Little city the French would love to keep for themselves: Arras has all the ingredients for an ideal short break – it’s just a shame most Britons drive past it
- Historic Arras is located just 34 miles from Lille and 113 miles north of Paris
- Katja Gaskell visits and finds it offers great food, friendly locals and more
- READ MORE: Lille for under £100 a night – a budget guide to the French city
No sooner do most travellers cross the Channel than they hightail it through northern France, heading to warmer climes in the south or snowier ones in the Alps. But those who zip along the autoroute are missing out – this corner of France is home to a city with all the right ingredients for the perfect city break.
Historic Arras is located in the Hauts-de-France region, just 34 miles from Lille and 113 miles north of Paris, both of which are served by direct Eurostar services. It’s so easy to get to both places that many French choose to live in Arras and commute to the larger cities by TGV train.
Arras is famous for its architecture, filled with tunnels and caves that pepper the ground beneath the city centre. But that’s not the only reason you should make Arras your next weekend getaway. In addition to great food, friendly locals and charming accommodation options, you should, quite simply, get here before everyone else finds out about it.
The history of Arras dates from Roman times but the market squares – the Grand Place and the smaller Place des Heros – in the historic centre were constructed in the Middle Ages. Standing tall in the latter is the 16th Century town hall and Unesco-listed belfry that soars 250ft skywards, topped with a gilded lion.
An elevator travels almost to the top, where a narrow, wraparound balcony offers views over the city and surrounding countryside, including the Cathedral of Arras and Museum of Fine Arts housed in a majestic abbey (which is also well worth a visit).
Katja Gaskell visits historic Arras, a city in France’s Hauts-de-France region that offers great food, friendly locals and charming accommodation options
The picture-perfect squares are so impeccably preserved that it’s hard to believe 80 per cent of the city was destroyed in the First World War. Thanks to fastidious planning by Philip II of Spain (Arras was under Spanish rule from 1556 to 1714 and Philip decreed that all buildings in the main squares be built uniform in style and design), the city was left with detailed blueprints. In 1919, these were used to help rebuild the city as new.
Today, both the Grand Place and Place des Heros are lined with handsome buildings that house shops, cafes, restaurants and a handful of hotels. Book one of four rooms with a view in the delightful La Cour des Grands. Doubles cost from £71 per night (lacourdesgrandsarras.com).
Visit on a balmy summer’s evening and the squares buzz with the sound of locals and visitors enjoying dinner and drinks. Try La Passe Pierre (lapassepierre.fr) for tasty local dishes and Chez Marcel (chez-marcel-arras.metro.bar) for an excellent range of local craft beer.
Visit during La Fete de L’Andouillette in August and the squares are lined with long wooden tables where diners sit side by side feasting on the local speciality: tripe sausage.
But it’s not just above ground where the action takes place in Arras. The region is rich in limestone, which was quarried from the 9th Century, resulting in an underground landscape that my guide says ‘resembles Swiss cheese’.
Cultural gem: The Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a majestic abbey, is well worth a visit, Katja reveals
Spend the night outdoors at one of the delightful cabins at Domaine Natureza, which includes a cabin suspended in the sky
Book a room with a view in the city’s delightful La Cour des Grands hotel (above)
These ‘boves’ (caves) have played a vital role in the city’s history, having been used by Allied soldiers in the First World War. Before the Battle of Arras in 1917, 24,000 soldiers lived in these tunnels. As well as dormitories, there were kitchens, latrines, command centres and a 700-bed hospital. You can visit Wellington Tunnels on a guided tour (carrierewellington.com).
Because of its compact size, you can quickly be in the countryside and verdant landscape around Arras. It’s perfect to explore by electric bike, or by kayak along the Scarpe river at Riverside Park. Details of both tours and rentals can be found at the tourist office (arraspaysdartois.com).
Spend the night in the outdoors at one of the delightful cabins at Domaine Natureza, which includes a cabin suspended in the sky. The owners can also help arrange hot-air balloon rides over the city – the most magical way to end your visit. Doubles from £195 per night (domainenatureza.fr).
- Katja Gaskell was a guest of Atout France and Arras Pays d’Artois Tourism (arraspaysdartois.com).
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