Following in her grandfather's footsteps, Denise Stephens finds where many have fought and died for centuries.

When my sister commented on the mural in the hotel lobby depicting a cat and a rat, the receptionist explained the story behind it. The cat represented the Spanish conquerors and the rat represented the French who drove them out in 1648.

We were in Arras to see the World War I battlefields where our grandfather fought, so this was a foretaste of the long history of Arras, site of many battles over the centuries.

Wherever we walked in Arras, there were signs of this history.

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The heroes place in Arras, France. Photo / Supplied
The heroes place in Arras, France. Photo / Supplied

The Place des Heros in the centre of town is overlooked by the belfry, built between 1463 and 1554 and now on Unesco's World Heritage list. Baroque facades of 17th- and 18th-century merchant houses line the other three sides of the square and the nearby Grand'Place. Today they contain charming cafes and shops. We quickly discover several chocolate shops selling chocolate rats as souvenirs, among other delectable goodies. There's an excellent cheese shop too, with a vast range of cheeses, including the heart-shaped Coeur d'Arras. We found it on the hotel breakfast buffet the next day and enjoyed the creamy, slightly sweet flavour.

Arras was built of limestone quarried from beneath the town and it's possible to visit the quarries. One option is Les Boves, which were used as cellars by local merchants after quarrying came to an end.

These are entered through the tourist office in the Place des Heros.

We visited the second option, the Carriere Wellington, a 10-minute walk south of the railway station. Here, New Zealand tunnellers worked for months in 1917 to extend the existing quarries under German lines. Their presence is marked by New Zealand towns used as names for the tunnels, and New Zealand-themed graffiti on the walls.

The Carriere Wellington can be visited only by guided tour and to preserve the tunnels, numbers are limited. The tour starts with putting on a soldier's helmet before descending into the tunnels. This is a safety measure, not just a costume. The temperature inside was a chill 11C and the lighting just enough to see where we were going. Our guide, Daniel, led the way, talking in both English and French, and pointing out graffiti and artefacts along the way. Audiovisual presentations at key points explained the role the tunnels played in World War I.

One and a half hours later, we emerged as dusk was falling, very aware of the hardships the soldiers and townspeople faced during the war.

The next day we hired a car to see battlefields in the surrounding countryside. It was a foggy autumn day and I worried about getting lost. It turned out that the roads are well signposted and the directions on the Ngā Tapuwae New Zealand First World War Trails app are very accurate, so finding our way wasn't difficult at all.

We arrived at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery after driving along straight poplar-lined roads. Despite the fog, Commonwealth War Graves Commission gardeners were diligently working away, keeping the cemetery in immaculate order.

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World war monument in the French Arras. Photo / Getty images
World war monument in the French Arras. Photo / Getty images

It contains a New Zealand Memorial to the Missing — one of several in France and Belgium — which bears more than 1200 names. It was a sad reminder that Grandad was one of the lucky ones to return.

Caterpillar Valley is also the original resting place of the Unknown Warrior buried at Pukeahu in Wellington. Many of the 5000 graves have no names. Those that do show young men from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Britain in a final resting place far from their homes.

We drove on through the tiny village of Longueval to the New Zealand Memorial, which marks the spot where New Zealanders first fought on the Western Front. The narrow country lane was shrouded in fog so the obelisk wasn't visible until we were nearly there. At the sign explaining the battle of Flers-Courcelette, we peered through the fog in the direction of Flers. More than 100 years ago, Grandad had started somewhere around here with his fellow field engineers, digging trenches leading towards Flers. It had been summer that day, but he would have also spent other days outside in weather like this. We talked about how miserable it would have been.

Heading to Bapaume for lunch, we caught a glimpse of history in the making. A group of yellow jackets — part of a political movement for social justice — were protesting at a roundabout, getting some supportive toots from passing drivers.

After lunch, we headed back to Arras to the Faubourg d'Amiens Cemetery, renowned as one of the most beautiful on the Western Front. Again we felt sad seeing so many names of those who died, listed on the colonnaded memorial wall designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

On our final day in Arras, we explored more of the town. A free electric bus goes around the central area, which is also compact enough to walk. The 18th-century St Vaast Abbey now houses the Musee des Beaux Arts, with a collection that includes paintings depicting Arras in centuries past. Although the buildings in the Place des Heros and the Grand'Place look the same today, the squares are no longer used for cattle markets.

The nearby art deco area is where new buildings replaced those destroyed in World War I. As well as having admirable architecture, it's a great place to shop.

Although our visit was inspired by family links to the war, we enjoyed the overall charm and historic ambience of Arras. This town of rats and conflict has much that appeals.

The writer's grandfather Dal Meek (back left) on the troopship to Egypt. Photo / Supplied
The writer's grandfather Dal Meek (back left) on the troopship to Egypt. Photo / Supplied

Four for remembrance

The beaches of Gallipoli and the killing fields of Flers-Courcelette and the Somme all have special relevance for New Zealanders around Anzac Day.

But there are sites that transcend national remembrance and have become world symbols against conflict. Here are four international war zones that have become monuments for peace.

Stari Most Peace Bridge, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Stari Most "old bridge" (pictured) is an impressive looking arch. Even more impressive is the fact it was completely destroyed by shelling during the Bosnian war in 1993. Reopened in 2004, it has become a symbol of peace in a region that has seen regular conflicts since World War I broke out there, over a century ago.

Now restored to picturesque peacetime glory, the Neretva riverbank is peppered with cafes and hosts cliff-diving competitions.

Stari Most, which means Old Bridge. Photo / Supplied
Stari Most, which means Old Bridge. Photo / Supplied

The nearby War Hostel project in Sarajevo recreates the 1990s and promises your worst night's sleep in the name of pacifism

Solomon Islands, Oceania

The scrap metal reef is a reminder of how close World War II came to Australasia.

Among these paradise islands in the South Pacific are the wreckage of 67 ships and 1297 aircraft, peacefully rusting in the blue waters. Today many companies offer tours from Honiara on Guadalcanal to the now-serene waters that were once the scene of history's deadliest naval battles.

Mat McLachlan Battlefields Tours is running a five-day tour of Guadalcanal
Prague Spring, Czechia
Germany and Berlin have their fair share of Cold War memorials, but it never really boiled over into conflict. However, neighbouring Czechoslovakia was subjected to a Soviet invasion in 1968.

On the morning of August 20, the baroque European city that was once home to Mozart was full of the sounds of Russian tanks. However, the musical city was not to be kept down and 20 years later the country underwent a "Velvet Revolution", swapping Leninism for "Lennonism". Czech students and Beatles fans began painting the John Lennon Wall. Give peace a chance.

Far beneath the city, Prague Communism Tours offers you admission to a Cold War nuclear bunker
Hiroshima Peace Park, Japan
The Genbaku Dome is recognisable as the site where history ended. On August 6, 1945, at 8.15am 70,000 people were killed instantly when the first atomic bomb was detonated here, fusing the museum clock solid in a 6000C blast. When the second bomb went off three days later, Hiroshima became an anti-war symbol.

The skeletal dome at the centre of Hiroshima was one of the few buildings to remain standing. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki hold special significance as the first and, hopefully, last use of nuclear bombs in anger.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is housed in the Unesco site. Entry donation $3

Checklist

GETTING THERE

It's a 55-minute journey by TGV train from Gare du Nord, Paris, from $25 one way.

DETAILS
For more information on tours, go to explorearras.com/en and carrierewellington.com. Admission: $12.

Learn about the Ngā Tapuwae First World War Trails.