FRANCE PAS DE CALAIS calais city hall

Calais (pop 74,800) is the largest city in the Pas-de-Calais department and is the one of the busiest passenger ports in France. This continental European city has been in existence since the Roman times (when it was referred to as Catelum). The city grew into an important port over the next few centuries, thanks to its location on the English Channel. Its proximity to England and the battles of the surrounding border cities, caused sovereignty over Calais to be passed from one kingdom to another. However, in the 14th century, the English (who long had an eye on Calais) managed to capture it, in a bid to obliterate the pirates who interfered with ships that traded in these waters. A two hundred year English rule over Calais ensued soon after this. In fact, Calais is still considered to be one of the most “English” towns in France. Calais was recaptured by the French only in 1558, causing Mary Tudor to utter the famous words “when I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart”, upon the loss of the city. Today, Calais remains an English favourite as more than half of its visitor population comprises of travelling British. The city makes a great base for exploring the French Flanders and the Channel coast. It is also known for its restaurants and shopping options. Unfortunately, there are not many historic sights in town, as most of Calais was destroyed during WWII. This is perhaps the reason why this city sees more passing travellers than staying guests.

Calais is found on the Strait of Dover- the narrowest point on the English Channel. The various ports of Calais are spread out along its northern area. A Canal runs along the east of the city before splitting into its western and southern courses. The Channel Tunnel’s vehicle loading area is located southwest of town. Calais’ main square is enclosed by the canal and the Avant Port, with the train station, Gare Calais-Ville located south of this.



CALAIS STREET MAP:  1. Tourist office  2.  Train station  3. Hôtel de Ville  4. Blériot Plage  5. Lighthouse  6.  Musée de la Dentelle  7. Musée de Beaux-Arts  8. Tour de Guet  9. Gardens of St-Pierre

Javascript is required to view this map.



FRANCE PAS DE CALAIS passage étroit The great waterfront location of Calais has bestowed the city with good beaches, such as the cabin beach located northwest of the main square (can be accessed via bike path that runs from Place d’Armens). If you head further west, you will arrive at the larger, dune-lined, Blériot Plage. This 8km long beach is named after Louis Blériot- a French aviator and inventor, who is best known for travelling on the first ever trans-channel flight from Calais to Dover, in 1908.

The local lighthouse [Place Henri Barbusse +33 321343334 ad/ch €2.50/1.50] is located east of this, overlooking the fishing port. It is a long 217-step climb up to the top of this 19th century lighthouse; however, you will be well rewarded with sweeping views of the English Channel, the surrounding ports and even the white cliffs of Dover. 

Calais is well known for its Calais Lace. Lace-making has been an important economic contributor in Calais since the 19th century, when the first lace-making machine was smuggled into town. It is said that the Robert Webster was the first Englishman to bring this technology into Calais, as it was unwelcomed by the Nottingham lacemakers who made their material by hand, as the new machinery posed a threat to their employment. Hence, these lace-making machines were brought to Calais where they were welcomed; creating a new industry that quickly grew to create a name for itself. Once adored and adorned by royalty, the Calais lace is now often a forgotten bit of local history. However, the city has managed to preserve this heritage in the Musée de la Dentelle [135 Quai de Commerce, +33 321004230 ad/ch €5/2.50]. This Lace Museum displays a fine collection of both handmade and machine-made laces dating back to its early days.

The lace museum was formerly housed in the Musée de Beaux-Arts [rue de Richelieu +33 321464840 Free], which is still exhibiting a good collection of local artefacts and artworks. One of the most prominent art displays in the museum is its collection of sculptures and paintings by Rodin. In fact, the famous Les Bourgeois de Calais sculpted by Rodin in honour of six local citizens can still be found at the entrance of the town hall building.

The only surviving pre-20th century edifice in town, the Tour de Guet [Place d’Armens] is located right beside this. The sight of this watch tower, accompanied by the Flemish style town hall building is particularly beautiful at night (the structure is dimly lit).