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Spotlight on...Calais: not just a gateway

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Cities
Spotlight on...Calais: not just a gateway
11 May
The city of Calais struggles with its reputation. More often considered a place to pass through than to stay in, residents are hoping to change its fortunes 

couple of years ago, a group of Anglophile Calais youngsters, frustrated by the persistent negative stereotyping of their city by the British media, chipped in and published a richly illustrated and highly unorthodox ‘Calais Free Map For Young Travellers Made by Locals’ which also contained a lively guide, listing the multiple attractions of the ancient French city. ‘In the past few years, you’ve probably heard of Calais in a negative way because of the refugee crisis.

Calais has been depicted as an unwelcoming, even dangerous, place. But you are reading these lines which means that you are curious enough...and ready to discover what Calais truly is: a town full of unexpected beauty, generosity, hopeful youth, funny people, poetry and creativity (and also seagulls, masses of seagulls),’ they wrote in the tongue-in-cheek, yet warm and sincere, introduction to the guide, which – like a couple of other, mostly self-published Calais guide books and maps – quickly became a bibliographic rarity. 

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The Hatchard’s bookshop in the concourse of St Pancras Station, next to the Eurostar terminal, stocks multiple guide-books to most sizeable French cities and towns, including Calais’ neighbours Amiens, Arras and Boulogne, but absolutely nothing on the region’s largest metropolis and Europe’s closest city to London (just one hour by Eurostar), which at different times was described by the famous British visitors John Evelyn (in 1643) and Mary Shelley (in 1814) as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘very pleasing’.

For his part, Dickens had a love-hate attitude to Calais (one of the reasons for the ‘hate’ bit could have been his proneness to sea sickness: in his own words, he once arrived in Calais after a particularly rough English Channel crossing ‘a mere bilious torso, with a mislaid headache somewhere in its stomach’), but wrote in 1861 that he was ‘always so very glad to see it’.

And of course, the most famous (if somewhat over-dramatic) ‘endorsement’ came from Mary Tudor, who, lamenting the return of Calais to the French in 1558, said (reportedly): ‘When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying on my heart.’

Looking across the Channel 

The few miles of white-capped sea between Calais and Dover can safely be called one of the most emotionally charged and fought-for stretches of water in human history. For centuries, it has been the ultimate Rubicon for desperate refugees, idealistic travellers, peripatetic dreamers and failed invaders. 

It was here that Napoleon stopped in 1803 to contemplate the invasion of Britain. It was from here that Louis Bleriot started his historic cross-Channel flight in 1909. And, on Christmas Eve 1940, Adolf Hitler came here to inspect the emerging fortifications of what he liked to refer to as ‘Fortress Europe’.

What is it about the English Channel that makes its crossing a matter of prime significance for many? For decades, people have been travelling across it on all kinds of vessels – from state-of-the art ferry boats to surfing boards and bath tubs. During the last hundred or so years, they have also flown across the Channel in all kinds of flying machines, propelled by steam, petrol, solar energy, or just pedals, with the latest attempt by the French inventor Franky Zapata, who – after a couple of failed attempts – carried out a 35-km-long cross-Channel hop in a bespoke jet-powered hoverboard in August 2019.


I stayed in Calais for several nights – unlike the overwhelming majority of the 10 million annual statistical visitors, who simply step or drive off the boat and then speed on through the city without stopping, as I myself have done repeatedly.

Stereotypes are contagious. As the locals would be happy to tell you, after the closure of the notorious ‘Calais Jungle’ camp in the neighbouring Sangatte in 2016, potential asylum seekers heading for Britain are now harder to find here than perhaps in any other city in Europe. Though it’s worth noting that not all statistics bear this up – the charity Help Refugees still estimates that there are around 500 people sleeping in forests, under bridges and behind industrial buildings in Calais.

BdefCalais Port 0036The port of Calais, just a few minutes walk away from the town’s famous beaches [Image: Office de Tourisme Calais Côte d’Opale]

Throughout its tempestuous history, the city has been both a beneficiary and a victim of its proximity to Britain, with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly visible from the city’s beaches in good weather. As Benoit Diéval, a devoted local historian, working for the Pas-de-Calais Tourism, told me: ‘The geographical situation of Calais has brought the town the best opportunities as well as the most challenging ordeals.’

Just like some social media users, towns, cities and even countries can be bullied, or ‘trolled’, and Calais remains one example – a place almost invariably  portrayed by the (mostly British) media as drab, uninteresting and crime-ridden, all of which aren’t true. It is certainly not ‘drab’ but often basks in bright sunlight, best enjoyed when walking along the endless surfing beaches, which have a strong Mediterranean feel on the outskirts, just a few minutes away from the port in the centre.

