Being the closest part of France to England, Calais has for many years been the favourite entry port for those of us crossing the channel whether it be for a day’s shopping, a weekend break or an even longer stay in that rather off the beaten track part of the country.
It’s a place where people sit outside cafés enjoying a glass of pastis and where restaurants serve great food – including Le Channel where Madame Crespo continues to greet everyone with a kiss on the cheek. And, the area has many surprises that make it well worth staying in. Lace and Cheese are just two of them and then there’s the relatively new Lens Louvre Museum and the WW1 sites which make a stay here a must do.
Lace and Wine in Calais
Many of us don’t appreciate that Calais was the centre of the French lace making industry since the early 1800s. Much of the machinery used was manufactured in Nottingham and smuggled in illegally. At its peak, more than 40,000 people were involved in lace making. The machines were modified to enable lace to be manufactured industrially which matched the quality of the handmade variety. Indeed today this area is still responsible for 80% of the world lace production. It’s much in demand by some of the top names in the world of fashion.
The Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode (Calais International Centre of Lace and Fashion) was opened in 2009 and is housed in a building which gives it an authentic 19th century lace factory feel, enhanced with a futuristic glass extension. A stunning museum, very much hands on with a vast history of the lace industry and there are working looms and glass fronted display cabinets with 3000 items of fashion.
Just 10 miles south of Calais is the village of Ardres, a pretty unspoilt medieval village. It’s here in the Rue de L’Arsenal that you’ll find Boursots Wine Collection, owned and operated by the suave Guy Boursot who, despite his name, is an Englishman. He has a vast knowledge of the wine industry, much of it gained from working at some of the UK’s major wine companies.
He tells an amusing story of how an Englishman opening a wine shop in France was received by the locals. Now, 10 years later many of those locals are his happy clients. The low taxation of French wine makes buying in France great value for Brits. I tasted some excellent wines and a stop at Boursot’s whether it be for a bottle or six months worth of supplies is highly recommended.
Historic Saint Omer
If you have time, stop off at Saint Omer on your way back to Calais, if it’s a Saturday morning, there’s a super market but this is a town that is great any time. It’s also where you’ll find close by the stunning Chateau Tilques. A red brick building of the 19th century, it sits in its own immaculately maintained rolling parkland. It is a classic old style French hotel but with every 21st century convenience. After aperitifs and canapés served in the chateau, meals are taken the adjoining Le Vert Mesnil restaurant set in a former 17th century stable block. There is a great menu and the of finely sliced cured beef is recommended, as well as the classic French chicken dish and local speciality beer pie. After a meal in this gastronomic restauraunt you’ll definitely sleep well in the massive and very comfortable beds.
Lens city of Art, war memorials and cheese
Just 45 minutes from Calais is the town of Lens, this former coal mining town is the home to a real must-see. The Louvre-Lens is a magnificent modern museum; opened in 2012, it displays objects from the collection of the world famous Musée du Louvre in Paris. The main focus of the museum is the Time Gallery, a huge windowless but very bright and well-lit hanger like building where nothing is hanging on the walls and you are taken from around 3500BC up to the artworks of the 19th century.
There’s something for everyone here, great hands on touch screens and a chance to observe future exhibits being restored by onsite experts.
This is of course an area where many of the front line trenches of WW1 were established and you will pass many military cemeteries: French, German, British and Canadian all within a mile or two of each other. The Ring of Remembrance is a very sombre and emotive experience and a relatively new memorial. A giant ring of black walls lined with bronze panels engraved with the names of nearly 600,000 who lost their lives on all sides in this part of France. Adjacent is one of the largest French Cemeteries and the much visited Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette. A few hundred yards away is the Lens 14-18 War and Peace Centre; opened in 2015 there are some graphic reminders of the horrors of war.
France is of course well-known for its cheese and Lens has a branch of famous French affineur Philippe Olivier’s cheese shopmany of which come from the Pas de Calais region. Try a smooth mild creamy goats’ cheese or a mouth stripping Coeur d’Arras for a real contrast of tastes. If lunch is on your menu, the Al Fosse 7 restaurant, a traditional miners’ restaurant which takes its name from nearby pit no 7 is excellent, great food, a warm welcome and terrific ambiance. And should you need something to wash it down, make a stop at the nearby Page 24 brewery which has a great visitor centre – and they are very generous with their samples. A tip: if you visit the brewery, don’t taste the Barley Wine or you may not wake up in time to get to the restaurant for dinner.
Travel with DFDS – 10 ferry crossings per day between Dover and Calais and two brand new ships on the route make this a comfortable and fun part of your holiday.
Peter Jones is a photographer and freelance writer.