Guide to Calais? A great city? Yes, I love the place and it’s had a hard time in the past persuading people to stay rather than leave the ferry port and get on the nearest motorway for the dash to the south. But anyone who does that is missing out.
So consider staying in Calais on your way to or from your holiday. Or even better, take a short break to Calais. It’s close, easy to get to and get around and has a lot to offer.
Calais has spent the last few years getting its act together. It’s always enjoyed an intriguing history closely intertwined with Britain that started in the 12th century. Now it has great attractions as well. Add to that, its hotels, a growing number of seriously good restaurants and…a dragon spouting smoke. What more could anyone want?
So here’s a guide to Calais to persuade you to give the town a try.
But first a very brief historic introduction.
Calais – The beginning
Calais’ history and the English connection goes back to Roman times. Its strategic position so close to England made it the natural choice for any and every invasion starting with Julius Caesar. In 54 BC, Caesar mustered 800 to 1,000 sailing boats, five legions and some 2,000 horses in and around Calais for his attack on Britannia.
At that time Calais was a fortified town on an island, giving it vital natural defenses. Known today as Calais Nord, the area at the heart of historic Calais is still almost completely surrounded by canals and the harbour.
Medieval Calais and England’s Claims on France
During the Middle Ages Calais took on its real significance as a major trading port which the English needed for its immensely wealthy wool trade. But it was the tortuous politics of inheritance between closely related families that led to war.
The English Plantagenet King Edward III claimed to be the rightful heir to the Kingdom of France; the French House of Valois claimed the country. The conflicting dynastic ambitions sparked the Hundred Years War which started in 1337 and lasted on and off to 1453.
In 1346 the Battle of Crécy demonstrated the great power of the English longbow archers when the English, led by Edward III and his son Edward the Black Prince, decisively beat the Genoese crossbowmen and heavily armoured French knights. A year later, Edward besieged Calais for 11 months before capturing the town.
English longbows continued to dominate medieval warfare for centuries, and were decisive against the French once more at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
The History of Calais told through its attractions
The only existing medieval building in Calais Nord is the Tour de Gouet on place d’Armes. The 13th-century tower, built by the Count of Boulogne in 1214, is 39 ms/128 ft high. It was damaged by an earthquake in 1580 and used as a lighthouse until 1848. In World War I, it served as a military post and has a dovecote for those essential carrier pigeons.
Notre-Dame Church was the heart of the medieval city. Begun in 1214, it suffered from the English who raped, pillaged and burnt Calais after capturing the city in 1347.
First impressions are confusing; the church looks as if it should be in Canterbury rather than Calais. But it makes sense. The English rebuilt Notre-Dame in the 14th century, producing the largest English perpendicular-style church in Europe, and subject to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It remained the place of worship for numerous English Kings, Queens, Dukes and sundry royals through the following centuries.
In 1921 the future President of France, Charles de Gaulle and Yvonne Vendroux, who was from Calais, celebrated their religious wedding in Notre-Dame.
It was partially destroyed by Allied bombing during the summer of 1944 and stood, roofless, for twenty years before restoration of the old church started.
Notre-Dame is more than a church
The church has seen some disparate events. The tower was used as an observation point for the Anglo-French Survey conducted from 1784 to 1790. The survey used trigonometry to calculate the precise distance between the Paris Observatory and the Royal Greenwich Observatory and was a landmark achievement.
In 1785, after Jean-Pierre Blanchard managed the first hot air balloon crossing of the English channel, the balloon was hung up in the church.
The church is large, shaped like a Latin cross. Inside the 17th-century high altar and statues are the most notable features, along with several large religious paintings.
Outside there’s a charming ‘Tudor’ garden and a plaque for Charles de Gaulle and Yvonne Vendroux.
A Modern Take on Medieval Calais
Calais Hôtel de Ville and Belfry
Located in Calais Sud, Calais Town Hall is a glorious over-the-top building, dominating the main square. It was built between 1911 and 1925 in flamboyant 15th-century Flemish style though it looks much older. It stands in its own space, with Rodin’s famous Six Burghers of Calais statue in the gardens at the front. Commissioned in 1885 by Calais, this is the first of the 12 original casts of the statue that are now located around the world.
