AnElephantCant stop growing restless
He just doesn’t like being harassed
So he heads to Artois
And visits it star
A fascinating town called Arras
AnElephantCant claim to be useful
When it comes to digging tunnels and such
Through this amazing place
He stumbles with grace
He is seeing and learning so much
Arras is a town of some history
With tunnels a thousand years old
In the First World War
Men came from afar
To crawl and dig in the dark and the cold
AnElephant sends a few post cards
To family and friends way back home
And to one special femme
Who knows who she am
She understands that AnElephant must roam
Now Arras has an unusual feature
It has 3 thriving central main squares
For parking and space
For events to take place
And weekly markets where les fermiers sell their wares
And so to our tale.
Arras is a strange but rather wonderful town.
It is the capital of the Department of Pas-de-Calais, and the historic centre of the Artois region, with a population of around 45,000 people.
It lies about 70 miles south-east of Calais and almost 100 miles due north of Paris.
It has a fascinating lay-out comprising 3 main linked squares, the larger 2 of which are bounded by arcaded walkways.
This is perhaps an indication of the weather in the area, where rainfall can be fairly severe.
All 3 squares are used on main market days; at other times they are used for specialist markets, other events or town centre parking.
The arcaded terraces along the east side of the Grande Place (the largest) can be seen in the centre of the picture below:
The most central and busiest is the Place des Heros, with cafes and restaurants on the pavements on 3 sides. The square is dominated by the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) with its spectacular belfry on the west side.
The smallest square is the delightful Place de la Vacquerie which lies directly behind the Town Hall, and is the site of the market of locally grown fruit and vegetables every Saturday.
The Hotel de Ville, which houses the Tourist Office, is an amazing building with its vaulted ceilings, towering Belfry and subterranean tunnels.
These festival giants who appear to just hang out there stand around 16 feet (5 metres) tall, are on wheels, and have a little flap in the front to allow their ‘drivers’ to see
The Belfry allows panoramic views across the town and surrounding countryside, with viewfinders to provide easy identification of the sights, such as the Cathedral and Abbey St Vaast, founded in the 7th century and giving birth to the medieval town.
But underground is where the real story lies.
Les Boves, as they are known, are a network of underground tunnels and chambers, originally created back in the 10th century as limestone quarries for building materials to reduce the outbreaks of fires in the predominantly wooden houses of the time.
They lie underneath the Place des Heros and the surrounding buildings, and have been used over the years as cellars, warehouses for the market traders, and bomb shelters during the Second World War.
Les souterraines are at 3 different levels, at 4, 8 and 12 metres below ground.
And now for the most extraordinary tale. Arras was in the frontline during the First World War.
It was largely destroyed in 1914.
But in 1916 the Allies devised a cunning plan.
New Zealand tunnellers linked the quarries together creating a vast underground network that billeted 24,000 men.
Yes, in preparation for a surprise attack on the German frontline, twenty four thousand men lived in these tunnels, which had kitchen, toilet and medical facilities and a small railroad!
The attack, sadly, was only a limited success, but the feelings of the local populace towards the British and Commonwealth soldiers is clearly reflected in the Arras press at the time.
Arras is also the birthplace of Robespierre, central figure in the French Revolution and driving force behind the subsequent Reign of Terror. And, according to sa mère, an all-round nice guy.
So all in all not your typical tourist trap, but if, like your favourite Elephant, you just want to visit French towns, meet French people and eat French food, then this is a great place.