The secret charm of Calais
This small port, the closest French town to England, is known mostly for huge hypermarkets and day-trippers. But cartoonist and humorist Barry Fantoni has discovered the hidden truth…
hen I tell people that Katie, my companion, has bought a house in Calais and that we intend to move there permanently in the near future, their response is invariably one of bafflement or derision. “Calais?” they sniff. “With all those day-trippers, boozecruisers and asylum seekers?”
Until fairly recently, I confess, I thought much the same. But, in fact, the hypermarkets are out of town, most of the asylum seekers left years ago and British drunks never venture further than the handful of bars by the port.
The real Calais is altogether more agreeable. To walk through its deserted streets to the beach on a sunny Sunday morning is to be transported back to a bygone, gentler age: no shops are open apart from those selling freshly baked bread. It has fine buildings and art: the Hotel de Ville, a massive, 19th-century, red-brick folly that dominates the skyline for miles, is an architectural treasure and Rodin’s masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, stands majestically in the beautifully kept gardens that front it. The town even has an amateur football team that got to the final of the French Cup in 2000 (alas, they lost).
True, Calais can no longer boast the wealth of 200 years ago, when it was one of the lace capitals of the world. But it is determinedly on the up: all the boulevards are being re-paved, there is a fine new shopping mall in the heart of town and every 10 minutes a free bus circles the centre. In short, it is a great place to live.
We had often talked about buying there. But it was only three years ago, when we discovered the astonishingly low price of property, that we decided to do something about it. We scanned the estate agents’ windows, we took notes. A sprawling old farm 10 minutes’ drive from town, with 10 acres of land and outbuildings, was on offer at €270,000 (£181,671). A new threebedroom apartment overlooking the sea cost €190,000 (£127,842). That would buy nothing in Clapham, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life. Even £190,000 would at best buy a miserable, rundown one-bedroom, ex-council flat there.
Today, prices in Calais remain much the same. Some have even gone down. Only a few weeks ago, we noticed a poorly maintained but potentially wonderful period maison de ville on sale for an unbelievable €87,000 (£58,539).
But it wasn’t just the prices that appealed. It was also the proximity. Since both Katie and I still work in London, getting from here to there quickly, easily and cheaply is crucial.
Travelling from London to Calais by car takes less than three hours using the Chunnel and costs about £50 a time. The journey takes 90 minutes on Eurostar, which stops four times a day in Calais (the price depends on how far in advance you book and how often you travel). The ferry takes four hours, door-todoor, but it
Wcan often be a little cheaper, especially outside holiday seasons.
Lovely town, nice atmosphere, easy access: Calais it had to be. But our initial enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the uselessness of the first two estate agents we tried. Then we literally bumped into Thierry Leborgne, who was leaving his office at the moment we were going in. He proved
to be our Mr Fix-it.
In under an hour, he had arranged for us to see three topquality properties in our price range; Katie, who would be dealing with the financial side of things, had set a limit of €250,000 (£168,214). The first house was post-war and sat in a peaceful avenue near the town centre. It was owned by a banker who was selling because he had been promoted to a job in another part of France. There were two floors, a compact garden and a recently converted attic. The banker’s wife, who gave us a tour, smoked through a cigarette holder and had a penchant for fluffy cats. Madame was responsible for the décor, which included a glass ceiling in the bedroom, shiny black plastic walls throughout and a pink Italian marble staircase. They were asking €85,000 (£124, 479), which was very tempting – even though we’d have to rip the place to bits before moving in.
Property two was owned by Eddie, an amiable but melancholy figure, who was getting divorced in a hurry, hence the low asking price of €225,000 (£151,393). A 19th-century maison de ville, situated in a very old street that had been untouched by wartime bombs, it was spread over three narrow floors and was well maintained with unobtrusive décor. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Eddie’s place – except that the next house took our breath away.
Right in the heart of Calais, a stone’s throw from the town’s impressive early 19th-century theatre and a dozen longestablished restaurants that are the equal of those in Paris, is 7 Rue Gambetta. It was exactly what we were looking for, and could be ours for €243,000 (£163,504).
There were the usual extras, the most
expensive being that of the notaire and M Leborgne’s commission. But the allin cost was still less than half what I would pay in Britain, even if such a wonderful house and surroundings existed, which on the whole they don’t.
Our French home is a vast, immaculately preserved, period maison de mâitre. Size-wise, it is probably the next step down from a modest chateau. The hall is two cricket pitches long. There are four floors containing 12 rooms (five of which would get an English estate agent’s rating of “luxury-sized”), a small patio garden with a pair of tall conifers filled with birds and a cellar that runs the full length of the house. The vendor was M Louis, an architect who had, prior to putting the house on the market, used the top two floors for his practice while leasing the three enormous rooms on the ground floor to a dentist. The property had been on the market for a year and was empty. Interest had been slow and the original asking price had been considerably reduced as a result.
From the minute we walked in it was clear that M Louis knew his job. The small areas of the house that he had either restored or extended retained their period feel. His taste in everything, from lighting to radiators, was flawless.
Everything was in such good condition that, had we been able to, Katie and I could have moved in right then. All we would have needed to do was buy a bath and a cooker, which, for reasons best known to himself, M Louis had removed.
As things stand, we have turned the top room overlooking the treelined boulevard into a huge bathroom. We have also sanded the floor of the master bedroom. Given that eating is cheaper and better in the friendly bistro across the road, the cooker can wait.
So far, so formidable. But I haven’t even mentioned the clinching factor, the piece de resistance: what was referred to as “the garage”. It didn’t – doesn’t – look much. But, oh, the potential.
Set beyond the trees and protected by a gated entrance, it is connected to the main house by a short path. Once a large, two-storey dwelling, it was now completely empty. There was a dead bat on the floor and seagulls made regular use of the chimneys.
Why is it so special? Because, as well as my commitments to the joke-writing team at Private Eye, I now spend most of my working life at The Landor, a fringe theatre in Clapham. Since the “garage” is big enough for 100 seats, my longterm plan is to turn it into a space that could be used for all kinds of performance. “ Le Petit Théâtre de Calais” is what I have in mind.
In the not-too-distant future, we intend to settle in Calais permanently, using it as our base. The plan is to commute. My work at Private Eye dictates this, while Katie’s interest in writing about fashion and ecological trends will certainly take her regularly to London and increasingly to Paris and Amsterdam, both of which are easily reached from Calais.
When they move, most people fill their new home with great chunks of stuff taken from their old one. But we intend to buy all our furniture, fixtures and fittings from local shops and to employ only local builders and decorators. (One of M Leborgne’s many services is to provide a shortlist of names he personally uses on a regular basis.)
The desire to be fully involved in local life and contribute in whatever way we can will, I am certain, be the key to living in Calais. With a bit of training on the beach each day and a degree of restraint concerning cognac at €1 a shot, I might even consider joining the football team.
Thrilled (clockwise from below): Barry Fantoni and partner Katie; their garage and house; Calais café culture; Thierry Leborgne, the couple’s Mr Fix-it