Geology and geography

Located on the Pas de Calais strait, which marks the boundary between the English Channel and the North Sea at the French end of the Channel Tunnel – Calais is situated just 22 miles from Dover. The city is part of the Opal Coast – a section of the same geological formation as the UK’s white cliffs. The climate is temperate oceanic, with cool winters, unstable summers and rain for much of the year. The average annual temperature is around 10C.

Present-day Calais is the result of the 1885 merger of two neighbouring towns: the largely working-class old Calais, situated on an artificial island surrounded by canals and harbours; and the unexpectedly ‘posh’ St Pierre – a ‘little Paris’ connected to the old town, with its Baron Haussmann-style boulevards and Art Deco facades. 

As for ‘uninteresting’, you cannot possibly say that about a relatively small city which boasts the best collection of Rodin’s works after Paris; a trend-setting International Centre for Lace and Fashion; the country’s most beautiful historic neo-Flemish town hall, with a spectacular 75-metre belfry; and France’s only church built in the style of English Gothic (La Notre Dame de Calais), in which Charles de Gaulle married his wife Yvonne (née Vendroux), a native of Calais, in 1921. De Gaulle himself was a frequent visitor, and now one can see the lanky Charles and his miniature wife (known locally as ‘Auntie Yvonne’) walking together in perpetuity across Calais’ vast Market Square, where they have just done their morning shopping – an  extremely vivacious sculpture by N E Gibot. 

To that we can safely (and Calais is, incidentally, very safe indeed) add a thriving restaurant scene, numerous parks, the plane-tree-lined Parisian-style boulevards of  St Pierre, one of Calais’ two main arrondissements (I had to pinch myself to believe that I was not in the French capital), some interesting modern architecture, art galleries, one of France’s most spectacular theatre buildings, and much more… 

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais  is a famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin of which there exist twelve original castings (one of which can be seen in London, in Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Palace of Westminster). Its composition is based on the following (allegedly) true story

After Calais had been surrounded by English soldiers under the command of King Edward III in 1346 and the defenders’ resources were about to run out, six leading citizens of Calais, lead by Eustache de Saint Pierre and known as the Burghers, offered to die if Edward spared the rest of the town’s people. Edward’s pregnant wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, heard about the Burghers’ heroic offer and asked her husband to pardon them if the town surrendered without a further fight. Edward agreed and the lives of the people of Calais were saved. 


Above the bed in my hotel room in Calais are two electric plug sockets: a round-faced UK one and a ‘noseless’ European. Together, they could pass for an adequate symbol of the city’s ongoing dichotomy. Calais’ chequered history gives us good reason to call it the most British of the French cities, or the most French of the British!

It all started a long time ago, when teams of Mesolithic fishermen and hunters were able to walk the 22 miles from Dover to Calais on dry land. After the appearance of the English Channel about 10,000 years ago, such raids became more difficult, but the 22-mile-wide stretch of water did not stop Julius Caesar from dispatching his legions and centurions on the first of three invasions of Britain in 56 BCE. A couple of centuries (and centurions) later, Richard the Lionheart arrived in Calais from the opposite side of the Channel to start his crusade against the Turks. 

In 1346, Edward III of England, unnerved by the French corsairs harassing English merchant ships in the Calais harbour, besieged and eventually conquered the town, which remained in British hands for 211 years. Calais was then often referred to as the ‘brightest jewel in the English crown’. 

The city sent MPs to Westminster, and, at some point, Dick Whittington, the legendary cat lover and Mayor of London (named, as some unreliable sources assert, after a well-known North London hospital) was also the mayor of the staple of Calais. 

Theatre of Calais Photo Office de Tourisme Calais Cote d OpaleTheatre of Calais [Image: Office de Tourisme Calais Cote d Opale]

The British left Calais rather reluctantly in 1558 (it was that unwilling departure – read, military defeat by the French – that prompted Mary Tudor’s remarks). The Brits, however, have returned in increasing numbers ever since.

In particular, in 1816, Nottingham lace-makers smuggled their machinery across the Channel to Calais and set up what later became the world’s largest centre for machine-made lace, with dozens of British-owned lace factories – at one point the area’s largest employer (around 3,000 people still work in the lace trade today).

Calais of course served as a British military base at different points during WWI and WWII, yet the latest attempt to rebrand the city as part of Britain happened in the peaceful days of 2012, the year of the London Olympics, when some of the region’s councillors – in an attempt to boost the area – invited foreign teams to conduct their pre-Olympics training across the Channel. 

That failed attempt at rebranding was largely unnecessary, for – to paraphrase Rupert Brooke – Calais remains in many ways a part of Britain which is forever France. I came to that conclusion while finishing a typical dish called ‘Welsh Coyote Girl’ inside the Welsh-owned Calais restaurant L’Hovercraft. 


