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.
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, www.citedentelle.calais.fr), 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, www.calais.fr) 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.
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.
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, www.tour-horloge-guines.com) 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, www.leblockhaus.com). 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 (www.lacoupole-france.com), 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, www.solemeuniere.com; menus from €17.50) and Au Côte d’Argent (1 Rue Gaston-Berthe, +33 321 346807, www.cotedargent.com; menus from €18) amply reward the discerning diner, notably with some excellent scallops.