Visiting Calais can be fun


Keep heading west from the beach at Nieuwpoort and in around an hour, there are welcoming signs to the Côte d’Opale, France’s ‘Opal Coast’. It was the 19th century French painter Édouard Lévêque who named the coastline on account of its exceptional quality of light, and on a good day it is hard to disagree. Towards the southern end is the fashionable resort of Le Touquet but visitors wanting a great day at the seaside without its high price tag could do a lot worse than Calais.

Yes, that Calais. The one the ferries and trains come into. Woefully ignored as a seaside resort, a thousand surprises await. Diverse, funky and very much a working town, the population is well versed in the tourist trade and will make the day live up to, if not exceed, expectations. 

Being as northerly as it is, Calais is a town best visited in the summer to get the very best out of it but also has a lot to offer all year round. A lot of Calais is not very old, as it was the site of the famous WWll Siege of Calais, a strategic battle undertaken prior to the famous Battle of Dunkirk. Systematically flattened by bombing, there’s scant visual evidence of battle scarring today.

For a bird’s-eye view of the town, take a pleasant stroll along the well-kept seafront and head out along the jetty to the lighthouse. This lends itself to the best view anywhere in Calais and, on a really clear day, across the Channel to England’s White Cliffs of Dover. Within walking distance, if not tired from climbing the 271 steps of the lighthouse, is the famous statue Les Bourgeois de Calais by Auguste Rodin in the Place du Soldat Inconnu. Depicting the incredible bravery of six town burghers facing imminent death at the hands of the English under King Edward lll, just 12 of these were ever cast, and only four reside in Europe. 

Another place well worth a visit, even though it is housed in a frankly awful-looking 1960s building is the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle (Museum of Fine Arts and Lace). The horror of the facade quickly melts into something much more calming. As might be suspected in a town famed for its lace, there is an exhibition of all things related to the craft, including some designer pieces not to be seen elsewhere. There are a couple of permanent exhibitions, one based loosely around the adventures of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice, featuring works by many modern artists and an exhibition of Rodin’s works, ‘From Paris to Calais’. It costs a mere €3 to soak up all this culture, until it’s time for dinner and bed. The town doesn’t go to bed particularly early but the nightlife is sadly not really up to much apart from the casino (called Le Touquet, funnily enough). Visitors are better off indulging in a long dinner, something the people of Calais know how to do well.

One place worthy of consideration (not for vegetarians) is a port-side eatery called Oh! Mouettes (Oh! Seagulls). Ask for a first floor table and dine with a panoramic view of the port. It’s seafood all the way and, while not pretentious, the key words seem to be ‘service’ and ‘food’ and there can surely be no better aspiration. Try the set menu (not served Saturday evening or Sunday) or just order a huge seafood platter. The top-priced set menu is around €35 per person, so not horribly expensive as French eateries go. The wine list is nothing extraordinary but will yield something drinkable. 

Sadly, Calais isn’t stayed in all that often. The trade seems to be of the passing variety and this is reflected in the poor choice of hotels. With the top star rating being three, there’s not much to shout about here. Unusually, anyone staying overnight is probably better off going for a chain hotel to guarantee a level of quality, even if it’s not too special. But a day out to remember, including dinner and a half bottle of wine can be had for under €50. Try doing that in Le Touquet.