Thursday 12th April 2012, Arras, Artois
We have returned to the same campsite after a full day on our feet around Arras. There was so much to enjoy we decided not to continue to the next campsite on our list over in Belgium but to return to last night’s site and make full use of the free wifi – always a welcome bonus!
The campsite lady told us of a good place to park for free in town and a few minutes later we found ourselves on the huge cobbled square – La Grande Place. Flanked on all sides by rows of arcaded brick houses with Flemish gables we were awestruck. England has nothing remotely like this and the scale is immense. It was only later though that we fully appreciated what we were looking at. During the First World War Arras was at the centre of the battle zone and suffered regular and heavy bombardment. 95% of the town’s buildings were damaged and the city was left a smouldering ruin. It has since been restored exactly as it was with ancient paintings and old photos as guidance. It has been astonishingly well done, reminding us of similar restoration in Gdansk and many German towns.
Linked to this square is the smaller, but possibly even more amazing, Place des Heros, formerly La Petite Place. Arcaded brick buildings with Flemish stepped gables or decorative brick and stone facades are on three sides while the stunning town hall is at the far end. The style is flamboyant gothic, so typical of Northern Europe during the Mediaeval period. The emphasis is on the vertical lines of the building with columns, finials, high slate roofs and pointed arched windows carrying the eye upwards. The building looked graceful and delicate, beautifully proportioned.
Like so much of Arras, the Town Hall and its belfry had been heavily restored after WW1. Inside, an exhibition showed how this had been achieved. In fact the rear façade had been modified and taken back to its former classical style removing the 19th century eclectic accretions it had acquired. Pierre Paquet, General Inspector of Historic Monuments at the time of the restoration of the town hall at Arras was the antithesis of a former renown minister of works, Violette le Duc (coincidentally born in Arras), whose ideas of restoration were sometimes complete works of fantasy, far removed from how the building may ever have looked. Witness the fairytale castle at Carcassonne! The reconstructed 15th century belfry at Arras is on the Unesco World Heritage list.
A stroll through pleasant gardens bought us to the site of the Abbaye St. Vaast and the cathedral. The original cathedral was destroyed during the French Revolution but was apparently the most beautiful gothic cathedral in northern France. It was replaced by what is undoubtedly the largest 18th century cathedral anywhere in France. All that can be said about it is that it is built in classical style and it is really Vaast! It is also stark, solid and very ugly. A pity really that it appears to be one of the few buildings of merit to have escaped serious bomb damage. But then, it is built more solidly than any wartime bunker!
The abbey buildings overlooking the gardens house the Musée de Beaux Arts. In the entrance stands the original 16th century metal lion that once crested the original cathedral. It holds a standard showing the face of the sun. This was added as a diplomatic gesture by the council at Arras when the Sun King himself, Louis XIV visited the town shortly after it became part of French territory in the hope he would not increase their taxes.
After a light lunch of quiche and coffee in a patisserie we walked across the city, passing through the Place Victor Hugo, to reach the huge British War Graves Cemetery, Here thousands of WWI soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth are buried side by side in well tended graves with individually inscribed but otherwise identical headstones set into a green lawn. The walls are inscribed with the names of thousands of soldiers whose graves are unknown. All together some 700,000 young men lost their lives fighting on the western front for a war that history has shown to have been futile. No matter how many such cemeteries we have seen, we never fail to be deeply moved by the sacrifice and bravery of such young men, but we also leave with a sense of anger that it ever happened.
Beside the cemetery stands the Mur des Fusillés. Over 200 civilians were shot here when the German army captured the city during World War 2, suspected of being involved in the French resistance movement.
Beneath the city there is a vast network of underground passages, enlarged during WWI by New Zealand troops. They are sufficient to hide an entire army. Indeed, when Arras was captured by the Germans, allied troops hidden beneath the city stole out in the night and overran the occupying German force! It was one of the few wartime successes for Arras.
Nearby the cemetery stands another building on the Unesco World Heritage list, the 16th century fort designed by ... yes, that’s right, M. Vauban! Who else? Unfortunately it is only open in July and August so we couldn’t visit it but it probably looks very much like any of the countless others we’ve visited over the years.
By this time the weather had decided to snow! Not soft fluffy flakes but huge wet blobs that slowly melted on your hair and tricked into your ears. We headed hastily back into town and sought refuge in a a free exhibition of books in the Hotel de Guines with its Rococo façade.
Sometimes on our travels we’ve been asked to put on special shoes to protect the floors of certain buildings. This time we were each handed a pair of white cotton gloves. Excited that we were to actually handle the books we were greatly disappointed to discover they were Livres d’Artists rather than early printed books. Such books are really more like works of art and some were very bizarre indeed and not to our taste. Most had a sexual theme and some we just had no idea at all what they had to do with books anyway – a giant foetus in the womb all made from scraps of soft material, thinking about the forthcoming parturition from its mother for example.
In Mediaeval times Arras was famed for wool production and the quality of its tapestries, to the extent that Arras became an eponymous term in England and Italy for any tapestries hung around a room. Thus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius was stabbed behind the Arras.
Back in the sleet and the snow, and feeling weary, we headed back to Modestine and the campsite for another night. It has been a very good day.
A few bonus photos.