Calais is not just a place to purchase cheap cigarettes and alcohol in its hyper-markets. I have passed through Calais many times while on my way to Paris or French Riviera … writes Mohammed Reza Amirinia
Calais is one of the most frequently used gateway to Europe for British travellers. A city which has often been ignored by tourists. Calais, unlike Dover, its equivalent on the other side of the channel, is a serious travel destination with many hidden treasures.
Calais is not just a place to purchase cheap cigarettes and alcohol in its hyper-markets. I have passed through Calais many times while on my way to Paris or French Riviera. This was the first time that I could experience Calais for 24 hours. I was surprised to learn what I have missed and it’s really not very far from London. Calais has a lot to offer to visitors including golden sandy beaches, beautiful landscapes, fine restaurants and historical settings.
Standing at the Cap Blanc Nez, 15 Km from Calais port near Sangatte in the Pas-de-Calais, you would be in the shortest distance across the strait of Dover between England and France. The distance is only 34 Km. On a clear day, you can see the white cliffs of Dover from the hilltop of Cap Blanc Nez. Since ancient times, the headland of Cap Blanc Nez has been known as an important site of observation for sailors and border patrol. The landmark also played an important task during the two world wars.
On the top of Cap Blanc Nez, a granite pillar monument in the memory of Dover Patrol during the First World War has been erected in 1921. Two other similar obelisks are standing in Dover and Brooklyn, New York. The Cap Blanc Nez at the 134-meter high is the most northerly cliff in France. The landscape is a great place for a day trip, hiking and gazing at the sea. You can also discover on the cliff side German bunkers that remain from the second World War.
I checked in to the Metropol Hotel and then started my exploration of Calais with a visit to the Town hall. This 20th Century building has a 75-meter high belfry that has been designed in a renaissance revival style and looks like a historical structure. The building was designed in the memory of municipal merger of Calais and Saint-Pierre in 1885 and placed between the two towns.
Inside Town Hall there is a large ceremonial hall, wedding reception room, meeting room and the mayor’s office, which is on the second floor. As you climb the stairs to the second floor, a large stained-glass window depicts the story of the liberation of Calais from the English. The guide explained it in detail. The belfry, a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a major landmark in Calais. Climbing to the observation platform via stairs or a lift to the top of the tower would give you a panoramic view of the city. There are also working models of the port of Calais on display.
I had a snack and coffee at L’authentic Joe café restaurant at Rue Neuve located in Centre Commercial Coeur De Vie in Calais, before strolling in the city. It was a short walk opposite the commercial centre to the pedestrian street of Rue Charost. The balloon installation by the Portuguese artist Patricia Cunha has created a multi-colour design hanging over Rue Charost. I reach Boulevard la Fayette looking at the same colourful balloon installation decorating the sky of the main street of Calais. The Grand Theater de Calais stands at the crossing of Bd la Fayette and Bd Pasteur.
A tour of the seafront and sandy beaches of Calais is not to be missed. As I walked along the beach, enjoying the calm view of the sea, I was amazed to see a giant creature moving along the beach front. La Compagnie du Dragon represents the majestic mechanical beastiary of a dragon. This mechanical animal is 12 meters high and 25 meters long and made of steel and wood. It has been innovated by François Delaroziere. The gigantic model of the Dragon looks so real, as it moves its ears, eyelids and tongue. It sprays water and fire now and then. You can step into the tail of this giant machine, climb the stairs to sit onboard for a forty-five minutes adventure along the promenade. As the dragon starts moving a guide explains the story behind its design. A team of 6 people control and drives the dragon. I found it an interesting experience to relax onboard viewing the glory of the sea.
I ended my day by having dinner at Aquaraile restaurant near Calais port. I enjoyed my dinner while watching a panoramic view of the sea from large windows from the fourth floor of the building, looking at ships embarking from the port. There are many restaurants in Calais offering excellent seafood. I ordered a vegetable soup made with parsley for my starter. I followed this with the main course, cod fish with potatoes and broccoli. Aquaraile also offers an excellent cheese board to meet most tastes. I ended my dinner with dessert and mint tea while watching the sunset. The scenery was a colourful explosion of light and tint as the sun faded away on the horizon.
I was lucky to witness Fête de la Musique in Calais which happens every year on the 21st of June, the symbolic day of the summer solstice. The annual event is a music celebration throughout the territory of Hauts-de-France with free performances of all kinds. I went to the city centre. There were many stands with DJs playing hip hop, pop and jazz outside shops and restaurants across Rue Royale. The celebration was extended to Place d’Armes, a large square at the centre of the town where the 13th-century watch tower of Tour du Guet stands. A monument of Yvonne and Charles De Gaulle has also been erected in the square. The festival was going to continue till morning, but I needed my sleep and could not stay longer.
In the morning after breakfast, I checked out of the hotel and headed to visit La Coupole. I was interested in learning more about the history of World War II in France and German remains around Calais. Calais was a very strategic place for Germans to launch an attack on Britain. In 1943 the Germans built La Coupole, an impressive bunker to launch the V2 missiles against Britain. This historic site was built in the Pas-de-Calais department, about 5 kilometres from Saint-Omer, and 40 Kilometres from Calais Port. This innovative centre was never used because Germans could not complete it on time as the site was heavily bombarded by Allied forces. The site was renovated in 1997 and turned into a museum to tell the story of the German occupation of France including the V weapons, various missiles and space exploration. Arriving at the museum and before entering the tunnel, the view of the grey dome of La Coupole is a solemn reminder of this mighty destructive military site.
I entered a huge dark tunnel with high ceiling leading to winding smaller tunnels. There are smaller inner sections displaying the exhibits about La Couple and certain machinery which was used in building the bunker. Going through the tunnels reminds me of war movies. I highly recommend it to those who like to get in-depth information about World War II.
My exploration of Calais wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Calais Museum of Lace and Fashion. It was a great educational experience to learn about the origins of lace-making in Calais. The museum is housed in an old lace factory. The story of lace in Calais goes back to the early nineteenth century when a group of tulle makers immigrated from Nottingham (famous for its lace making) to Calais. They smuggled machinery from England and set up their lace-making business. Their business flourished and soon become an important trade on the continent. Old machines are still in operation. The visitor can observe lace making and hear the musical sound of machines.
The museum illustrates the history of lace making with displays of handmade examples through to products made by machine. There are also fashion exhibits of various clothes using lace.
I enjoyed my 24 hours visit to Calais. I hope to return in the future and explore more of this amazing city. I took the DFDS ferry back to Dover enjoying the benefits of their premium lounge.
- For information about Calais visit Calais Tourist office.
- DFDS Ferries has frequent daily sailings from Dover to Calais and offers prices from £70 each way for a car including four people. You can upgrade for the premium lounge at a price of £12 per person each way.
- Southeastern have services to Dover from Stratford International, London Victoria and St Pancras International.
- Learn more about Calais Museum of Lace and fashion by visiting https://www.cite-dentelle.fr/en/. Visit La Compagnie du Dragon to book your Dragon tour.
- To reserve a dining table visit Aquaraile Restaurant.
- View Reza’s images of Calais on www.amirinia.com/france.
Images and story © Mohammad Reza Amirinia