The statue commemorates an incident in 1347 when first Edward took over the town and called for six of the main leaders of the 11-month siege. They were told to appear with halters round their necks. “I will do…as I please” the King threatened. According to the chronicler Froissart (c. 1337– c. 1405), Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, successfully pleaded for their lives.
I remember the effect of seeing the extraordinary Rodin sculpture for the first time. It was one of those ‘living history’ moments; my excuse is that I was brought up on romanticized history books. Even if today’s young don’t feel quite the same, it’s a formidable and powerful work of art.
Visit Calais Town Hall
The interior is as flamboyant as the outside. A grand staircase lit by a splendid stained glass window suitably showing the departure of the English in 1558 leads up to the first floor grand reception rooms and the Registry office where Charles de Gaulle married local girl Yvonne Vendroux in 1921 in a civil ceremony.
View from the Belfry
Take the lift up the 75-meter high belfry for panoramic views across the flat landscape to Flanders and on a clear day to the white cliffs of Dover. It’s one of 23 bell towers of northern France which joined the belfries in Belgium as part of the Unesco World Heritage List of Belfries built between the 11th and 17th centuries.
Tip: Read Bernard Cornwell’s fictional trilogy The Grail Quest. It has some of the best descriptions of the bloody and ferocious battles of the Middle Ages. Harlequin, the first in the trilogy covers the Battle of Crécy. Cornwell bases the warfare on Trial by Battle, the first volume of the superbly written history of the Hundred Years War by Jonathan Sumption, medieval historian, author and former senior judge.
Calais Town Hall & Belfry
Place du Soldat Inconnu
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 46 20 53
Open Oct 1-Apr 14: Tues to Sat 10am-noon & 2pm-5.30pm; Apr 15-Sept 30: Daily 10am-noon & 1.30pm-5.30pm
Admission Town Hall €5; Belfry €3; combined ticket €7
The Importance of Calais to the English
The English ruled Calais for two centuries from 1360. It became known as the ‘brightest jewel in the English crown’, as the port for the exports from England of Cornish tin, lace, lead and the all-important wool. With around one third of the English government’s revenues coming from Calais, its importance was reinforced in 1372 when Calais became a parliamentary borough, sending its burghers to the relatively new House of Commons in London.
Henry VIII visited Calais in 1532 and found a huge city, calculating around 2,400 beds and stabling for 2,000 horses.
But after two centuries English rule was about to come to an end. In January 1558, King Henry II of France sent the Duke de Guise with a formidable army to attack the city. Calais once again became part of the Kingdom of France.
Industrial Calais and the Lace Industry
Lace-making was always a vital industry in Calais but it was the Industrial Revolution that changed the town. A lace-making machine smuggled in from the UK was set up in the former town of St-Pierre and transformed the artisan craft into a major industry.
Cite internationale de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais (International Center of Lace and Fashion)
The International Centre of Lace and Fashion is housed in a former lace factory in St-Pierre in Calais Sud. It takes you through the fascinating story of lace. And please note, it’s not just for those interested in fashion; there’s a hefty machine that produces the gossamer-like material, and plenty of films and videos revealing the complex process.
Check here for my Guide to the International Center of Lace and Fashion.
Guide to Calais – A Port for War
It’s inevitable that Calais would continue to play a part in any conflict between the two countries. In 1805 part of Napoleon’s army was quartered here in preparation for his aborted invasion of Britain. In 1818 the British army that had defeated the Emperor and occupied France departed from Calais for their journey home.
In World War I Calais was used by the British Expeditionary Force to land troops on their way to the Western Front.
World War II in Calais
World War II saw the first destruction of the town during the Siege of Calais. In 1940 the early German attack on the city diverted the 10th Panzer Division of the German army, enabling the Dunkirk Operation Dynamo evacuation to happen. 330,000 Allied and French troops were taken by the little ships out to the navy waiting just off shore and escaped to Britain.
