Lucy Daltroff pops on a DFDS ferry across the Channel and discovers Calais is enjoying a fresh new look
It’s Midsummer’s Day and I am in the Premium lounge of the DFDS ferry sipping my Prosecco, enjoying tasty snacks and congratulating myself on avoiding airport crowds, and not shelling out for the busy Eurostar. So, OK I may be a bit of a pompous holidaymaker, but it is ages since I have travelled in this simple fashion, – and I have to ask myself why. It’s quick, and easy and I have to say the £12.00 per person upgrade to use the Premium lounge seems worth every penny. I am sailing on perhaps the most well-known route from Dover to Calais, which takes just 90 minutes.
My aim is to investigate Calais, as I have heard, that while we poor Brits were kept away by the pandemic, the city has used this opportunity to give itself a multimillion-pound makeover, which has transformed the seafront and added a variety of new attractions.
I am not quite prepared for how much though. Getting off the boat and looking into the red eyes of a fire-breathing dragon was perhaps not what I expected: what on earth was in the Prosecco? No, this monumental 10 m high creature, created by the company La Machine, enables visitors to climb up the Dragon’s tail and go for a ride along Dragon’s way and along the renovated seafront to Dragon’s Den.
(Eat your heart out Peter Jones/ Deborah Meaden). It is slightly frightening to meet – especially when it is breathing out fire or sending sprays of water onto its audience, but of course, this element of fear is a great hit – especially with children.
The €46 million rejuvenation of the seafront has resulted in a modern wooden boardwalk, a skate park and a “solarium” equipped with deckchairs for sunbathing. All buses and boats within the town are now free. There is also creativity in the streets. The Portuguese artist, Patricia Cunha, best known for her suspended umbrellas, has put multi-coloured balls above many of the central roads which livens things up and produces a great background for photo opportunities. As Patricia explains “My mission is to spread colour and art in public spaces”
The aim of this spending is to attract tourists in their own right rather than visitors just using Calais as a port of entry into France, before heading south.
In the centre of Calais is its majestic, historic-looking town hall so it is quite surprising to hear that it was actually only completed in 1925. In front is the famous statue The Burghers of Calais, by Auguste Rodin, which represents the idea of freedom from oppression and symbolises the story of the siege of Calais in 1347, during the Hundred Years War when Calais, surrendered to the English after an eleven-month siege and Edward’s pregnant wife successfully pleaded for the Burghers to be saved.
Inside the building, a lovely ceiling and stained-glass window all depict the history of the area, while the serene wedding chapel was once the venue for Charles de Gaulle when he married his Calais-born wife, Yvonne. Although our guide Aurelie explained how popular it still is – there were 10 weddings booked for the following Saturday! Since 2011 it has also been possible to visit the belfry, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and spectacular. Stairs lead to the top and there is a lift for those who need it.
To me, one of the highlights was the modern and bright Museum of Lace and Fashion in the centre of town, inaugurated in 2009. This is all of particular interest to me as my French ancestors had a company, Julian Daltroff Cie, which owned factories in France during this time. The museum is housed in what was once a lace factory and reflects just how important the trade became. It was the year 1816 when workers from the city smuggled in the first lace-making machines from Nottingham, England and set up shop in the nearby village of Saint Pierre. Rather ironically, the industry here is now protected by the Dentelle de Calais-Caudry trademark.
Over the course of the 19th century, the village became a town and joined up with Calais proper as the small lace business became a flourishing concern. Soon mechanically produced lace vied with the handmade product. By 1910 over 40,000 workers were employed compared to just one thousand today.
The museum depicts in detail the history of lace showing exquisite handmade examples all the way through to early machine products. The last few rooms are given over to different fashions using lace and also special exhibitions are put on of contemporary clothes. There is also an auditorium, a catwalk for shows, a library, and a restaurant.
Two aspects of the restaurant Aquaraile were outstanding: the great food but also the excellent views over the sea. While eating my superbly cooked fresh fish, I had a chance to see a DFDS ferry en route to England through the huge picture window. The meal was perfect, and I was pleased that it was more than 24 hours before I would again be a passenger.
Tell Me More About the rejuvenation of Calais