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Calais Travel Guide

Town Hall, Calais (© Ian Jones -
Town Hall, Calais


Calais (Kales or Cales in Dutch ; pop. 73,000, with suburbs 119,000) is one of the six subprefectures of the Pas-de-Calais Region. The Channel Tunnel is located 6km west of the city.

Calais has been the traditional port linking the European continent to Britain since Medieval times. The old city was built on an artificial island enclosed by canals and harbours. The English port of Dover is only 34 km away. The famous white cliffs of Dover can easily be seen from Calais on a clear day.

Nowadays, ferries still make the journey between Calais and Dover. British day trippers, known as "booze cruisers", come to Calais to purchase cheaper alcoholic beverages and tobacco, due to France's lower tax rate on these products.



Tour du Guet, Calais

Starting as a fishing village in Frankish times, Calais developed into small port by the end of the 10th century.

Calais has a very particular history in that it was an English enclave on French soil between 1347 and 1558. The town had its representatives sitting in the English Parliament. It came to be called the "brightest jewel in the English crown" owing to its great importance as the gateway for the tin, lead, cloth and wool trades. Many Calaisiens can still claim partial English descent.

The strategic position of Calais on the English Channel assured that it would play important roles in the history of Western Europe. In 1596, only 48 years after the French had reconquered it, the Spaniards captured the city, and kept it for 2 years.

Napoleon had considered an invasion of England from Calais in 1798, but opted for Egypt instead. He planned a new invasion in 1805, which was aborted again.

In 1940, Calais was a key objective of the invading German forces. The Nazis lost the Battle of England, and subsequently fortified the city heavily, fearing an Allied invasion from England. The Allied finally chose the less defended Normandy for their assault. This did not prevent Calais from being razed by Allied bombing as a diversion.


Theatre of Calais

Calais is a typical Northern French city, with an architectural style in between that of South-East England and Flanders. Like other towns in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Belgium, the first thing that most visitors will notice is the Hôtel-de-ville (town hall) and its belfry, both built in the Flemish Renaissance style. A statue of the "Burghers of Calais" (Les Bourgeois de Calais in French) by Rodin stands opposite the town hall.

Among the city's medieval heritage, let's note the 13th-century Tour du Guet (watch tower, 38m high) and the Tudor-style Our Lady's Church built mostly under the English rule. Inside the latter. the 1800 m³ Royal Cistern was built by Louis XIV to collect rain water for the local garrison and population.

Among the city's fortifications, Risban Fort is at least 650 years old, the citadel dates from the 16th century, while the Nieulay Fort was constructed in the following century.

The German wartime military headquarters, near the train station, were converted into a war museum.

Other attractions include the Bassin du paradis (a natural harbour), the Neptune Port, the lighthouse of North Calais, the Louis-XVIII Column, and the sumptuous theatre of Calais.

How to get there

Calais is at the northern extremity of two motorways, the E15 from Paris (300km) via Arras (110km), and the E402 from Le Mans (425km) via Rouen (215km) and Boulogne-sur-Mer (35km). To the East, the E40 connects it to Dunkirk (50km), then the Belgian cities of Ostende, Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Liege. Coming from Lille (115km), take the E42 to Dunkirk, then continue on the E40 along the coast.

Calais is 40min away from Lille by TGV or 1h20min by regular train. Trains to/from Belgium all transit by Lille. Trains to/from Boulogne-sur-Mer take 30min. Trains to/from Arras (1h30min to 2h30min) require a change at Hazebrouck.

The TGV links Calais to Paris in 1h50min, while the Eurostar makes the connection to London in about 1h20min.

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