If you are staying in Lille and you want to do a day trip to somewhere else in Norhern France, where would you go? For me, the obvious choice is Dunkirk. It’s so famous it’s had a film made about it. Nicolas, however was less keen. He pointed out that even if once upon a time Dunkirk was a cute little town, it was bombed to smithereens in WW2, and then rebuilt in the fifties, hardly a glorious period for architecture. So we searched for other options for a day trip, eventually settling on Arras, mostly because it is only forty minutes from Lille and has a nice Saturday morning market.
It turned out a “nice market” was a grand understatement. The Saturday morning market in Arras is vast. It covers no less than three market squares, and many of the side streets. There is a mix of food and hardware goods, I even saw some hand carved wooden chairs for sale. Food wise, you can buy pretty much any French food here. Rotisserie chicken, cheese, mushrooms, saucisson, fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, patisserie, bread. There was even a specialist horse butcher.
After wandering around drooling for a while, we visited the town hall and the belfry. Sat at the end of the main market square, the town hall is really the showpiece of the town, and on a clear day the Belfry gives a great view of the surrounding area, not to mention the market. From the top you get a birds-eye view of the rows of tall narrow houses which surround the main squares and give Arras it's distinctly Flemish feeling. The first floor of the houses all overhang to provide a corridor for protection in wet weather. Happily we needed no such shelter. The sun was beaming as if it had forgotten it was the middle of February, and the pavement cafes around the edges of the square were full of people enjoying a break from their shopping and a Belgian beer.
We were starving from the market, but it was mostly produce, so we stopped at a friendly little bistro for lunch before continuing our exploration. We had picked up a leaflet in the tourist information office which suggested a walking route, so we headed off along it towards the Citadel. Although it’s a designated UNESCO world heritage site, we didn't find it particularly interesting - the citadel was never saw any military action, and was nicknamed “the useless beauty”, because its position was useless from a military strategy perspective. Nowadays the inside seems to be mostly offices, although the surrounding park, including a memorial to members of the French Resistance shot in the surrounding ditches in WW2, made for an interesting stroll.
Heading back into the centre of Arras, we aimed for the abbey, now a fine art museum. It has what I’m sure is a great selection of paintings. For us however, the most interesting part was the section on local history, complete with an architect's model of the town from the 17th century. It had three market squares even then. Most poignant were the images of Arras destroyed by shelling in WW1. It was bizarre to see photos of the Belfry, the market square and the abbey we were standing in, smashed to bits.
The town was a major allied military base during WW1, and after the war it was painstakingly rebuilt, faithful to its original style. There is a metal lion which stands on the top of the Belfry, and the one from during the war, gnarly and twisted but still in one piece after the bombing, is also in the museum.
Our final stop for the day was underneath the city and into the Boves - Arras’s tunnel network. These were initially chalk mines, but over the years served various uses, including as stores houses for canny market traders hoping to avoid trade taxes and as a military base for British WW1 soldiers. I was also rather pleased that, after discovering I was the only person who wasn’t French on the whole tour, I was able to understand pretty much everything, only occasionally relying on Nicolas for translations.
We had a great time in Arras, and found tonnes to do for a town that we had never heard of. As for whether it was a better day trip than Dunkirk, we’ll just have to go there another day to find out!