On the banks of the Charente as it meanders towards the Atlantic, the city of Saintes was once the Roman capital of Aquitaine. Ancient Mediolanum Santonum’s ruins, like the amphitheatre, arches, baths and countless fragments of sculpture and stonework, are all weathered but soul-stirring.
Move forward in time and Saintes held sway over the historic Saintogne province, and was furnished with the Romanesque Abbaye aux Dames and the pilgrimage Church of Saint-Eutrope. These monuments are made even more solemn and atmospheric by the strains of Medieval and Renaissance music at the Festival de Saintes every July. There’s also the easy pleasure of the Charente and its riverside parks, or the delectable taste of the Cognac distilled close by.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saintes:
1. Amphitheatre Gallo-Romain
The finest of what’s left of ancient Mediolanum Santonum, Saintes’ Roman amphitheatre dates to the Rule of Emperor Claudius in 40AD. In its time it could have seated up to 15,000 spectators, who would have crammed in to watch gladiator fights and battles with wild beasts.
The lowest tier of seating is still intact, as are some arches, and you can easily make out the fabric of the stone terraces and passages working their way up the hillsides around.
The arena floor is the best preserved part of the site, measuring 66.5 metres long by 39 metres wide and is still used in summer for concerts and festivals.
2. Abbaye aux Dames
Founded by the Count of Anjou in the 11th century and with lots of traces of its original architecture, the Abbey aux Dames was a Benedictine Convent for women from noble families.
Eleanor of Aquitaine donated to the abbey, while Agnes of Burgundy retired here after the death of the Count of Anjou.
The abbey church is the oldest portion, with 11th and 12th-century Romanesque architecture, with an emblematic “pine cone” bell tower.
You have to see the carvings in the tympanum above the western portal, with animals sculpted in a very distinctive way that is repeated around the Saintogne region at churches in Colombiers, Aulnay and Marignac.
3. Arch of Germanicus
Older than the amphitheatre, this splendid archway is from the reign of Tiberius, around the Year 18. Despite the appearance, it isn’t actually a triumphal arch built to commemorate a battle, but was instead financed by a wealthy local citizen in honour of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus and his nephew and adopted son Germanicus.
This information has been deduced from the very faint inscriptions in the stone.
The monument once marked the end of the Roman road from Lyon across the country to Saintes, although the actual spot is 15 metres off as the arch was moved 15 metres when the quayside was laid in the 19th century.
4. Saintes Cathedral
You can learn a great deal about Saintes just by pondering its cathedral for a while.
What will strike you right away is the squat appearance of its bell tower.
This is capped with a copper dome instead of a spire, as the original was damaged in the French Wars of Religion in the 16th century.
In the wake of the conflict there weren’t enough funds to restore the spire, so ever since the tower has stood at 58 metres instead of 96. The interior was also ransacked at that time, so what greets you now is a melange of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture with sober lines but lots of exciting details like the western portal, carved with Old Testament figures, angels and apostles.
5. Musée Archéologique
When Saintes started excavating its Roman sites in the 19th century it unearthed an astounding hoard of carved stones.
These were eventually moved into the city’s former abattoir, on the right bank of the Charente a few paces from the Arch of Germanicus.
Under the orders of the curator of Saintes’ museums, the new venue was redesigned to look like a Roman house with arches and trellises.
Within are sculptures of all descriptions; funerary, ornamental and religious, together with reliefs, fragments of columns and mosaic extracts.
But the pinnacle is the headless statue sculpted from carrara marble, and believed to depict Drusus Caesar, son of Germanicus.
6. Basilique Saint-Eutrope
A key stop on the Way of St James pilgrimage, this 11th-century church is composed of a lower and upper church.
The lower church is the one that needs to be on your agenda: It’s a Romanesque wonder that houses the cenotaph of Saint Eutrope, at the centre of a choir with the most expertly carved capitals.
This was set below the main upper church so that normal church activities could continue above while pilgrims could enter below and pray at Saint Eutrope’s tomb before moving on.
Take a minute to let your eyes adjust to the light and this incredible subterranean space will reveal its secrets.
7. Jardin Public
Down from the Arch of Germanicus on the right bank of the Charente, the Jardin Public is three hectares of parterres and English gardens, woven with a network of paths.
For children there’s a playground and a little menagerie with goats and ducks.
