Our last planned stop on our Western Front itinerary for day one was a visit to the cathedral, belfry, and les boves (underground cellars) of Arras. Unfortunately the cathedral was closed due to some renovations so we didn’t get to visit it but we still had a very nice visit to this pretty little town.
Added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in July 2005, the belfry in Arras is one of the 56 belfries included in the ‘Belfries of Belgium and France‘ entry. Excited to see another UNESCO site (well I was excited) we made a beeline for the belfry after we parked in a nearby square. Just below the belfry you’ll find the tourism office and that is where you can purchase your tickets to climb the belfry and tour les boves.
As you can tell from the photos it was a quiet day in Arras which was cool, because you know what that means- we had the place all to ourselves! It’s not often that we visit places and that happens but it is so nice when it does. Photos without people in them and we don’t feel rushed to allow others their chance to see whatever there is to look at. We can just savour the quiet moments.
To get up in the belfry there is an elevator and then 43 additional steps so we ascended quickly and wouldn’t you know it, just as we arrived the bells rang! Oh our ears. But it still sounds so beautiful and I never get enough of hearing bells ring out like that. We just seem to climb belfries as their bells ring- like one year prior when we visited the belfry in Ypres!
The belfry of Arras was started in 1463 and took 91 years to complete. About half-way through construction the adjacent town hall was started but it only took four years to finish! My goodness they sure took their sweet time finishing the belfry. But it was worth the wait. At 75 m high it is designed in the Gothic style with lots of Gothic arches, glowering gargoyles, and gold embellishments that must absolutely glitter when the sun is shining. To add to the picturesque scenery the belfry towers over two town squares that are surrounded by 155 houses decorated in a Flemish Baroque style. Finally it is topped with the imperial crown of Charles V and was inspired by the Oudenaarde belfry in Belgium.
From the platform, just below the clock face, the views of the town of Arras and the surrounding countryside are amazing. Take a look!
Sadly all the beauty of the belfry and town hall, created so long ago, was all destroyed in World War I.
From October 1914 to April 1917 the people of Arras endured the shelling by German artillery. On October 8, 1914 the town hall was burned to the ground and two weeks later the belfry collapsed. The old city was reduced to rubble, including the Saint-Vaast Abbey. By the end of the war only 5% of the houses were habitable and Arras, the capital of Artois region, became a ‘martyred city’, much like Reims and its ruined cathedral.
After the war the French Government decided to rebuild the city with faithful reproductions of the ancient buildings and homes as a tribute to the city’s medieval heritage. Today we see the results of their efforts as the facades remain true to the spirit of the original buildings, even though their interiors were rebuilt to modern specifications. The belfry, although reconstructed with a concrete framework, maintained its beauty with the stone dressing they attached. And in 1932 the beautiful sounds of the 37 bells were restored to bring life back in to the belfry.
Underneath the town hall is another discovery, this one even older than the original belfry- Les Boves.
Les Boves (or cellars) are a series of underground passages that were first dug out in the 10th century and have had many uses. Originally used for the chalk that was extracted from their depths, they then became the cellars of wealthy merchants that lived in the gabled houses around the squares of Arras. In the many little corridors, niches, and rooms, they stored goods (and sometimes even trash) below ground if they didn’t have enough space in their home. In more recent history they were used in WWI by the Allied soldiers who sheltered in the tunnels in preparation for the Battle of Arras.
Today the tunnels are open for tours and we were fortunate to receive a private tour of this interesting site because we happened to still be the only ones at the Tourism Office even after our visit up the belfry. Our guide led us down to the deepest depths of 12 m below street level and we then made our way up the to the other levels at 8 m, then 4 m below the streets. She recounted the history from construction all the way to their present use and we quite enjoyed her stories and the tour and would definitely recommend it to visitors planning some time in Arras.
When visiting one needs to be mindful of the low ceilings and potentially slippery floors due to water dripping from the ceiling. The tunnels stay a constant 80% humidity and about 10°C – which is actually quite nice and warm when you’ve been outside up a belfry in March in the wind.
After our tour of Les Boves it was time for us to make our way to our Airbnb apartment for a little dinner and to relax for the evening. While waiting for dinner to cook we enjoyed a quick game of pool (well L enjoyed it more than me as he won!) in the very comfortable flat we found in Arras. We would recommend this place to anyone staying in the area and if you do go you have to check out the view from the shower- yes, the shower. The shower had cool multi-coloured lights in it (I’m not sure why but it was neat) and when standing in the shower you could see out the skylight over the rooftops of Arras- definitely a nice surprise in the morning.
Both Les Boves and the belfry are open year round following the hours of the Tourism office. Closed January 1, December 25, and three weeks after the Christmas holiday.
Location: Hôtel de Ville, Place des Héros 62000 Arras || Phone: 03 21 51 26 95 || Email: email@example.com
Both the belfry and Les Boves are accessed from the Tourism office that is located right below the belfry.
Parking: Available on the streets and in the town squares for a fee that is paid at parking meters along the street. The green pin on the map marks the town square we parked in and it was just a quick walk around the corner to the belfry.
The Town Hall is also available to tour if you are visiting and it is located right next to the Tourism office too.