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Arras Travel Guide

Traditional houses on the Grand Place, Arras (©
Traditional houses on the Grand Place, Arras


Arras (Atrecht in Dutch, Nemetacum Atrebatum in Latin ; pop. 45,000) is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais département and the historic centre of the Artois region. The city was built at the confluence of the Rivers Scarpe and Crinchon. It is renowned for its Baroque town square.



Originally settled by the Celtic tribe of the Atrebates, it later became a Roman garrison town known as Atrebatum. The Artois region was then settled by the Salian Franks, around the 5th century.

Saint Vedast (or Saint Vaast, c. 453-540), who taught Clovis I (466-511) about Catholicism, was appointed as the first bishop of Arras in 499, and Cambrai in 511. Saint Vedast attempted to erradicate paganism among the Franks, including their veneration for beer. St. Vaast's Abbey was founded in his honour by Saint Auburt in 667. He was was buried in the cathedral at Arras. Vedast's relics were transferred to the new abbey, which was completed by Auburt's successor and generously endowed by King Theuderic III, who together with his wife was afterwards buried there.

Upon the division of Charlemagne's Empire by the Treaty of Verdun in 843, Arras became the seat of the County of Artois, a vassal state of the Kingdom of France. In 932, the county passed to the Counts of Flanders. In 1180, Isabella of Flanders marries Philip II of France, and the Artois becomes part of the Royal domain in 1191.

From the 12th century, Arras developed a reputed tapestry industry, known in Italy as arrazi and in England simply as "Arras". Genghis Khan himself owned tapestries from Arras. The prosperity brought by the textile industry allowed for the reconstruction of the cathedral in 1167.

The title of Count of Artois was then attributed to Louis VIII of France's second son Robert (1216-1250). His grand-daughter Mahaut of Artois married Otto IV, Count of Burgundy, then passed to the House of Flanders again, and eventually came back to the House of Burgundy, until this one was absorbed by the Habsburg family in 1477, as part of the Southern Netherlands.

In 1435, the Peace of Arras ended the 100-year war between the Kings of France and the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1526, Francis I of France, then prisoner of the Habsburgs, renounces to his rights on the Counties of Artois and Flanders (among others) by signing the Treaty of Madrid. Louis XIII reconquers Arras in 1640, which then besieged and taken by the Spaniards in 1653, and taken back by Marshal Turenne. Arras was definitely annexed to France in 1659 by the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

One of the most famous son of Arras is Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-1794). Elected member of the Academy of Arras in 1783, then Member of Parliament representing the Third Estate for the Artois in 1789, Robespierre became one of the leading voices of the French Revolution, defending Universal Suffrage and the Equality of Rights for everyone. He was one of the drafters of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as well as of the First Constitution of France. He devised the Cult of the Supreme Being, which he intended to become the state religion instead of Christianity. During this period, many religious buildings were demolished or damaged throughout France, including in his native Arras.

Another famous Arrageois is Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1857), a criminal who later became the first director of Sûreté Nationale and one of the first modern private investigators. He was Victor Hugo's inspiration for the two main characters in his novel Les Misérables.

In the late 19th century, Arras becomes a cultural city. Ironically, it is during this period that mayor Émile Legrelle has the city walls dismantled.

Arras suffered considerably from the First World War, being only 10 km from the front. All the buildings destroyed were reconstructed just as they were before the war.

Town Hall, Arras (©
Town Hall, Arras

Place des Heros, Arras (©
Place des Heros, Arras

Grand Place, Arras (©
Grand Place, Arras

Hôtel de Guînes, Arras (©
Hôtel de Guînes, Arras


Squares, Townhall & Belfry

Arras is renowned for its town squares. Like in most of the old Southern Netherlands, the main town square is named the Grand Place. It was built in perfectly homogenous Flemish style, and is one of the largest squares in France (if not the largest).

Unusually, the townhall and belfry are not on the Grand Place, but on Place des Héros, a square more the size of a typical market square, and designed in the same Flemish style. The construction of the original belfry started in1463, and was soon followed by the adjoining town hall (in 1502). The belfry was only completed in 1551, and reaches 75m in height. Both buildings were destroyed during WWI, and rebuilt identically afterwards.

Other notable squares include Place de l'Ancien Rivage (traditional 18th-century houses), Place de la Prefecture (with a classical church in the middle), Place du Pont de la Cité (note the baroque fountain), Place du Wetz d'Amain, Place du Théatre, and the circular Place Victor Hugo (with an obelisk in the centre).

St. Vaast's Abbey-Cathedral

Founded in 667 as a Benedictine monastry. St. Vaast Abbey was of great importance amongst the monasteries of the Low Countries. It was exempt from episcopal jurisdiction and maintained its independence until 1778, when it was aggregated to the Congregation of Cluny. The neoclassical building is stunning by its size; with 41 windows in length (on three storeys, so 123), it surpasses many princely and royal palaces in Europe.

The abbey's adjacent church, neoclassical as well, had been desecrated and partially destroyed during the French Revolution. It was rebuilt and consecrated in 1833 and now serves as the cathedral.

Belfry & townhall, Arras (©
Belfry & Town Hall, Arras, Arras

Cathedral of Arras (©
St. Vaast's Cathedral, Arras

Other attractions

Arras has a few very nice classical edifices and stately homes. The two most impressive are the Hôtel de Guînes (2, Rue des Jongleurs), the Hôtel Dubois de Fosseux (14, Rue du Marché-au-Filé). Also note the theatre (on Place du Théâtre), as well as the Hôtel de la Verdure, Hôtel de la Basecque, Hôtel du Marquis de Saluces (all on Rue des Portes-Cochères), Hôtel de Beauffort (Rue Victor Hugo), and Hôtel Deusy (87-89, Rue Saint-Aubert).

Vauban's citadel, south-west of the historical centre, was built between 1667 and 1672, and never served to defend the city, as no siege took place after its completion. It is now used by the French army and cannot be visited.

How to get there

Arras is located near the junction of the A1/E17 motorway between Paris (185 km) and Lille (50 km) with the A26/E15-17 between Reims (175 km) and Calais (110 km).

It is about 50 min by TGV from Paris (41.20 €), 50 min by regular train from Lille (9.20 €), and 50 min from Valenciennes (11.20 €). There are no direct trains to Calais or to Belgium.

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