Bonjour, Arras!

August 23, 2019 at 8:18 pm 4 comments

Baroque townhouses on the Place des Héros, Arras, Hauts de France. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

I often tell people that one of the best things about France is the incredibly rich array of choices there is in terms of places to go, and things to see and do in this relatively small country. The diversity of landscapes, types of architecture, cuisines, local languages and dialects, and local and regional history, not to mention climate and geography, is quite simply amazing.

I think it is difficult for Americans to understand how such a wealth of diversity can be contained within the confines of a geographical area that is more or less the size of the state of Texas. Of course, Texas is a very big state: and just as it takes a long time to drive across Texas, it takes a long time to drive across France. Americans, and I suppose probably people from other places with huge geographical distances contained within their national borders, often underestimate how big France actually is, and are sometimes chagrined to discover that their plans for covering certain distances that they have laid out in advance by looking at a map do not work out very well in actuality.

But it is not only the length of time it would take to drive straight from Point A to Point B within France that is the problem, at least not in my mind. In my mind another significant challenge is how to do this without succumbing to the temptation to stop a million times along the way, to discover all there is to discover, and learn all there is to learn. Or to suffer the other, and to my mind very distasteful, alternative of ignoring so much of what there is to explore, and just barreling through.

Well, the situation is simply impossible, that is all. Unless you are lucky enough to live in France, in which case you have the rest of your life to explore all that richness.

Earlier this week I took advantage, in a tiny way, of that opportunity, when I drove about 350 kilometers from my home in the département of l’Aube in southern Champagne to Arras, in the Pas de Calais département, in the region known as Hauts de France;  and I was once again taken with the delicious impression of being in another country altogether, though wonderfully and clearly still in France.

Of course, the part of France I drove to this week has not always been a part of France: that is part of the fascinating history of the place. The France we know today, sometimes referred to as “the Hexagon,” is a fairly recent historical development, and it’s not that easy to pin down the exact date when it was established. (For one thing, the boundaries have not been constant, which is true of other countries as well of course, including the United States. And it can be very instructive to learn about the history of those shifting boundaries. Very instructive! Calls all kinds of assumptions we tend to live with into question…)

In any case, Arras is a very old city: Wikipedia informed me that it was established by the Gauls during the Iron Age; that it was once part of Flanders; that at another time it was part of the Spanish Netherlands; that the French captured it from Spain in 1640; and that it has been part of France ever since.

Skipping over several centuries, during the First World War Arras was near the front for most of the war, and it consequently suffered extensive damage: in fact, about 80 percent of the town was destroyed. Much of it was restored after the war: for example the beautiful Baroque townhouses that border the Grand Place and the Place des Héros in the center of the city, and the extraordinary Hotel de Ville with its famous belfry, which was reconstructed à l’identique (that is, exactly as it was). I remember how strong was the feeling among many New Yorkers after 9/11 that the same thing should be done with the World Trade Center after it was destroyed.

The beautiful Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Arras is one of 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France.

I had chosen Arras as my destination this week for a perhaps rather unusual reason. I was trying to figure out how far I would need to drive my son in order to be able to put him on a train direct to Lille rather than obliging him to travel first north and west to Paris, and then back east again. (It is not easy to travel “as the crow flies” by train in France, and I often attempt to outsmart the powers that be at the French National Railway, in order to avoid having to go through Paris when it makes no sense to have to go through Paris.)  I was particularly inspired to do so this time, since work on the tracks was making the trip between Troyes and Paris much longer than usual. And since I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my son in a long while, I relished the idea of us having a few hours on the road together.

That is why I decided to go to Arras. I was fully aware that by the time we arrived there we would be pretty damn close to Lille: but I reasoned that as Arras is a much smaller city it would be much easier to negotiate traffic and find my way into and back out again than it would be in Lille; and as I am not fond of negotiating traffic and finding my way in cities I don’t know at all, I thought this was a great plan. I would have time to visit with my son along the way; we would have a nice lunch together in Arras; I would put him on the train to Lille; and then I would spend a pleasant evening and morning in Arras before driving back home. I looked at the pictures of Arras, and started to read about its history. It looked beautiful and sounded very interesting. And so the plan was laid.

Most of this plan went really well: we did have a nice, relaxing few hours in the car together that gave us the chance to catch up a bit; we had a very nice lunch in Arras after we had parked the car and I had checked into my hotel; I did put my son on the train to Lille; and I did enjoy a pleasant evening in Arras in the beautiful Place des Héros before returning to Champagne the next morning.

The only part of the plan that did not go quite as planned was the “easier to negotiate traffic in a smaller city” part of it. Of course I have no basis for comparison, since we did not go to Lille. But rarely have I encountered a more frustrating entry into a new city by automobile. And as we made our way through the frustration of finding my hotel and getting the car safely parked I was reminded of that fable in which someone tries to outsmart death through some kind of elaborate set of ruses, only to be met in the end of the story (of course!) by death. Some fates just cannot be avoided.

