If you mainly hear negative things in the media about a certain place it might get embedded in your brain as somewhat dodgy and even unsafe. It’s sort of a weird phenomenon.
There is still an ongoing refugee crisis in Calais while much of the media attention is focused elsewhere. I encourage you to look up Help Refugees, an organisation working tirelessly to help the many people stranded there in inhumane conditions and consider donating or volunteering to help their efforts, if you can. You can read about my own experience volunteering in Calais here.
Aside from that, Calais these days is more of an unassuming little seaside town than I expected. The day after my volunteer experience with Help Refugees, I had some time before my ferry back to the UK, which I used to see the city.
I have listed a few places you should visit if you happen to be in Calais. Once you read up a bit on the tumultuous and war torn history of Calais, it gives you a better understanding and makes it even more rewarding to explore.
Town Hall & Rodin Statue
Easily the most attractive building in Calais, especially if you to see it during sunrise. It boasts Rodin’s masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, on its front lawn.
If you are not so familiar with the story of Calais, it all makes a bit more sense when you walk around the town more. There are information posts ever so often that explain the history of the city and the faith of the men depicted in this statue also comes up. The cast of the original sculpture, of which Rodin made four of, also stands outside Westminster, in Victoria Tower Gardens.
You can go inside and get up the bell tower. I passed on the opportunity but I did see people zip-lining down the tower, much to my amusement.
This city has been through a fair share or conflict throughout centuries and was left almost completely flattened to the ground during WWII, the Calais Lighthouse being one of the few buildings that got off with just a few scratches.
You can see the evidence of this on the photographs as you are ascending to the top of lighthouse. Probably my favourite place in the whole town, as the view is top notch: 360 degree panorama of the city, as well as, on a clear day, you can see the Cliffs of Dover across the Channel.
The kind person working the door selling tickets, who also doubles as the tour guide, gave me a map of the city as I was leaving. A few minutes after I left, I realised he was running after me because he forgot to give me another guide on the walks along the coast of Calais which was kinda nice and heartwarming. I guess, judging by the size of my backpack, he assumed I was a hiker.
The tour costs €4.50 euros per person, they take cash only. It’s worth mentioning that they have odd working hours - every day 10am-12pm & 2pm-5pm.
Tour du Guet
This is surely the first thing you will notice when you walk into the main square of Calais - Place d’Armes. This structure that dominates the square and dates back to 1214 is a former watchtower and lighthouse, before the current one that was built in 1848.
It might not seem much at first but it’s surely impressive that it still stands having survived many conflicts and two World Wars, when it served as a military post. Together with the little fountains in front of it, it’s beautifully illuminated at night. The square where the watchtower is situated also has a monument-tribute to Yvonne and Charles de Gaulle.
Eglise Notre Dame
The church, which actually reminded me more of a castle, where Charles de Gaulle got married, was closed for renovation when I was there so the main attraction was the Tudor garden.
I’m not usually gushing about gardens and roses but it was really serene, beautiful and well kept. I felt like I could stay there for hours with a good book instead of sitting at the beach.
Which brings me to the...
You can see the Cliffs of Dover across the Channel, there are plenty of people swimming and some fishing at the pier and you can catch some beautiful sunsets. It’s clean and lovely and that’s about it.
Perhaps it is more interesting if you are into history. There is a promenade leading to Fort Risban with informational plaques telling of the Siege of Calais and other significant moments in city’s history, coupled with some war monuments.
Last but not least - you can really spend a day on the cheap there. This 'regular portion' of frites that made my heart skip a beat was 2 euros from a food van next to Parc Saint-Pierre.
There are also a few museums that I didn't have time to visit - Museum of Fine Arts, Calais Lace Museum and Second World War museum.
I could not help but feel something raging inside of me at the fact that all it took for me to cross over to the White Cliffs of Dover was to show my passport and have a valid ferry ticket while there are people risking and losing their lives for the same thing. Politics aside, in moments like this I feel that we are doing harm by missing the opportunity of seeing the situation on a human level.
You can check out the article on my day volunteering in Calais here.
I also recently saw an excellent play at The Playhouse Theatre in London that absolutely everybody should go and see (it’s on until November 2018).
It tells the stories of people who lived at the now dismantled refugee settlement in Calais that most people reading the news in 2015 and 2016 have heard about and also carries the name of the play - The Jungle. It will make you have a better understanding of things on the human level mentioned above. It’s a glimpse into the different realities that the word “refugee” encompasses, while showing you the joy, the sadness and the ultimate struggle of human beings only trying to belong somewhere.