1181 • 
Gerard of Gueldre, the Count of Boulogne, creates a municipality

1189 • 
Richard the Lion Heart disembarks in Calais on 11 December

1304 • Calais seamen fight under the orders of Admiral Grimaldi against the Flemish

1346 • Calais is besieged by Edward III

1558 • French Army retake Calais from the British

1596 • Calais occupied by the Spanish

1815 • First lace-making machines from Britain arrive in Calais

1909 • Louis Bleriot crosses the Calais Strait by plane for the first time

1921 • Charles de Gaulle and Yvonne Vendroux get married in La Notre Dame de Calais

1940 • The old city is destroyed by German bombardments

1944 • Calais is liberated from the Nazi occupation on 30 September

1994 • The Channel Tunnel opens and Eurostar services begin

2016 • The ‘Calais Jungle’ is demolished


Throughout its tempestuous 11-century-long history, Calais has survived three major occupations (not to count the initial Roman invasion), including 211 years of British rule and the near-forgotten invasion of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent Spanish rule of 1596-1598. In 1940, the city was razed to the ground by the advancing Germans, and whatever was left standing was finished off by the RAF bombers, who mistook the already liberated Calais for Dunkirk in February 1945.

shutterstock 1576581361The white cliffs of Dover, visible from the beaches of Calais

In addition to these military disasters, the city has gone through a number of industrial crises: the crash of the lace industry, which used to employ more than 20,000 locals in 133 factories and workshops after WWI, and the virtual loss of its fishing port and fishing markets in the second half of the 20th century. 

Then of course, the notorious migration issues of the early 21st century, when migrants and asylum seekers started arriving in large numbers, lured by Calais’ proximity to Britain which many perceived as the promised land of milk and honey – a dangerous stereotype that, in its turn, led to the distorted image of Calais itself. Each time – faced with the above-mentioned crises and disasters, the city had to mobilise its innate fighter spirit and reinvent itself. And each time it eventually succeeded. 


Calais has more of a federal nature than many French towns. It is one of only five French cities to be allowed by an old royal decree to have its own flag – a white-and-blue cross that resembles the Scottish Saltire. (The other four cities are Dunkirk, Boulogne, Le Havre and Saint Malo.)

It is not widely known that the mayor of Calais (at present, the outspoken and rather well-known in the UK from her numerous media interviews on how to control the flow of migrants, Mme Natacha Bouchart) is simultaneously the  president, or in the case of Ms Bouchart, ‘la presidente’, of the so-called Grand Calais Terre et Mere, or Le Communaute d’agglomeration du Calaisis – a government structure created in December 2000 inside the Pas-de-Calais department and consisting of ten smaller communes. ‘The mayors of the Grand Calais agglomeration develop a collective programme to be put in action after the municipal elections,’ ran a headline (translated) in the local La Voix du Nord newspaper on 6 February 2020. One of the mayor’s most recent moves was to make all public transport in the city free of charge.

To enhance this impression of ‘mini-statehood’, Calais has its own ports of entry – the Eurotunnel and the sea port,  France’s largest for passenger traffic, now undergoing a major extension. And last but not least – as is customary for any city state – the people of Calais have their own dialect, in which ‘so vo?’ stands for ‘how are you?’ and the popular polisemantic exclamations ‘fiu’ and ‘min’ can mean almost anything depending on the situation. The closest English equivalent to either would probably be ‘wow!’

One of the most recent self-reinventions came with the completion of the Channel Tunnel, when the long-suffering city became the main gateway to Britain from Europe and vice versa. These days Calais is inseparable from the Eurotunnel, one of the seven engineering wonders of the world (according to the American Society of Civil Engineers) processing 1.6 million trucks, 2.6 million cars and 22 million passengers a year.

In the words of Benoit Diéval: ‘The busiest cross-Channel port town has been coveted for centuries, and has recovered from the Pale of Calais, the Napoleonic era and two world wars. The 21st century challenges will be no exception. Resilience and adaptability are part of the DNA of the town and its people.’

And how does Calais see its future? I ask Pascal Pestre, the city’s vice mayor. ‘I think in a few years Calais will become the best place on the north coast of France, a popular seaside destination for families and for those who seek nature, culture and gastronomy,’ he says. 

I would very much like to believe that Monsieur Pestre proves right: that the city will eventually become not just the gateway, but also the hub. Then all those who have maligned Calais will be able to repeat after Dickens: ‘Calais en gros, and Calais en detail, forgive one who has deeply wronged you – I was not fully aware of the other side...’  [‘The Calais Night Mail’ 1861].


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