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Calais: Faites plus que vous arrêter, visitez!

By Sharmila Meadows

I write as no stranger to France. I spent a year living there during my student days, starting a love affair with the country that most often manifests itself through short breaks in Paris, a city to whose charms I always succumb.  Yet, perhaps unusually for a British traveller, I had never been to Calais.  


I confess that my decision to visit Calais was purely practical.  It offered a convenient midway pit stop that would satisfy my ache for the sea and still permit a smooth train journey between my home in London and Paris, my final destination where I was due to visit a friend later in the week.


I arrived by Eurostar on a hot, Monday afternoon in August.  My hotel sat on Boulevard des Allies opposite the marina and, as my chatty taxi driver Muriel informed me, was conveniently located for fine local cafes, the city centre and beach.  Muriel was also a fount of useful information about the inviting landscape around Nord-Pas-de-Calais, how to find fashionable Le Touquet by train further along the coast and the charming towns en route that can be best discovered by bike.


Ironically for an industrial town, my first afternoon in Calais gave the impression of a city where everyone was on holiday.  Perhaps it was the proliferation of local teenagers at play, or the apparent tourists adjacent to me as I relished the traditional roast chicken (poulet roti) at lunch, but most probably it was simply my state of mind.  I was finally on my summer break and determined to find a charm, however well hidden, to a region that seldom draws the same admiration as other Gallic destinations.


My first few hours were disappointing.  True, there were many enticing cafes around, but the main drag linking the coastal road to the city centre seemed a scruffy version of my image of France.  Although, as I was to discover the following day, further along as Rue Royale becomes Rue Jacquard, a more familiar France emerges with wider boulevards and pretty architecture,  my initial stroll was inauspicious and left me contemplating both the town’s ragged reputation and the wisdom of my holiday choice.   All that changed however when I strolled onto ‘la plage’, Calais’ fine stretch of sandy beach, where my doubts evaporated. 


I had after all come to Calais for the beach and from the beach, Calais took on a very different light; vast stretches of warm and sumptuous sand, lashed by the refreshing waters of ‘La Manche’ and an inviting breeze.  In the morning, the beach is virtually empty with just enough people to offer colour and a sense of safety.  As I bathed in the cool, morning sea and gazed across the Channel, I felt the simplest joys of summer.  A calm blue sea meeting a hazy blue sky, punctuated only by the white of passing boats, creating the light and shades that might have inspired France’s great impressionists.    In the afternoon, Calais’ beach becomes well populated with the sun nicely warming the Channel, but there remains enough beach for everyone to carve their own private universe, even in August.  


One mid-morning, I walked further west along the coast and followed the allure of gentle sand dunes, tracing the road behind them which dropped me into the gentle charms of what I later learned was Bleriot-Plage, a small quarter located just to the west of Calais.  While a beach could be anywhere, Bleriot-Plage made my experience distinctly French.   Chancing upon a tabac,, I settled down with a shot of coffee and a magazine and felt the comforting sensation of knowing I was undeniably in France.  Around me was a flurry of local men, clearly familiar to one another, arriving for their coffee and papers and daily chatter.  This was the easy living, convivial French lifestyle of which its citizens are so proud and which makes Francophiles of so many others.  Despite being an obvious visitor, I was received well by this happy local tribe, who gave me hearty best wishes for the rest of my day as I went on my way.


As I retraced my steps to the beach at Bleriot-Plage, a local man stopped to chat, asking what brought me here and recounting his own plans to venture south for the summer.   As a lone traveller, I was struck repeatedly by people’s willingness to engage.  Often, they wanted to share the pleasures of the beach with me – the joys of the sea or the warmth of the sun – or to simply acknowledge my presence on the road or at a café, wishing me well for my day.  At other times, they wanted to know more about me; was I French or a visitor, what did I think of Calais and what were my plans.  Others, like the man I met at Calais Ville Train station sought more detailed discussions about the differences between our two countries – and like the man at Bleriot, employed that easy flirtatiousness, which flows so readily from Frenchmen.


As I boarded the train for Paris, I reflected on my stay in Calais.  Calais may not have the glamour or sophistication of Paris or la Cote d’Azur, but neither is it simply an entry point.    Yes, it’s a practical destination, reachable in one hour on Eurostar or by a one hour high speed rail ride from London to Dover where you can hop on a ferry, making it as accessible a destination as a short break in the UK.  But I would encourage travellers to see Calais as more than convenient.  This blue collar town offers small town intimacy, an impressive beach and a slice of authentic France that makes it worth a visit, not only as a staging post but also as a destination in itself.


Would I come again? Certainly, perhaps for longer so I can discover the wider Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of which Muriel spoke.  And next time, my reasons won’t be purely practical!


13/07/2012 - eliza332 a dit :

Now you can easily get into Calais by coach, directly from London or with a change from other places in the UK. Travel time is not long and it is quite comfortable and well organized. There are several services a day in the price of £ 9 per person. Check it out timetable
Coaches are very comfortable, some links offer free Wi-Fi, more legroom, air conditioning, 2 pieces of luggage as standard.

30/10/2011 - 9775719 a dit :

Wakilng in the presence of giants here. Cool thinking all around!


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