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…

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Overseas -

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

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