And perhaps the nicest spot for a wander is the alley next to the Charente where you can see the river traffic, boats moored on the wooden pontoons and can look across to the cathedral.
There’s also a lovely old orangery in the park that has been converted into a “salon de thé”.
8. Logis du Gouverneur Belvedere
This patch of land on a crag above the old town is currently being renovated, but it’s still well worth heading up to look around.
First you have the Logis de Gouverneur, a handsome 17th century mansion that is the last vestige of Saintes’ 17th-century citadel.
But possibly even better are the vistas that you can take in over the city from the cliff-top walkway.
What will strike you about the view is the sea of terracotta tile roofs, reminding you that you’re entering the South of France at Saintes.
9. Charente Cruises
In the 16th-century King Francis I declared the Charente the most beautiful river in the kingdom, and in Saintes there are lots of opportunities to find out if he was right.
For those who want to sit back and watch the green banks drift by there are vessels like the Bernard Palissy II and La Gabare, moored at the jetty in Saintes and offering cruises on this broad and winding river for whole days.
There’s a running commentary of the stone villages and countryside that you’ll pass through, and information packs are provided for non-French speakers.
You could also hire a boat of your own for a couple of days and most of the local companies have craft that don’t require a boat licence.
10. Haras National
Wrapped in ten hectares of cedar and plane parkland on the east side of the city are the stately neoclassical buildings of Saintes’ National Stud (Haras). This institution was founded by Louis XIV and a branch has been based in Saintes since the middle of the 19th century.
Its job is to select, preserve and improve equine breeds, from racing horses to the Poitou donkey, which is famed by its shaggy coat.
There’s a museum in the hall, with a display of horse-drawn carriages and insights about the traditional trades of the farrier (hoof specialist), groom and saddler.
11. Thermes de Saint-Saloine
Saintes Roman baths are also from the dawn of the 1st century and would have been abandoned around Late Antiquity when the building was adapted into an early-Christian church.
This is how the ruins came by their name.
There isn’t a great deal remaining of the baths, but you can easily spot the alcoves of the caldarium.
The water for the baths was channelled from the Charentes via an aqueduct, and Saintes’ tourist office will point out where you can find intriguing fragments of this structure to the north of the city.
12. Musée de l’Échevinage
Up to the Revolution the Échevin or Alderman held a lot of power in French towns, and his home in the middle of the old town dates to the 15th century in the decades after the 100 Years’ War.
The building was given a makeover in the 18th century, and on the outside the oldest remaining element is the Renaissance belfry, which was finished in 1587. Go in to see Saintes only fine arts museum, which assembled its collection in the 19th century, drawing mainly on works from the Saintonge and Bordeaux schools, although there is a piece by the great Gustave Courbet.
In the decorative arts galleries there’s a delicate set of hard paste porcelain from Sèvres.
13. Festival de Saintes
In mid-July there’s ten days of classical music, with 30 concerts organised around the city.
The festival has been going since 1972 when the Abbaye aux Dames was selected as the perfect venue for performances of “Early Music”, which is Medieval and Renaissance music up to the 1600s.
Early Music is still central to the festival, but the scope has been broadened to include works by Baroque composers like Bach and Purcell, interpreted by some of French classical music’s leading lights.
And the venues, including the Cathedral, Lower Church of the Basilica, and Abbey, bring lots of gravitas to the event.
Although it’s around 25 kilometres east of Cognac the town, Saintes falls within the cognac-making region.
The local vineyards have the Fins Bois denomination, producing eaux de vie, which is used as a base for many blended cognacs.
But if you want to drop by the big names like Martell, G et C Raby and Courvoisier you need only head west for half an hour or so.
There are little museums of cognac paraphernalia, you can see working distilleries, tour the cooperages and cellars, and find out how to pair cognac with food.
But the highpoint is the chance to taste this prestigious drink.
15. Local Food
In Saintes the Atlantic Ocean is some way off, but fish and seafood are staples of the local diet thanks to the navigable Charente River.
Charentaise gastronomy is based on eels, oysters, sardines and other fresh and seawater species.
Mouclade Charentaise is a regional signature dish and is prepared with mussels, shallots, egg yolk and pineau, a fortified wine from Charente-Maritime.
Mussels are also substituted for Saintes local snails, while this western region of France is also partial to frog’s legs.
From the land, grigorits is a stew made from parts of the pig, onions and regional white wine, while rillettes is a type of pork pâté that is divine spread on crusty bread.