We’re singing, but we’re sad. It’s songs from the First World War – laments about distant loves who may never be seen again. We’re in Arras in the Pas de Calais region of northern France, where more than 150,000 men were lost in a single skirmish.
Now we’re hiding where they hid, in the 22-kilometre-long maze of 17th-century chalk quarries beneath the city, reopened during the conflict as a hiding place for more than 20,000 men. The 11-year-old twins aren’t only hearing and singing along to a history lesson on their audioguides – they’re feeling it in every bone of their body.
It’s dark, damp and cold down here. They shiver as they imagine what it was like to live in these tunnels. The Wellington Quarries (named after the New Zealand regiments who reopened them) is one of the many reminders of the war that should have ended all wars in this region of France.
But it’s not all grim in Arras. There’s a lively market in the beautiful Grand’ Place and Place des Héros, which are full of their own pungent, but sweeter, smells. These adjacent central squares are rimmed by tall narrow houses that look as if they’ve been designed with the sole purpose of turning them into mini-chocolates or to decorate biscuit tins. Chocolateries and boulangeries display confectionery and cakes shaped like these terraces or the taller, squarer Town Hall with its belfry you can climb.
You can also go down; there are tunnels underneath the town hall too, used as civilian shelters during the Second World War. In winter, on the squares above, fruit and vegetables are replaced by waffle stalls and baubles, as the region’s biggest Christmas market spreads over the cobbles.
We stay in the Mercure Arras Centre Gare, which is about as central as you can get, right opposite the bus and train station, and surrounded by bistros that remind us we're almost in Flanders. Flamiche (the Flemish answer to pizza) is my kids' favourite.
Arras is far more than a lesson in history – it’s a lesson in not stopping at the first place you encounter. We arrived in France on the ferry, a comfortable glide across the channel, then pressed on for no more than an hour, away from the hypermarkets to a town that is more French than Calais (including the menus) and far more interesting. Where else would you get a Travelling Tradesmen Museum in a house once occupied by Robespierre?
Arras is also far more compact – you can walk everywhere. So although we sang sad songs, we were happy. We’d gone on a perfect short break.
Read more about family holidays in the Pas de Calais and see also our feature on visiting the Somme battlesites, also in Northern France, with kids.