The Citadel of Arras is a site that is unique in France. Built by Vauban in the seventeenth century, its three centuries of military history have left us with an exceptional heritage. Demilitarised and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008, today it is a town within a town, offering remarkable historical buildings, footpaths surrounded by nature and leisure activities.
A citadel designed by Vauban
Who could be better to tell you about the Citadel than its designer, Vauban himself?
After passing though the Porte Royale, you soon reach Timescope on the side of the Chapel of Saint-Louis. This takes you back in time to 1678, 10 years after the start of construction of this plains citadel, a commission entrusted to Vauban by King Louis XIV.
Recently promoted to the position of Commissioner General of Fortifications of the Kingdom, he placed the Citadel of Arras at the centre of the second line of his famous Pré Carré (translated as “duelling field” – a double line of fortifications along France’s borders). Its purpose? Along with the Citadel of Lille, to contribute to the defence of France and to keep watch over the population of Arras, which had been French for less than 30 years.
A unique architectural complex
Never besieged, hence its nickname la belle utile (“useless beauty”), the Citadel of Arras is a well preserved example of seventeenth century military construction.
Judiciously sited to the south-west of the town, close to two water courses, it is in the shape of a pentagon formed by five ramparts: the curtain walls. Five bastions housing powder magazines reinforced the defence.
A walk around the bastions (the Tour des Bastions) is a way of discovering the fortified structures on foot, in particular the Bastion du Roi, the Bastion d’Anjou, and the Bastion d’Orléans; the Bastion de la Reine and the Bastion du Dauphin were demolished in the nineteenth century. A walk around the Citadel moats and wood reveal some outworks, the complete system devised by Vauban.
In the heart of the Citadel
On the Place d’Armes, every building tells a story. 1,500 soldiers could be billeted here.
The barracks are made up of symmetrical modules, typical of Vauban, which could each accommodate four soldiers. The Governor’s lodgings were in the Arsenal, but he did not have it to himself. Look carefully at the decorations on the façade: columns in the shape of cannons and cannonballs remind us that weapons, munitions and tools were also stored here.
If you cross the courtyard, you will see repairs carried out in brick, the scars of German bombardments during the First World War. Finally, with its scrolled gables the Chapel of Saint-Louis recalls the typical architecture of the houses on the city’s squares. Closed for restoration work until September 2019, this is the oldest church in Arras!
Three centuries of military life
From the nineteenth century, the Citadel served as the base for regiments that have marked its history, such as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Engineer Regiments from 1817 to 1939, or the most recent to date: the 601st Road Traffic Regiment.
Close to the Porte Dauphine, a Memorial honours their presence here. A little further on, the very moving Mur des Fusillés reminds us of the massacre of 218 members of the Resistance, shot by firing squad in these trenches during the Second World War. In 2008, the Government announced the dissolution of the 601st Road Traffic Regiment and the Citadel took on a civilian existence.
The Citadel today
What a successful conversion! The citadel is home to the seat of the Urban Community of Arras, residential housing and some surprising businesses, such as a Data Center, a cheese refiner, a treetop adventure centre and an educational honey farm.
A natural site offering pleasant walks among the woods and streams, every year the Citadel forms the backdrop to the large-scale performances staged during the Main Square Festival. Or the art of making music, not war.
The Citadel in practice
Access via the Boulevard du Général de Gaulle: Citadel car centre free, opposite the Arras Memorial and the Faubourg d’Amiens British Cemetery. Open access. Main entrance via the Porte Royale (Quartier Turenne).
Things to see and do :
- The history exhibition and the relief map in the Salle de Familles, open access from 9.00am to 7.00pm.
- Walks: walks around the Bastions (Tour des Bastions) and the Citadel moats and wood (Tour des douves et du bois). 6 remarkable viewing points.
- The Mur de Fusillés, open access from 2.00pm to 7.00pm.
- The Cit’Loisirs treetop adventure centre.
- The Cit’Abeilles honey farm.