Nearby La Coupole was built to produce Hitler’s VI and V2 rockets aimed at London and the south coast of England. In 1943 the Germans built massive bunkers along the coast expecting an assault on France from Britain. Heavy bombing by the Allies helped convince the Germans that Calais and the surrounding countryside was the intended target for the invasion of France. The assault finally was on Normandy on D-Day in June 1944 but Calais was almost completely destroyed by diversionary Allied bombing.
On September 30, 1944, General Daniel Spry’s 3rd Canadian Infantry Division attacked and finally liberated the town.
During the German occupation, Calais was the major command post for north French German troops. The German Kriegsmarine’s strategic bunker was the ‘Mako’; today it houses the Calais Musée Mémoire 39/45.
Musée Mémoire 39/45
The War Museum occupies a huge ivy-covered bunker in the middle of the Parc St-Pierre. 95 metres long, with 22 different exhibition spaces, it takes you through Calais in World War II during the German occupation. It tells a very real story of life during the war, with photos and artifacts covering themes that include secret weapons, the Green Jackets, Charles De Gaulle, the Resistance and Women in war.
Musée Mémoire 39/45
Parc St Pierre
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 34 21 57
Open Feb 1-Apr 30, Wed to Mon 11am-5pm; May-Sept daily 10am-6pm
Closed Dec & Jan
Admission Adult €8; concessions €6; child 5 to 15 years (with an adult) €2; Family €12
And don’t miss…
Musée des beaux arts (Museum of Fine Arts)
The Fine Arts Museum is a revelation and should be on everybody’s list of attractions to see. Works range from the 16th to the 20th century including paintings by Picasso and Dubuffet, and there’s a delightful smattering of local Impressionist art. An exhibition on Rodin is juxtaposed with works by British artist Anthony Caro. Delightful themed exhibits include “A Mad Tea Party” from Alice in Wonderland. A tea set, hot chocolate pot, and plates with motifs from China, Japan, and popular iconography mixed up give a strange disjointed feel, just as Alice felt. The museum is well laid out and there are excellent temporary exhibitions.
Musée des beaux arts
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 46 48 40
Open Apr 1 to Oct 30: Tues to Sun 1pm-6pm; Nov 2-Mar 30: Tues-Sun 1pm-5pm
Admission Permanent and temporary exhibitions Adult €4; Permanent exhibition only €2. Admission to Beaux Arts and the International Lace Center: Adult €7
Beyond Calais to the Beach
The five-kilometre stretch of sand beside the sea is a popular spot to hang out for everyone. It’s an easy walk from the center of Calais and there are some excellent restaurants beside the fish market and harbour.
Beware, there’s a …
Recently a new attraction has been added…the Dragon. Late last year, the Dragon made his appearance in Calais. He arrived in a spectacular ceremony in December.
The Dragon is Born
“Beneath the thick crust of the earth runs a maze of deep galleries which connect the seas and the continents. Sometimes, these galleries branch out and widen until they create worlds. Fantastical creatures inhabit these galleries.
The Dragon of Calais is fire, air, earth and water… he has always watched over the lands and seas of the north.“
The dragon was designed and constructed by the incredible and imaginative La Machine Company which is based in Nantes where it produces the world’s greatest machines. The dragon roams through the streets of Calais, puffing smoke and fire and carrying people on its back.
He lives on the beach and you can see him from the ferry.
More about the Calais Dragon and his family.
Calais stands in the section of the north France coast that parallels the white cliffs of Dover which you can easily see on a clear day.
For great walks and World War history, make your way to Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez. Set among the dunes, the two headlands stand high above the sea. You can hire electric bikes and visit some of the attractions along this stretch of coast.
Or just stand on the headlands and think of the history that keeps Britain and France forever linked.
