Calais is the closest French port to England, just 26 miles away from Dover, and the evident touristic appeal centres around shopping. But is that all Calais has to offer?
Having suffered the ravages of war, Calais was completely rebuilt after World War II when the British destroyed the town to stop the German invasion, and very little predates the war. Most people now see this busy fishing port as a lattice-work of commercial streets, conveniently located solely to enjoy the benefits of cheaper shopping. Right?
Well, maybe not. With just a sliver of water separating Calais in France from Dover in England, this port is understandably the principal ferry crossing between the two countries.
Thanks to its well established cross-Channel links and its fine geographical location, Calais is a good starting point to many destinations. The motorway network via the A26 and A16 means easy journeys to Belgium, Strasbourg, Paris, Germany and of course the rest of France.
But those staying a while will see that Calais, once just a humble fishing village, offers a great deal of cultural heritage. Look closely and you will see that Calais is really three towns in one: Calais Nord, Calais Sud and Calais Ouest. Calais Nord is the old part of town and harbour area. It is home to rue royale considered to be of the smarter shopping streets full of boutique style shops and a few smart restaurants. Calais Sud, separated from the old town by canals, is the main town centre with its landmark belfry and with a variety of shops, department stores and shopping centres. Calais Ouest is home to Cité Europe shopping mall and Marques Avenue factory shopping complex.
Aside from its shopping aspect, Calais has a good range of leisure activities. The vast sandy beaches are popular and there are numerous activities such as sailing, sail boarding and sand yachting. From Place d’Armes, the main town square, a short walk leads to the Port de Plaisance – the fishing harbour – where small colourful fishing boats gently bob on their lees.
After sunset, there’s a casino, a piano bar and some friendly wine bars beckoning those looking to stay up a little later.
And of course there are some sights. Calais was under English rule for some 300 years (1347-1558) after the battle of Crécy when Edward III seized it, and every now and again you will see vestiges of those days. For example Rodins Burghers and even the stained glass windows in the magnificent town hall.
Calais was in English hands for three hundred years and the loss of Calais in 1558 caused Mary Tudor to opine ‘When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart’. And though Calais was in French hands it didn’t stop Lady Hamilton to flee here, for Oscar Wilde to hide out here and the Nottingham lace-makers to smuggle there machines here to set up the lace making industry.
Since then the English have been coming to Calais in their droves either to bag a bargain or on their way somewhere else. But one thing is for sure, with English influence so entwined into the town and English language so widely spoken in Calais, it may well be that Calais will forever be a little bit of England across the Channel.