France // The north //


Arras is one of the most architecturally striking towns in northern France, the cobblestoned squares of its old centre surrounded by ornate Baroque townhouses that hark back to its Flemish past. It was renowned for its tapestries in the Middle Ages, giving its name to the hangings behind which Shakespeare’s Polonius was killed by Hamlet. The town later fell under Spanish control. Only in 1640 was Arras returned to French control, with the help of Cyrano de Bergerac. During World War I, British and New Zealand miners dug tunnels under the town to surprise the Germans to the northeast, while the Germans bombarded the town. Only one of the famous medieval Arras tapestries survived the centuries of wartime destruction; it’s now on display in a cathedral in Belgium.

Reconstruction after the war was meticulous, and the townhouses lining the grand arcaded Flemish- and Dutch-style squares in the central Grand’Place and the smaller Place des Héros preserve their historic character. Both were once lively market squares, but now the centre is covered with parking spaces. The architecture is impressive; on every side are restored seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mansions.

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