Britain’s last French possession
Every year more than 10 million British visitors arrive in Calais and most of them disappear over the horizon without so much as a backward glance. In all honesty, they are not missing much, but turn back the clock 700 years, and you find that Calais was the focus of considerable English interest. After the Battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward III laid bloody Siege to the city for eight months. Eventually, six local burghers offered themselves bareheaded and barefooted together with the keys to Calais to prevent further slaughter. They were reprieved at the last moment thanks to Queen Philippa, but the English (known as the ‘god-dons’ for their frequent ‘god-damns’), remained in control of Calais until 1558. The eventual loss of England’s last French possession prompted a despairing Mary Tudor to remark that she would go to the grave with ‘Calais’ engraved·on her heart.
All but rebuilt since the Second World War, the main shopping area is in Calais-Nord, around place d’Armes with its sole pre-War survivor the 13thC Tour Guet, and rue Royale. In addition to paintings and sculpture, the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, rue Richelieu, celebrates the city’s lace-making industry, introduced from Nottingham in the early 19thC; while across Pont George-V, in Calais-Sud, the fanciful turn-of-the-century Flemishstyle Hôtel de Ville dwarfs Rodin’s superb Bourgeois de Calais sculpture, and leafy Parc Saint-Pierre, where a German bunker houses wartime relics in the Musée de la Guerre.
Calais’ big supermarkets, Carrefour and Intermarche, are situated out on the main Boulogne road (N1); those in search of wine may find something of interest at Le Chais, 40 rue de Strasbourg.
As an alternative to the N1/A1 heading south, you can leave Calais by the D940, following signs from the town centre for the Côte d’Opale. At first you pass through boring Blériot and Sangatte (D940). The latter is a Eurotunnel terminal. The information centre may detain you, otherwise turn right and speed away as fast as you can. The roller-coaster cliff-top road offers marvellous views across the Channel with worthwhile stops at Cap Blanc Nez (for the Transmanche Museum), and Cap Gris Nez.