Saintes in the Charente-Maritime department, Nouvelle Aquitaine (formerly Poitou-Charentes) has been a market town since time immemorial. The Romans called it Mediolanum Santorum – the Market Town of the Santones people. If the Romans returned today, they’d certainly recognise some of the buildings. And, they’d surely appreciate the truly spectacular market that still takes place to this day. A visit here makes a great short break, and if you’re a history lover, it’s a dream destination.
It’s best to see Saintes on foot or by bike (you can hire one outside the train station). There are two distinct sides to the town which is split by the river Charente. But make sure you wear comfy shoes because it’s a hilly town and there’s lots to see and do…
Sitting at the Bar de l’Arc de Triomphe in front of the enormous Roman Arch of Germanicus at the side of the River Charente, feels half-way between cosmopolitan and sleepy. Palm trees line the terrace giving it a bit of a tropical air.
Once the Roman capital of Aquitaine, it was one of the most important towns in Gaul. The remains here are some of the best in France though possibly the 1st Century Arch isn’t one of them. Located at the end of the Roman road, known as the “Via Agrippa”, it marked the entrance of a Roman bridge to the city.
Today it’s certainly impressive, enormous in fact, and quite beautiful. But, says Meribel my guide, it was dismantled in 1843 and put back together by Prosper Merimee, an important French writer, historian and archaeologist. If you look closely, you’ll see that some of the pieces don’t quite fit as they should. But, it is still very imposing.
A fabulous Roman arena
However, visit the Amphitheatre of Saintes and you’re going to be spellbound at the sight that greets you. It was created around 50AD in the reign of Emperor Claudius. Built in the hollow of a natural valley, it is enormous and unmistakably Roman.
Surrounded by houses, you almost stumble upon it via a suburban road which makes it all the more impressive. Of the many Roman remains I’ve visited over the years, this one has an overwhelming air of authenticity. Even better, you can explore it at will.
I entered into the tunnels from which the gladiators would have emerged to a tumultuous welcome, much like at a football match. It’s very easy to imagine the sounds and the atmosphere and though pigeons and birds have made it their home, it really does have an incredible ambiance.
There are also the remains of Roman baths and a museum by the tourist office with an impressive collection of remains dug up in and around the town.
Churches and museums
One of my favourite discoveries was the rather secret Romanesque crypt of the Saint-Eutrope Church on the route of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle near the Amphitheatre. Dating back to the 11th century, enter via a door to the side of the church to discover a quite extraordinary underground chapel, parts of which, it is thought, date to the 6th century. Inside there is a sarcophagus of Saint Eutrope, the first Bishop of Saintes.
It’s dark, silent and has an aura. It feels as if nothing has changed here over the centuries, what you see today is what early worshippers would have seen 1000 years ago.
It’s a quite mystical experience being in the rather dark crypt, silent and enveloping.
A musical city
“Saintes” said Meribel “is one of those places people discover by accident” when I confessed that I knew hardly anything about this ancient city. “But, when they do get to know Saintes” she went on, “they fall in love with it and always want to return”.
As I sat in the courtyard of the monumental Abbaye Aux Dames on a warm autumn evening, listening to classical music, I had to agree with her. This place really grows on you the more you get to know it.
The Romanesque Abbaye Aux Dames is architecturally stupendous. It was founded in 1047, by Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, and his wife Agnes of Burgundy. Only the most illustrious ladies of France were chosen to hold the role of Abbess here. When you go, take a guided tour with an audio aid. Very quirky, and very French, at times it’s narrated by someone who sounds like Julie Andrews and at times you think it might be Brian Blessed bellowing and guffawing which is odd. But it works, especially with bursts of classical music throughout. You’ll learn of the Abbey’s rich history. And of its several resurrections – at one point Napoleon turned it into stables and barracks. Now it’s a venue for concerts and for teaching music and it’s the cultural heart of Saintes.
Afterwards head to the pretty little terrace café for a break. If you’re there on a Wednesday night you’ll be in for a real treat.
The only carousel of its kind in the world
You’ll get to see what must be the most bizarre, quaint and quirky carousel ever created. It’s a cross between a spaceship and a magical orchestra pit. If grown up Harry Potter was a music lover – this would be his dream come true. It’s run by conductor Giles who encourages riders to create music. Few can resist it. State of the art but fairy tale looking giant musical instruments record sounds made by riders from harp to drum and piano. Giles mixes it and plays it back. It’s surreal but utterly mesmerising and no comes away without an enormous smile.
Every July the Academies Musicales de Saintes is held here, 30 concerts in 9 days. In this stunning setting, I can’t imagine anything more perfect for music lovers.
Afterwards, satisfy your hunger at the charming restaurant Les Saveurs de L’Abbaye in the courtyard just in front of the grand entrance to the Abbaye. Great service, a terrific seasonal menu and uber scrumptious desserts!
One of the best markets in France
“People come from miles around to this market” says Meribel as we walked past vast stalls of fresh fish, vegetables, artisan made bread, cheeses, charcuterie and all manner of delicious things. Saturday is the best day to go as in the week the market specialises in specific products. It’s closed on Mondays – except the first Monday of the month. On that day the market is more like a fair, huge, vibrant, busy and with a party atmosphere.
Enjoy a picnic in the Jardin Public. There are three hectares of parterres and English gardens, with a little menagerie of goats and ducks. It’s a great spot to relax at, you can see the river traffic, boats moored on the wooden pontoons and look across to the cathedral. There’s also a lovely old orangery in the park that has been converted into a “salon de thé”.
Wander the pedestrianised streets behind the market to discover some great shops, bars, cafés and restaurants – perfect for whiling away an hour or several.
Saintes is authentic, charming and friendly, definitely one to return to…
Stay at: Hotel Souvenirs de Families. Opposite the train station. Enjoy old school French hospitality with lovely, friendly hosts. Huge rooms, comfy and not expensive, it’s a perfect base to explore the city.
Tourist Office: Saintes-Tourism.com; Tourist Office Infininement-Charentes.com
Visit the nearby city of Angoulême, the comic capital of France, with amazing street art and treasures in its cathedral that must be seen to be believed…