Just before my 16th birthday, I was fortunate to win a competition which gave me the opportunity of going to France with other local students. It was my first time there and I stayed with a family in Douai, which is in the north of the country. It was the twin-town of where I lived. While we were there, we travelled around and visited the surrounding area, as well as going to Paris, of course.
There were two places I particularly liked, one being Montmatre in Paris and the other was Lille or so I thought. It wasn’t until I was in Lille recently that I realised the picture in my head wasn’t of Lille at all but somewhere else.
While I was there, I decided to take some regional trains to explore the surrounding area. I remembered visiting Arras during my first trip to France so I decided to revisit it as there was an underground tunnel system that sounded really interesting. While I was waiting for the underground tour to start, I decided to go up to the top of the Belfry. As I looked out over Place des Héros, I experienced déjà vu (the literal translation of it rather than the phenomenon). The place I had thought was Lille for all those years was actually… Arras. So, for years, I thought Lille was Arras and that Arras was Amiens. Confused? I certainly was for a while!
I had somehow gotten confused between some of the places I had visited. I love Lille because its vibrant and the old buildings make it so characterful but way back when I was 15 going on 16 years old, it was Arras that was one of the reasons why I fell in love with living in France and French life. When I was there the first time, it was market day so the place was buzzing and it was full of life. I remember walking around the market, watching people buying cheese, fruit, vegetables etc., while others around its perimeter were sitting outdoors, drinking coffee. That type of ‘al fresco’ dining didn’t exist in the UK at that time but I loved the idea of it.
I didn’t just spend my time reminiscing. I did a couple of things I didn’t do before. One was going to the top of the Belfry to get that magnificent view of Place des Héros. The other was to see the tunnels underneath it, Les Boves.
The only way to access Les Boves and the Belfry is through the Tourist Office. It’s a guided tour under Place des Héros. At the start, I heard a loud noise every few seconds and wondered what it was. The guide told us it was the cars driving over a grate in the road.
Apparently, from the 9th to the 12th century they extracted chalk at a depth of 12 metres to build houses and to fortify the town. They stopped when the market began because the extra weight and use above ground could have been dangerous if they continued extracting chalk. In later years, it was used as shelter during times of war and by allied troops during the world wars. I only got to see some of this extensive tunnel network.
I was there in May for the 11th year of ‘Le Jardin des Boves’, which made it all the more interesting. This is an annual event that runs from the end of March to the beginning of July. It was the first time I had seen an underground garden and it was fascinating to see how plants and flowers can thrive and flourish without soil by using hydroponics, which is mineral nutrient solutions in water, artificial light rather than sunlight, and water.
Doing this underground illustrates the point so well and the fact that you can literally grow any plant or flower anywhere providing you artificially create the right conditions for them.
After that, I did what I had seen so many locals do when I was there many years before; I sat at one of the cafes and had a small beer while I was waiting for my train back to Lille.
For further information on Les Boves or anything to do with Arras, contact Arras Tourism.
* I would like to thank Lille Tourism who very kindly gave me a regional train ticket so I rediscover Arras as well as explore the surrounding area.