Calais, the closest French port to England, is the principal crossing point between England and France. The Channel Tunnel links England to Coquelles, just a few miles from Calais; through it car and train passengers utilize Calais as a gateway to France and beyond.
But in fact very few people take the Eurostar to Calais-Fréthun, which is about nine minutes by local train from Calais itself. Just three Eurostar trains stop at Calais-Fréthun each day in both directions on the London-Lille-Brussels route. On my day trip journey, I was one of just three passengers to alight.
And 12 hours later, when I boarded a train back to London, there were just six of us. The security and immigration staff arrived about a half hour before departure to open up the tiny check-in facilities and process our tickets and passports. The small post-security waiting room might be able to seat a few dozen passengers – in a pinch.
I hadn’t scheduled my day trip journey to see Calais, however. I was in France to see Dunkerque (Dunkirk), in particular to visit an ecologically sustainable housing development, Grand Large du ZAC, part of a long-term reorientation of Dunkerque towards the ocean. I’d chanced upon photos of the development’s gabled multi-storied dwellings months ago and waited until a free week and low fares materialized. The sustainable development received a special mention from l’Équerre d’Argent, the French architecture awards, in 2010.
There is no train service between Calais and Dunkerque, so I made the 40-minute journey by local bus; prior to this I had almost three and a half hours to wander Calais before my early afternoon bus departure.
Calais itself is a handsome little city, with very well kept parks and canals and seemingly omnipresent frites stands, its sea air fresh and invigorating. I breakfasted on a delicious apricot tart and wandered along side streets, and then via the center of town, ending up at the beach.
The bus to Dunkerque was packed with students. The final stop, Pôle Marine, is about a 10-minute walk to the housing development, which is more magnificent than photos make it out to be. Afterwards I took a very leisurely wander through Dunkerque’s core and stopped by the tourist office to learn more about the immediate region.
One interesting local attraction is the Dunes de Flandre regional project, which groups Dunkerque with the neighboring towns of Leffrinckoucke, Zuydcoote, and Bray-Dunes as a region of natural beauty. It is a candidate for “Grand Site” status; the French “Grand Sites” are meant to designate extraordinary landscapes that are both geographically and culturally significant and physically fragile.
There are buses from Dunkerque to Bray-Dunes, which borders Belgium, and across the border itself, making it easy for visitors to combine Dunkerque with a visit to the dunes.
Costs & tips
My Eurostar fare was £69 ($111). This appears to be the lowest fare for the roundtrip journey. The bus between Calais and Dunkerque runs €9 ($12.25) each way. My costs were in general very low. For example, a delicious cheese baguette along with a drink and pastry cost €4 at a small boulanger close to the center of Dunkerque.
Visitors from London interested in visiting Dunkerque and the nearby dunes who are not also interested in exploring Calais should consider taking the Eurostar to Lille and continuing on to Dunkerque by train from there, allowing for time to transfer. Lille’s two train terminals are a short walk from one another.