It is coming up to Christmas season once again and a lot of cities will have their markets selling seasonal goods and bringing out the mulled wine. A lot of visitors will hit up the big ones in Cologne , Brussels, Brugge to name a few but I visited two ‘smaller’ markets in Northern France which are worth visiting.
The town of Arras is located south of Lens and Lille and also makes a wonderful day trip from Paris which isn’t a long journey by train. Built on the banks of the River Scarpe, the town and surrounding area lies on a huge chalk plateau, so the views from the high buildings here ensures visitors can see for many miles miles around (to which the Belfry in the centre is one of the top places to get a fantastic view).
Arras Christmas market is one to check out (as I will explain in a bit) but I also have a thing for great historic and beautiful architecture. Like most towns and villages in this region of France, there is a lot of Dutch influence on the facades of buildings. Also the Belfry at the Town Hall is one of many belfry’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most dominant feature of the area which I must have a ascent up. The building has stood here since 1554 but had to be rebuilt after World War I. Now standing at 75 meters (246 feet) I had the perfect view. I could see for miles but the view overlooking La Place des Héros, a huge square which the Belfry is located on and is surrounded by some amazing buildings which houses shops, bars and cafes.
The Christmas market was a pleasant moment and managed to look at all the stalls which sold food, drinks, wooden cats, honey and even Polish food. Wine tasting was to be had but I prefered to try the traditional hot wine and also the local hot chocolate. There were also rides and entertainment for the children in the centre of the Grand Place square which is surrounded by many more buildings which could of placed us in a town like Bruges or Anvers over the Belgium border.
(Fact: Unlike many French words, the final S in the name of the town, Arras, SHOULD be pronounced. Just thought I mentioned this).
Arras – Guided tour of Les Boves
Whilst in Arras, underneath the City Hall and the Belfry Tower is the entrance to the ‘Boves’. This guided tour which can be booked up at the tourist information office in the same building takes visitors under the streets to discover the underground history of the town. Originally used as chalk quarries, the Boves were dug on this site from the 10th century and used for various purposes over the years like food storage and cellars of the above restaurants. Even one fishmonger/restaurant owner thought the hole in the ground going into the Boves was a rubbish bin and over time, down below a huge pile of fish bones and other bits piled up and the smell became unbearable!
The network of galleries which covers the size of the town and beyond was also used as shelter and rallying point for the British troops in 1917 (World War I) as they awaited to attack the Germans in the Battle of Arras. The forty minute tour is worth going on, I was amazed how solid the walls were (despite a few leaks appearing making the ground slippery) and how easy it could be to get lost down there. The tour guides are very informative and they certainly know their history of the town. I would recommend this tour very highly for anyone visiting this area (and it is very cheap too).
Vimy – checking out a fantastic monument to the Canadians who died in the First World War
Another sight to mention near Arras which is worth a visit lies a few kilometres north near the village of Vimy, where the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is located. This is dedicated to the memory of the Canadian army killed during World War I and also serves as a place of commemoration of soldiers killed or presumed dead in France who have no known grave.
Why did I stop here? I noticed the memorial on a postcard in a shop in Arras an hour earlier and it took my eye. It looked impressive so I thought about coming here to check it out as I was in the area and I wasn’t to be disappointed. The memorial is big and I strolled through much of the battlefield park which also overlooks a portion of the ground where the Canadians made their assault during the Battle of the Vimy Ridge, a military engagement fought as part of the Battle of Arras.The area is peaceful, trees blowing about in the cold wind, not a soul to be seen.
The memorial itself is located on Hill 145 (as it was known to Canadians and the British forces during the war) which is the highest point on the ridge. Whilst I was walking around, I was paying my respects in silence. Nearby to here (on further research which needs to be done), I lost one of my Great, Great Uncles during the First World War and is remembered at a memorial in nearby Loos (on the outskirts of Lens). Maybe he fought in this battle? Who knows but for me personally and my family, it would be interesting to find out (for more, please read my post on the Battle of the Somme here).
Béthune – another Belfry & Christmas Market
Further north of Arras and to the west of Lens, the town of Béthune is another town worth a visit which is rich in architectural heritage and history. With its many cobbled streets, shops and cafes, I took in the belfry which has 133 steps. It was closed on the day I visited but I have been told if visitors go to the top for the views, the Belgium border can be seen to the north. There is not much sights to see in the town apart from the nearby large brick church but I came here for the Christmas market. A lot smaller than the one in Arras, there was still plenty of things to taste, smell and look at. Located in the square with the Belfry, once again amazing Dutch-style buildings surround the area with the town hall.
I have to admit I never been a big fan of Christmas Markets especially back home in England as I find they are too commercial but the smaller ones I found in France are more traditional and I was loving the food and wine tasting. I find it’s also great to explore a town at the same time, so if exploring Lille or Paris or somewhere not to far, then come to Northern France and check out the Christmas markets. I wasn’t disappointed and I am sure you won’t be.
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