I have driven through Calais, a port city in Northern France, somewhere around 20 times. We visit family back in The Netherlands several times a year and we tend to follow the same route. Calais doesn’t have the best reputation in the world, and for most people it really doesn’t fit the bill when they look to France for a nice holiday away. I wanted to change that. I am a firm believer that there is something worth seeing everywhere, as long as you allow yourself to look. I loved Calais, and am so happy I finally explored this town. Was it dirty? Absolutely, there was a solid ten minutes that I was afraid those ‘Calais haters’ were right. However, once you get past the garbage strewn streets, there are beautiful gardens, monuments, and delicious food. (It is still France afterall.)
Calais has an interesting past. Practically the entire city was destroyed by bombing in World War II, so you won’t find the cobble stone streets lined with adorable 17th century homes as in other cities of France. In fact, most of the buildings look like they were hurriedly built (as I suppose they were) and more for practicality’s sake than for beauty. I assume this is what turns a lot of people off when they visit Calais initially, it just isn’t what you tend to expect in France. While the shopping mall in Calais is hugely popular, and one of the largest in Europe, most vistors just park, shop and go home.
The first place I visited was the Église Notre-Dame (Church of Our Lady) on the Rue de la Paix in Calais. This Roman Catholic church is one of the most interesting churches, architecturally, that I have ever seen. (Outside of the la Sagrada Família in Barcelona…) It dates back to the 12th century but was badly damaged after the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and then again in World War II. This has lead to a church that looks like it was put together with several puzzle pieces that didn’t belong together. It may be of interest to some that this church in Calais is where a young Charles De Gaulle married a local woman named Yvonne Vendroux back in 1921. Apparently, Calais is STILL renovating the church from the damage caused in World War II. The ghosts of the war are all over this city.
Next I went to see the town hall of Calais. I had seen the clock towering over the town from the highway many a times, so I was excited to finally see it up close and personal. This building is definitely the gem of Calais, and is truly gorgeous in person. The town hall was built in 1885 to celebrate the joining of Calais and neighbouring town Saint-Pierre. It was badly damaged during the war, but was not destroyed. The clock tower is 75 metres high, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful Chimes in Northern France. You couldn’t go inside, but I enjoyed walking through the lush gardens and taking in the view.
On the far side of the the town hall is a statue of the Burghers of Calais by famed Augustus Rodin. This sculpture is one of his most famous, and has been in Calais since 1889. The monument was built in memoriam of the Hundred Years War and represents a famous story of the Battle of Crecy. The story goes that Edward III of England laid siege to the city, and after the citizens of Calais began starving they were forced to surrender. Edward said that if six of the town’s leaders sacrificed themselves, he would spare the people of the city. He demanded that they wear a noose around their neck, and bring him the keys to the city and the castle. Six burghers, citizens, of Calais volunteered their lives to save the town. Before they could be executed the Queen of England, , Philippa of Hainault, intervened and spared their lives for fear that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child. This famous sculpture can be seen around the world, in original casts of the one found in Calais. This work of art is worth a day trip to Calais in itself!
We ended the day with a traditional French lunch of baguette, croissants, meats and cheeses at the beach. I always forget how much more amazing croissants are when you cross the Channel. The thing I love about the French is that they understand the importance of butter. When I see these low-calorie croissants at grocery stores in England it really bothers me. Some things should be how they are meant to be. If your hands aren’t covered in grease when you have finished a croissant, the quality is just not that great. I also picked up some chestnut (Châtaignes) spread by my favorite French jam brand Bonne Maman, which really was just the cherry to my day. Every bite brings me back to Paris, eating roasted chestnuts in the street.
Calais has gotten a bad rap. Next time you go through this town, spend a few hours looking around. Discover beauty in places you don’t expect to find it. You won’t be disappointed, and if all else fails you can grab a bag of buttery croissants for the road.