Calais: more than just a Channel port

by Anthony.Peregrine

Hours to wait for a ferry or tunnel shuttle, or just want a short-break in France? There are plenty of attractions in and around Calais. Here are the best sights, hotels and restaurants

Received wisdom has it that Calais is a necessary evil. You are obliged to go there because that’s where the boats stop and start – and where the cheap booze is (or was, before the £ slid to our ankles). But, once you’ve landed, or loaded up, you blast off somewhere else because, frankly, Calais is a dump, no?

No. Received wisdom is wrong. Calais hides its charms skilfully but has sufficient to fill a few pleasant hours as you await your departure on the ferry or Channel Tunnel. Throw the net wider to include the surrounding area and there are the makings of a decent mini-break.

Love fest

Not the least of the attractions is that the locals like us rather more than other French people do - and not only because we spend a lot of money with them. War time memories are still present and overwhelmingly positive (see below). And proximity has woven a network of other links. Lace-making, brought in from Nottingham, was Calais' claim to fame before the discount hooch sellers moved in. It's celebrated in the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode (135 Quai de Commerce,, a lavish museum of lace and fashion opened with fanfares in summer 2009.

The Channel itself not only separates us but also brings us together. Folk are forever swimming it and the 100th anniversary of Blériot's flight across it last July stoked up a genuine French love-fest towards the British.

And in bars and cafés I have never found any difficulty in striking up a conversation - in truth, it's difficult not to - whereas I've been ignored for months in Nice.

Exploring the town

First stop on a Calais stroll should be the town hall, a vastly decorative item, which indicates that while those inspired by the Flemish Renaissance knew when to start, they didn’t know when to stop. The extravagant belfry appears about to burst into flower. But the real masterpiece is out front: Rodin’s brilliant 1895 bronze of 'The Burghers of Calais', which captures both the dignity and the despair of those prepared to die to save their town.

This work alone justifies the stroll. And should you wish to see Rodin’s preparatory studies, nip round the corner to the Fine Arts Museum (25 Rue Richelieu, where there’s a fine exhibition covering same.

Now you might amble up Rue Royale, stopping at N°47, Délice-des-Mets – a lovely little wine store-cum-delicatessen. If you’ve been slogging round the hypermarkets, this is like turning onto a pleasing country lane after coming off the motorway. It’s my favourite shop in Calais.

The beaches

So to Blériot Plage, from where you’ll need a car properly to appreciate the coastline. Nobody in France has ever told you how glorious this is because, outside Calais, hardly anyone knows. Farmland and heath sweep hugely up to the Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez. Down below, beaches seem to fill more space than is rightly theirs. Seaside towns are delighted to see you, having no idea how attractive their modesty makes them. And, if the driving is lovely, the walking along cliff-edge and headland is better still. You feel at once king-of-the-world and insignificant – and you’re 10 minutes out of Calais.

The countryside

Inland, matters become deeply bucolic and surprisingly secretive. Almost touching Calais, Guines is a little town of gardens, birdsong and ladies with housecoats and pronounced opinions. Its Tour-de-l’Horloge museum (Rue du Château, deals in sprightly, bilingual fashion with the action-packed history that has thundered this way. The key reference point is the Field of the Cloth of Gold Euro-summit which, in 1520, saw our Henry VIII and France’s François I desperately trying to out-pomp each other just out of town. Once filled with the 16th-century’s most fabulous finery, the field in question is now full of beetroot. Like most Euro-summits, the Cloth of Gold meeting resolved nothing. Beetroot is a better use of the space.

World War II

Now you might tackle two key World War II sites that underline the sombre subtext to this surprisingly lovely landscape. Second-best is the blockhouse at Eperlecques (follow signs from the village, On a wooded hillside are the considerable remnants of a monstrous concrete fortress from which the Germans despatched V2s to Britain. Audio links tell the story of a site that radiates menace still.

Even better is La Coupole (, four miles out of St Omer. Built into a rock outcrop, this is where V2 business transferred after the RAF knocked out Eperlecques. It remains a web of unpleasant tunnels, but with an excellent sound-and-image museum up top.

Where to stay

The loveliest place in Calais town is Le Cercle de Malines chambres-d’hôtes (B&B doubles from €68). The former lace-maker’s townhouse has a warm and well-travelled style you really don’t expect in Calais.

Near St Omer, the parkland and period comfort of the Château Tilques (doubles from €145) are sufficient to convince a loved one that you’ve thought long and hard about the short break. More affordable is the updated rustic comfort of La Ferme du Vert at Wierre-Effroy (room-only doubles from €64). Both hotels have decent restaurants.

Where to eat

In Calais itself, Le Sole Meunière (1 Blvd de la Résistance, +33 321 344301,; menus from €17.50) and Au Côte d’Argent (1 Rue Gaston-Berthe, +33 321 346807,; menus from €18) amply reward the discerning diner, notably with some excellent scallops.




For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.