros (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Another of Arras' beautiful town houses (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Another of Arras’ beautiful town houses (Copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)



Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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