Fortunately, I was not alone for this part of the trip: my son was still with me to share the experience of being directed in fruitless circles around and around the city center by Google which, it eventually became obvious, was not taking into consideration the fact that we were arriving in town at the exact same time that a number of large amusement park rides, funhouses and so on, were also arriving for a fête foraine, and were setting up shop on the Grand Place. (“This is the craziest city I have ever been in,” my son declared at one point, and he added that if he were a city planner for a city that was “obviously built long before the automobile” he would create a place outside the city where all cars could be parked, and then mass transit would be provided for people to get into the city center “which OBVIOUSLY is not meant for driving cars in.”) He also wondered whether transforming the Grand Place into a carnival site for a weekend was really worth all the trouble.

Of course there are never any answers to these kinds of questions.

I think the most harrowing moment was finding ourselves in a very narrow alley into which Google had directed us with its execrable and mostly wrong guesses at the pronunciation of French street names, and from which we emerged onto a sidewalk.


In my experience, Americans tend to react to these kinds of situations with a sort of barely contained panic (we just are not used to being asked to drive cars through such confined spaces); while the French are more likely to have a bemused, philosophical attitude.

We managed to tamp down our national tendencies to the point where we were certainly not hysterical. But we were also far from amused, or bemused. As we emerged from the incredibly narrow alley, car unscathed but clearly having been (and still being) somewhere we were not supposed to be at all, sure enough, the locals enjoying their steak frites at the sidewalk cafe right next to the alley, to the extent they noticed us at all, could be said to display reactions that seemed to be more or less philosophical/bemused.

Fortunately, sympathetic and helpful drivers of other cars who were having their own problems negotiating the situation cooperated by making room for us to be able to get the car off of the sidewalk and back onto the street without damage to our car, anyone else’s, or any further incident.

However, we were still no closer to my hotel than we had been before the last several turns around the city center (Google more than once also directing us to go the wrong way on narrow one-way streets). At this point my son proclaimed Google useless in this instance, and turned off the directions. And somehow, eventually, we found the hotel.

After that it was simply a matter of finding the parking garage recommended by the hotel, which we accomplished without great difficulty (phew!) For some hard to understand reason the entrance to the underground parking ramp had a concrete surface that was textured very much like an old-fashioned washboard. Perhaps the purpose was to slow drivers down as they entered it. Just in case it did not, there was a helpful (and completely unnecessary) sign that urged us (a bit late, in fact) to drive slowly. “No. Really?!” I muttered as I negotiated a hairpin turn going down to the second level that we did manage to clear: but I would not have wanted to try to do it with a car that was any bigger than our compact model.

Anyway. We parked the car: and because I have parked in underground parking garages before in France, I knew not to worry about the horrible squealing noise the tires make every time you turn the wheel, due (I guess?!) to the surface used in these places. Live and learn!

We both heaved a huge sigh of relief as we got out of the car. Hooray! And we then proceeded to have a lovely lunch in the very cafe next to the place where, not half an hour earlier we had feared we might have to be lifted out of the alley we were attempting to drive through by crane, as bemused, philosophical Frenchmen looked on.

Mission accomplished, it was time for lunch. Don’t you always feel better after having lunch in France?

After lunch it was time to walk Sam to the train station and send him on his way. I headed back to my hotel, rested up a bit, and then went to pass a lovely few hours in the Place des Héros, where I sipped on a pichet of Bordeaux as I read my book and eavesdropped on several English couples sitting near me (“How long can you hold onto World War II?” one of the men said at one point, an intriguing question, but one that will forever remain unanswered, since I could hear neither the remark that had prompted it, nor what followed.)


My neighbors’ wine glasses reflected the Baroque townhouses beautifully, wouldn’t you agree? Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

A guitarist set up at one end of the place was playing and singing a nice selection of folkish tunes; and as the sun slipped lower in the sky there were beautiful effects to be seen in the changing colors of the buildings surrounding the square.


Eventually I became a bit hungry, though not very hungry after our copious late lunch. I ordered a classic galette (topped with oeuf, jambon, fromage) which served perfectly for my evening meal; and then, as the air began to cool, I made my way slowly and contentedly back to the hotel, strolling through ancient streets.

It had been, all in all, another wonderful day in France.

The next morning, getting out of the parking garage–and even out of Arras–proved to be blessedly smooth and simple.

So, hah! Maybe you can escape fate some of the time? Doesn’t hurt to try!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.” 



Entry filed under: About France. Tags: , , , , , , .

Au revoir encore, Paris… Book Review: The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kevin sisson  |  August 24, 2019 at 12:06 am

    Beautiful, as always. Glad I wasn’t in the car-or driving!

  • 3. Jude L Sales  |  August 24, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    Janet this is a wonderful story, beautifully told. Thank you. xox

    • 4. Janet Hulstrand  |  August 25, 2019 at 8:12 am

      Thank you so much, Jude! Means a lot coming from you! 🙂


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