Calais: French, English, Or a Little Bit of Both?
Far more than a simple stopover and ferry port between France and the British Isles, Calais has been playing a major role in shaping the sometimes bloody, often intricate and infamous relationship between the French and the English for over ten centuries now. Standing at the narrowest point between the two countries, overlooking the Straight of Dover, Calais has evolved from a thriving medieval wool export centre to an underrated, blooming city characterised by its intrinsically French yet undeniably British legacy (it is technically closer to London than to Paris), and shaped by a love for the untouched outdoors and local savoir-faire.
As a Europhile who once lived in the UK and later on in France, the convoluted stretch of history shared by the two nations in Calais was always of particular interest to me. Torn between my Latin roots and my Anglo-Saxon upbringing, fascinated by the military history and attracted to the city’s artistic affinities, Calais’ strategic importance drew me in like few other cities in France.
Like any historic port city, Calais has a long-standing history of trading and craft. A major centre for transport with England and an English territorial possession until 1558, Calais is nowadays mostly famous for its lace industry – which is remarkably highlighted at the International Centre of Lace and Fashion. Indeed, Dentelle de Calais is a registered and protected trademark that is exclusively reserved for lace made by highly skilled master lace-makers using a unique method of knotting between the warp and the weft on Leavers looms. But there is more than meets the eye in this story, for Calais lace originated in… England. Nottingham, more precisely! It all started when mechanics and tulle manufacturers emigrated to the Old Continent in the hope of escaping economic trouble and social unrest, smuggling in requisite supplies of looms and cotton cable. The rest, as they say, is history.
But despite being an icon of the region, Dentelle de Calais is just a tiny stretch of the city’s history; unfortunately, Calais was virtually razed during World War II as Germans had built massive bunkers along the coast in preparation for launching missiles on England. It eventually rose from its ashes and evolved into a welcoming, entertaining small city with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted; being this close to the ocean obviously comes with mouth-watering benefits in the form of seafood – moules marinières, anyone? For a multi-sensory experience I strongly suggest visiting the region’s world-class museums, like the newly opened Louvre-Lens nearby (like a mini version of the Louvre minus the crowds) and the half dozen art museums in the Calais town centre, some of which have a significant emphasis on English artists like Turner, Bonington, Woodrow and Flanagan.
Calais also boasts accessible, outstanding natural beauty. Its well-preserved coastline offers unobstructed views of one of England’s most famous natural landmarks, the White Cliffs of Dover, which can easily be admired on a clear day as they are just 21 miles across the Channel. Pas-de-Calais region also has its own chalk cliffs and sandy beaches (a rarity in Northern France) at Cap Blanc Nez on the aptly named Opal Coast. In my opinion, few things beat a leisurely walk along the tranquil coast, with the wind softly brushing on my cheeks and the fresh saline air filling my lungs after a day of cultural discoveries.
The truth is, Calais deserves far more attention than what it usually gets; for this is a multi-faceted town where time seems to go by at a slightly slower pace, and where arts and crafts, seaside cuisine, the great outdoors and History with a capital H have been gleefully mingling for over ten centuries for the benefit of curious visitors that dare to venture outside the French capital’s busy streets.