Guide to Calais: Where to Stay
My favourite hotel in Calais is the old-fashioned, but delightfully renovated 3-star Hotel Meurice. It’s near the beach, a few minute’s walk into the center of town and right by the Rue Royale where you’ll find many of Calais’ restaurants. A grand staircase at the entrance sets the scene, and the hotel is particularly popular with British visitors. It has a good bar that buzzes into the late evening. The Meurice is at 5 & 7 rue Edmond Roche, tel: + 33 (0)3 21 34 57 03.
For a modern hotel, I recommend the Ibis Styles Calais Centre, in the heart of the old town at 46 Rue Royale.
There’s a comprehensive list of Calais hotels for all budgets on the Calais Tourist Board website.
There are plenty of budget hotels in Calais. Here’s a guide to the main budget chains.
Guide to Calais – Eating Out
It comes as a surprise to many, but Calais is fast gaining a reputation as a gourmet destination. There’s been an influx of young chefs, adding to the several already popular restaurants, so there’s plenty of choice. Calais is known for its fish, so take advantage of flappingly fresh ingredients.
Histoire Ancienne is one of my favourites. Owned and run by chef Patrick Comte with his wife managing front-of-house, the bistro-style restaurant has an Art Deco style interior. It’s welcoming and offers very good value.
20 rue Royale. Tel: +33 (0)3 21 34 11 20. Menus run from €21 to €34.
Open Tues to Sat lunch and dinner. Closed two weeks in July.
Les Grands Tables du Channel offers a different experience. It was decorated with the help of François Delaroziere of La Machine which produced the dragon so the decor is industrial. The cooking is equally as imaginative. It’s housed in a contemporary arts complex that was once an abattoir (slaughter house) but now puts on a series of unusual concerts, art shows, installations and more.
Choose the bistro for lunch. Dishes are imaginative and well priced around €9 to €13.50 for dishes like Morteau sausage with a Bearnaise sauce to traditional potjevlesch. Desserts are €4 to €6.50. The restaurant is closed for August.
173 Boulevard Gambetta. Tel: +33 (0)3 21 35 30 11. Menus at €19. Check the website for opening times during summer 2020.
You’ll find Le Grand Bleu down by the outer harbor overlooking the sea and the fishing boats. It’s always buzzing with locals who come for the accomplished and innovative cooking. Go for a starter like Thai shrimp soup with light coriander cream and mains like Coquille St Jacques in a cashew crust with chanterelle mushrooms. Meat dishes might include a perfect duck dish marinated in a barbecue sauce with crispy potatoes and young seasonal carrots.
8 Rue Jean Pierre Avron, Quai de la Colonne. Tel: +33 (0)3 21 97 97 98. Menus at €21, €25, €35 and a ‘grande bouffe’ style menu at €50.
Guide to Calais – General Information
12 Boulevard Clemenceau. Tel: +33 (0)321 96 62 40
Pas de Calais Department website
Getting to Calais
By train from the UK: Travel on Eurostar taking from 1hr 36 mins from London St. Pancras International to Calais Fréthun, a distance of around 94 miles/152 km. Normally 5 trains per day travel from London St-Pancras to Calais. Tickets for this journey start from £49.32 when booked in advance.
It’s a 10-minute train ride from Calais Fréthun to Gare de Calais Ville in central Calais at 46 Avenue du Président Wilson. Tickets booked in advance are €1.20.
By train from other French cities:
From Paris: Take the TGV from the Gare du Nord to Calais Fréthun taking 1 hr 37 mins.
From Lille: Take the TGV from Lille to Calais Ville, taking 30 mins.
Getting around Calais
Public transport is good, and what’s even better, it’s free.
More to see in Pas de Calais
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Center gives you a fascinating insight into how the international institution looks after war graves around the world.
Eperlecques Blockhouse was designed as a liquid oxygen factory and the place where Hitler’s V2 rockets were assembled.
The secret Mimoyecques Fortress where the V3 was developed.
Visit nearby Hardelot for its Victorian castle and Entente Cordiale connections and its Elizabethan theatre.
In winter there are plenty of North France Christmas Markets to visit.