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Arras town hall
The Hôtel de Ville in the Place des Héros
Arras: view from belfry
The view from the top of the belfry, looking over the Place des Héros (Grand' Place is just to the left) and the historic town

Two enormous cobbled squares
You are standing in the vast cobbled market square in the centre of Arras, admiring the historic Town Hall, and the 17th and 18th century Flemish houses all around. The square is lined with stone-pillared arcades, built to shelter the merchants' customers while they looked at the displays of goods. All the houses are of similar style - reflecting the strict town planning controls of the town council in those days.

There are two of these squares - Grand'Place, which is mainly houses and a few good bars and restaurants; and the smaller Place des Héros - which is livelier with cafes and shops, the Town Hall [Hôtel de Ville], and Tourist Office. The two squares spring to life in the weekly market on Saturday mornings.

Climb up the Belfry
You can climb to the viewing platform high up the belfry of the Town Hall - and look over the two squares and the historic town.

Underneath the square runs a labyrinth of tunnels carved into the chalk rock. Here the inhabitants of Arras used to store wine and food - and seek refuge in times of war.
Arras: first World war sheeling Arras: restored 17th century arcade
Restoring the Grand' Place in the 1920's after war-damage by German shelling

First World War
Arras was at the centre of much of the fighting in World War I. It narrowly missed being captured by the Germans in the initial rush of their invasion in autumn 1914. Right behind the Front Line, the town's civilian population was evacuated, and its defending troops lived in tunnels under constant bombardment by enemy shelling.

After the war, the whole town lay in ruins. In the 'twenties, the Town Hall and the old houses round the squares were lovingly rebuilt - following the old design as much as possible.

Arras: street cafe arras: andouiettes
1. Back at ground level, relax under the arcades in a pavement cafe
2. Try the town's speciality - small sausages, called "andouillettes"

Museum & art Gallery
The town's Museum & art gallery - the Musée des Beaux-Arts - is in a fine 18th century monastery which was built as part of the medieval Abbey of St-Vaast.

It became an art gallery after the Revolution, but it is still joined to the cathedral next door.

Musee des Bueaux Arts - Arras art gallery

Regional capital through the ages
Arras was the regional capital of the Gauls (the Atrebates tribe), then the Romans. In the Middle Ages, the town that grew up around the Abbey of St. Vaast became famous as a textile town - its best-known products were fine embroidered wall-hangings, interwoven with gold and silver threads. Because of this valuable content, few of these hangings have survived.

Tapestry wall hangings
During most of the Hundred Years' War Arras and Flanders were ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy. Arras tapestries were fashionable in the lavish Burgundian court, and became coveted throughout Europe in the castles of the wealthy from about 1350 to 1460 . In Shakespeare's "Hamlet", characters "hid behind the arras" to overhear secrets. Troubadors and poets flourished under the patronage of the city's rich bankers and merchants; the rich town with its important cathedral and monastery were well-fortified.

This golden period ended with changing fashions, not helped by French king Louis XI imposing harsh punishments on the city's leading families in 1477 when he briefly recaptured the town.

Agricultural market town

Arras: Grand'Place on Market day Luois XIV entering arras
1. Under Spanish rule, the squares that had hosted cloth fairs now saw famers markets: Arras' merchants grew rich out of trading in Artois grain. - a 19th century painting of "Grand'Place on Market Day"
2. Louis XIV made Arras part of France - his triumphal entry into Arras 1667

Market town for rich farming region
Spanish rule in Flanders brought new and lasting prosperity to Arras as a grain market for the rich cereal farms of the Artois and its rolling chalk hills.

Arras did well. and was reluctant to return to French rule when Louis XIV besieged and captured it in 1640. He placed the senior law courts - the parlement - for the Artois region in Arras, and had his military engineer Vauban strengthen its defences. The city fathers continued to favour the Flemish style of architecture, in merchants' houses built around the two squares in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Arras town model
Arras in 1716: model showing the walls and moats, built by the Spanish and strengthened after capture by the French.

 Arras tunnels (boves)  Arras Town Hall AV show 
1. Miles of twisting tunnels ["boves" ] have been dug in the limestone under the town squares over the centuries
2. Start your visit to the town with an audio-visual show in the Hôtel de Ville

Web links & more information
Arras  - town guide, official Town hall site
Tourist information:
Hôtel de Ville, Place des Héros, 62000 ARRAS
Tél: 00 33 3 21 51 26 95
Fax: 00 33 3 21 71 07 34

Local area map:

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Fine Arts Museum - Arras; prestigious collection
Salle des Mays - gallery in the Museum of 17th century religious art from Notre-Dame in Paris
Notre-Dame de Lorette & la Targette - memorials and museums about French sacrifices defending the line in 1915.
Vimy Ridge - First World War memorials
Robespierre's house - infamous leader of the French Revolution and the "Terror"

Background Information:
Artois - ancien regime province of which Arras was the capital
Medieval cloth trade
French Revolution
First World War




Douai Last updated 22nd April 2002; 19th February 2001 © Copyright Invicta Media 1999-2002