Benoît Diéval Public Relations & Marketing, Pas de Calais writes:
John’s extensive knowledge of the Le Nord – Pas de Calais region is reflected in both his Bradt guide to Cross-Channel France and the best selling companion guide to the World War One Battlefields, of which he is joint author.
|Freed from its subterranean lair, Le Dragon of Calais – a massive fire breathing creature created from steel and carved wood – will, hopes Calais’s lady Mayor ‘shake this city’ by bringing much needed oomph to the town’s tourist reputation. It doesn’t end here: two lizards are earmarked to join the €27m beast symbolising the ‘fire, air, earth and water’ spirit of the port’s land and sea setting.
After arriving in style with three days of French street theatre by La Machine, the 10 metre tall
|dragon settled in his new home – a seafront glass shelter ready for some 50 passengers to ride on his back. Entrance is by a staircase inlaid in his tail. Judging by the press coverage, the Dragon will, in the words of his the creator, François Delarozière, art director of La Machine, enhance ‘the city by creating dreams.’
He’s got a pretty chance: his monster not only spits fire, smoke and water, but mist escapes from 30 vents. He also flaps his wings, can lie down and even run at 4km an hour.
It packs far more tourist punch than just cheap plonk. And while you may not, unlike Mary Tudor, find Calais carved in your heart, this very British city has confounded its detractors by being deemed a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (City of Art and History).For starters there’s the 75m town hall belfry of the equally flamboyant town hall, as easily recognisable now as it was by pilots in World War Two – during which some 80 per cent of the city was either flattened, or destroyed, by the Allies or the Germans.
Lying in the old St Pierre quarter, it is matched only by the Rodin’s famous bronze statue of the Six Burghers of Calais who sacrificed their lives to save the besieged townsfolk from being slain by England’s Edward III in 1346.
Close by lies the small War Museum, formerly a German Navy bunker and command post huddled amid the trees. Interactive displays and an audio guide bring a ring of reality to life under the Occupation. An entire room is also devoted to World War One
Roofless for some 20 years following mistaken allied bombing in 1944, the mainly late 15th century Eglise Notre Dame tucked between rue to Seigneur de Gourdan and rue Notre Dame, was the stunning setting in 1921 for the wedding of Charles de Gaulle and the locally born Yvonne Vendroux..
Reopened in 2013, with the roof repaired and intricate interior work on the chancel and the ornate altarpiece, completed, the church is said to be the only one built in English perpendicular style in Continental Europe.
Check opening times for what was, in the late 15th century , the most important religious building in town, then part of the archdiocese of Canterbury.
Sample fine cuisine and coastal views
What St Pierre is to shopping, so the old town is home to the harbour area and the smartest restaurants. Look out for the chunky 13th century watchtower La Tour du Guet. Located in place d’Armes, off the main rue Royale, it acted as a military post in World War One complete with a dovecote for carrier pigeons. Grab a coffee at one of the numerous cafes, before climbing the spiral staircase of the 19th century lighthouse for a splendid view of Calais – and on a sunny day the White Cliffs of Dover.
Drop, too, into the Calais Fine Arts Museum in Rue Richelieu for a remarkable collection of works by 20th century artists. This includes the forging of the fore–mentioned Six Burghers.
Also jockeying for top spot, is Cité internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode (City of Lace and Fashion). Opened in 2009, it shows how lace still threads its way into local life through contemporary fashion shows, exhibitions along with family friendly workshops , restaurant and a 3D changing room to create your own costume.
A demonstration on a loom makes a cast iron case, literally, for a good two hour visit.
The exterior metal panels, which mirror the cards used in the production of lace, dramatically reinforce the symbolic link with Britain thanks largely to three bolshie lace workers from Nottingham in 1816.
Weary of the luddite opposition to machine made rather than handmade lace, the trio smuggled in the newly invented – and closely guarded – machinery, bringing fame to Calais desperate to cope with a renewed demand for lace.
By the 1820s workshops, using the English Leavers-style loom ideally suited to mass production were flourishing; in the 1830s St Pierre and Calais, then separate towns, boasted 113 manufacturers of which majority were English.
Other workers went to Caudry, near Cambrai, to open lace factories around the same time. Competition between the two remains fierce, with Caudry quoting celebrity clients from Jackie Kennedy to Madonna and more recently Kate Middleton.
Would I stay in Calais? Certainly for a short weekend break or as a curtain raiser for a longer stay along the coast or inland which is what I did many years ago.
It may not match the oh-so-French charm of neighbouring Boulogne but doesn’t deserve the Ugly Sister tag (along with Dover equally as maligned) given by one critic.
Don’t just believe me. Next time turn right and follow the sign for the Centre Ville
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Meurice 5–7 rue Edmond Roche, a five minute walk from the sea, blends 21st century know-how with traditional furnishings. Cosy bar and top-notch breakfast buffet gets the thumbs up from regular British visitors. www.hotel–meurice.fr. From £55
Hotel Metropol 45, Quai Du Rhin, 14 minutes from the beach and close to the station is centrally located for the tourist hot spots.
www.metropolhotel.com/fr/ From £57
(Both hotels are independent and offer secure parking if required )
Bed & breakfast:
Le Cercle De Malines 12, rue de Malines, an elegantly decorated 19th century house, is blessed with a quiet central location and energy boosting breakfast of fresh bread, fruit, cheeses, yoghurts and home-made jam A cut above your average B&B, it also features a tasting room for local produce , baby sitting, cycle hire etc , Rates from £78.
A La Dolce Vita 9 rue Carnot, is highly praised among couples for the warm welcome by its host Caroline since opening in 1917. Calais is 2.6 km away, Boulogne-sur-Mer is 3.3 km from the property. https://www.aladolcevita.fr/contact/
Where to eat and drink
Aqua’Aile 255 rue Jean Mouline, with it peerless view over the Channel from the penthouse floor of a block of flats, is matched by many years of showcasing a menu based on local caught fish. Can be expensive, but set menu available at €43 two course or €26 to €48. Holds a Michelin plate.
Le Grand Bleu Quai de la Colonne , 8 rue Jean-Pierre Avron, with its blue-fronted front and jaunty nautical setting brings a touch of culinary flair to chef/owner Matthieu’s range of fish dishes.
Les Grandes Tables Du Channel 173 Boulevard Gambetta, hidden inside Le Channel cultural centre, some five minutes from the Eurotunnel. Limited menu, but value for locally sourced dishes.
Restaurant L’Essential, 8 rue Jean de – Vienne. Small but highly praised menu, from €22.
These are just a sample: the choice of eateries in Calais is, like the town, hugely underestimated . See
www.calaiswine.co.uk/your-trip/eating-out-in-calais. Further information: www.pas-de-calais-tourisme.com. If you have a favourite restaurant in the Calais area let me know.
By ferry with P&O from Dover to Calais or with DFDS to either Calais or Dunkirk (of which more later) with a new ship due to come into service in 2021; it is appropriately named Côte D’Opale the French name for the coastal region bordering Belgium, which includes Calais and Dunkirk (Look-out for seasonal bargains to both)
20 Short Walks Near Calais by Lezli Rees, dog lover, and keen rambler. Succinct but packed with information and delightful sketches it’s a must for your back pocket £7.99 .drivingwithdogs.co.uk