It was lovely weather on Saturday which was a great relief after the rain we’ve had. Our guests were returning to the UK so we drove down to Calais with them where they were taking the new DFDS Seaways ferry route to Dover which we’d recommended.
We decided to stop off and have lunch in Calais town – something we haven’t done since before we bought a house in France almost a decade ago. Calais doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but it really doesn’t deserve the bad press it gets. I’ve been on forums where people ask about things to do in Calais on a day trip and invariably someone pipes up “don’t bother it’s a crap place to go to” – I doubt if those people have ever been there themselves. Actually a day in Calais can yield a pretty good taster of France, an opportunity to buy some great French produce and a chance for a break away from it all.
We started off at the Tourist Information office by the train station (gare) in town, its central for the sites and we wanted to pick up an up-to-date map – the place was mobbed! There were two travel groups in the office – one from Ireland and one from the US. A mix of adults and loads of noisy kids all asking questions – the poor woman behind the counter who bizarrely didn’t speak English was overwhelmed but patient. I say bizarrely as pretty much everyone you meet in Calais does speak English.
Calais has been a draw for the English for centuries – in fact it was part of the UK and under English rule for a couple of centuries – thankfully none of the people of Calais appear to hold this fact against visitors from their old nemesis. Just 34 km (21 miles) from the English coat and separated by the English Channel, you can easily see the White Cliffs of Dover on a clear day.
From the tourist office its a few minutes’ walk to the Town Hall of Calais, next to the famous Belfroi and location for the much admired and much visited we found, statue of the Six Burghers of Calais by Rodin. In fact all the people and more who were in the tourist office turned up at the Town Hall at some point! The Town Hall is an attractive building with some great stained glass windows which depict the liberation of Calais from the English in 1558. The Belfry (Belfroi) can be climbed and if you have a head for heights there are stunning views from the top (236ft).
Les Six Bourgeois as it is known is one of Rodin’s most famous creations. It really is a most beautiful sculpture, time has made it mellow and tarnished but the haunting quality of the statues is unmistakable. It depicts six Calais notables who in 1347 while Calais was under siege by the English army gave themselves up to be executed in an attempt to save the townspeople from starvation. Roped together and taken before the king, Edward III, who ordered their heads to be cut off, they were saved by the Queen who begged her husband to have mercy.
Opposite the Town Hall is a small urban park, great for a sit down and a picnic. It’s also the location of a huge World War II bunker which now serves as a museum – La Musée de Guerre Mondiale. Calais fell to the Germans on 26 May 1940 and was not freed until the arrival of the Canadian army in September 1944. The Germany navy bunker has 20 rooms of exhibits comprising mainly of photographs, press cuttings and daily life objects.
After that we wandered down to La Citadelle. Harking back to the days of the reconquest of Calais in 1558 the French King decided to convert the area of La Citadelle into a French fort in an attempt to keep the English out. The medieval castle that was there was demolished and in its place a huge citadel erected. The walls remain pretty much intact but much of the building was destroyed during World War II. There are pleasant walks and places to have picnics there, you can freely climb the walls and ancient stair cases and it seems to be a magnet for French brides and grooms to have their photos taken!
There’s much more to Calais which I’ll be putting in my upcoming free guide to Calais Day Out but I can assure you, on a fine day with the sun shining – it’s a great place to be!