The Calais Dragon (Le Dragon de Calais) is the latest star in France. So if you haven’t met him yet, what’s he all about?
The Calais Dragon lives on the beach; he spouts fire and vapor; he walks along the Front du Mer; he takes people for a ride. And occasionally, in special street theatre shows he does battle with the town.
Your first glimpse of the Calais Dragon might well be from the ferries that ply between the UK and Calais. They blast their horns when the dragon is out and about. If you hear that, look out for him as the ship enters or leaves the harbor.
Calais is Changing Fast
The Calais Dragon is part of Calais’ new image. A city with a rich historic past (much of it being allied to its position as a major north France port), Calais is renovating its beach front.
Calais was a major seaside resort in the 19th century so the rebuilding of that reputation makes perfect sense.
The town is expanding its sea front. The promenade will extend the walk beside the sea and there’ll be new green spaces, businesses, cafés and restaurants and beach activities. And at the end nearest the centre of town lives the Calais Dragon.
What’s the Calais Dragon like?
The Calais Dragon is huge – 12 metres high and 25 metres long with large wings from 5 to 17.5 metres long. He’s made of 72 tonnes of steel, wood, leather, copper and fabric. Everything moves: his body, his eyes, eyelids, ears, mouth and tongue. He can go to sleep (well he closes his eyes), run 4 kms an hour and flap his bat wings. From this you’d think he’s almost alive and that’s the impression you get as he moves just like a reptile would, seemingly following you with his gaze.
He’s brought to life by 4 to 6 operatives who take up to 48 people in the cradle on his back for a 30-minute voyage.
As an onlooker you experience much the same feeling that was produced by Joey in War Horse. You know he’s not real; you can see how he’s moved by the mechanics operated by people, and yet…he seems alive.
He’s also perfectly adapted for disabled people who take an elevator up to the platform in the Dragon’s house. They can then step straight into the cradle on top that carries passengers.
How the Calais Dragon came into being
It’s a great story, a mix of happenstance, imagination, willpower and politics. In fact, a typical example of French genius at work.
In 1994, the creator, François Delarozière, was working with the Royal de Luxe street theatre company. He was involved in the renovation of the old abattoir in Calais, a large complex that became Le Channel, known for its innovative theatre and bistro and restaurant.
20 years ago, Delarozière founded La Machine. The innovative company produces spectacular street theatre with huge machines designed and especially created for the show.
They produced Les Mécaniques Savantes for Liverpool to celebrate the city being European Capital of Culture in 2008. For more than 20 years, La Machine has produced over 300 shows from Asia to America.
In 2016 they produced a show for Le Channel where François Delarozière met the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, and the project began.
What to create for Calais?
“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.”
This was François Delarozière’s inspiration. He came up with the idea of the Calais Dragon which was constructed at La Machine’s workshops: Les Machines de l’Ile in Nantes. If you’ve visited Nantes, you’ll have seen the huge elephant and the other fantastical bits of machinery made there.
The biggest machine the Nantes workshop has ever made was introduced to Calais’ inhabitants in November 2019. They took the Calais Dragon to their hearts and he’s now a very unusual and much loved Calais citizen.
Where the Calais Dragon lives
François Delarozière chose Fort Risban, which stands between the harbour and the new promenade for the dragon’s home. Here he lives in a huge steel and glass structure. Right beside him, a small building houses a bar/restaurant/café, ticket office and a shop full of dragon-y things.
The Calais Dragon is not alone; his friend, a small iguana, stands just outside on a container. Climb up the small platform for a proper view.
A new project for the Calais Dragon
But this is temporary. The project will take over Fort Risban right behind the Dragon’s home.
Calais was an important port in the Hundred Years War between England and France. Fort Risban was originally built in November 1346 by the English King Edward III while he was besieging the town. The aim was to starve the Calais inhabitants by preventing supplies getting through to the town by sea. Its fortunes waxed and waned through the centuries and its last military use was during World War II.
The Fort will house an exhibition, plus the facilities currently in the modern temporary building. The Calais Dragon will also get a new building to live in, but that’s a very long time off.
There’s more to come…
The Calais Dragon and his friend, the iguana, make up just the beginning of a family that will gradually arrive in the town.
The family of creatures will be located throughout Calais in places important to the city’s history. And so the Calais Dragon will itself become a part of that story.
The Dombunker is a huge blockhouse at the western end of Calais. It was built in 1940 by the Germans to house two Krupp K5 280mm rail guns for the attack on England.
The Dombunker will house two Varans de Voyage (a varan is a carnivorous lizard, who usefully warned of the presence of crocodiles). Designed to walk along roads and join car traffic, they’ll take up to 25 passengers on their backs. Don’t be surprised as you drive around Calais and spot them walking over bridges and stopping in various part of Calais to pick up passengers.
The squat, solid walls of Fort Nieulay also date back to the Hundred Years War between the French and the English. Following the victory over Calais in 1346, the English built sluices here as water defences. In 1525 a fort was constructed as protection. The plan if attacked? The English would destroy the sluices and flood Calais.
In 1677, Louis XIV and his royal engineer Vauban visited Calais, were dismayed at what they saw and rebuilt the Fort. In 1940 a few soldiers managed to defend the building, but only for a few hours.
Enough of history…Fort Nieulay will be home to six iguanas. They’ll sleep in open shelters and will take small groups around the ramparts, walkways and moats.
A large iguana will live in the Saint Pierre district, the old lace making quarter which now has the superb Lace and Fashion Museum. He’ll sleep at night near Saint Pierre church under his own special glass roof. During the day he’ll take up to 15 passengers on tours through Calais.
It’s an ambitious scheme but will make Calais the city of dragons. What other city in the world can claim that?
Calais Dragon (Le Dragon de Calais)
Compagnie du Dragon
201 Avenue Winston ChurchillCaen
Tel: +33 3 66 62 60 00
Open Reopens Feb 13, 2021. Check the website for current information on trip times
Journey on the Dragon Adult €9.50; 4 to 11 years €6.50; free for children under 4 years
More about ferry companies, distances and where to stay in Ferries to France from the UK.
We stayed in a gîte that I thoroughly recommend, courtesy of Pas de Calais Tourism. It was in Wissant, a chic resort just south of Calais which reminded me a bit of Rock or Polzeath in Cornwall. The sea was full of hearty surfers (even though it was December), and the whole place has a Farrow & Ball feel to it.
Gîte Banc de Sable
23 Rue au Sablé
When we were visiting it was the time of lockdown so no restaurants were open. But ordering a takeaway was simple with most of the good restaurants acting as traiteurs. I’d chosen L’Histoire Ancienne in the centre of town. It’s a great family-run restaurant which I know quite well.
We ordered a couple of days in advance and went to fetch the meal between 11.30am and 12.30pm at the back of the restaurant (perfect for parking). The chef, Patrice Comte, came out of the kitchen with the full carrier bags. Included were heating instructions that we followed back at the well-equipped gîte.
A perfect 3-course meal, washed down with copious quantities of wine which we’d bought at Carrefour in Cité Europe the day we arrived.
More about Calais
Calais is one of my favorite French cities, which always surprises friends who tend to get off the ferry and make for the south or wherever they are visiting. It has a long history – much of it intertwined with Britain, a lot to see, decent hotels and good restaurants.
And it’s on the glorious Opal Coast that runs south past two headlands, Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez. Walk along the paths that take you past fields of sheep grazing in the fields and the remnants of World War II.
Read my Guide to Calais, and (hopefully) be convinced.
More to see in Pas de Calais.