A guide to Saintes and the surrounding area
Visiting Saintes is to explore 2000 years of history. The origins of the town lie in Celtic times when a small settlement was created by the Santon tribe - this has given rise to the name of the region today: Saintonge.
In the 1st century BC the Romans conquered much of France and established their regional capital, Mediolanum, on the site of modern day Saintes. They chose this site where the major Roman route from Lyon to Aquitaine crossed the Charente river. During Roman times the town became very prosperous and one can still see remnants in the Arch of Germanicus, the Amphitheatre and the Thermal baths.
Christianity came early to Saintes and the town boasts many magnificent religious buildings such as the Abbaye aux Dames and St Pierre Cathedral. The town enjoyed considerable prosperity during 17th to 19th centuries as an administrative and commercial centre and during this time many attractive merchant houses and other buildings were erected along the banks of the river.
Where exactly is Saintes?
- 375 miles south of Salisbury
- in the Charente Maritime département
– near Cognac, Royan, La Rochelle & the Atlantic coast
– near nature reserves, vineyards, oyster beds and attractions for all the family
– just off the A10 autoroute towards Bordeaux (70 miles SSW)
Saintes is situated on one of France's great rivers, the Charente - indeed the river has shaped the development of the town providing a means of transport, trading and communication over the centuries. The town is surrounded by gentle rolling countryside with fields of sunflowers, wheat and maize plus of course the extensive vineyards of the Cognac region. About 18 miles to the west is the Atlantic Ocean with wonderful beaches at Royan and the Gironde estuary where the combined waters of the Garonne, Lot and Dordogne rivers meet the sea. La Rochelle, Bordeaux, and Cognac are all close by as are vineyards, riverside villages, great restaurants and friendly people.
– about 30,000 inhabitants
– a lively English-speaking community
– an original Roman amphitheatre and triumphal arch
– a cathedral and an abbey
– several museums
– excellent restaurants, shops and markets selling local produce
– an annual music festival
– the River Charente with plenty of boating opportunities
Ten things to see and do on a visit to Saintes
Visit the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre and imagine how it might have been used more than 1000 years ago. Some remnants of the thermae of Saint-Saloine (1st century) are also visible, including an aqueduct.
See the Arch of Germanicus, a triumphal arch, originally built at the entrance to a bridge, where the main Roman road crossed the Charente River. The bridge was demolished in 1843 but the Arch was saved and rebuilt at its present location on the north bank of the river.
Visit spectacular religious buildings: in particular, the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and the Basilique Saint-Eutrope, built over the original route taken by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. See the Abbaye aux Dames - now a cultural centre. This remarkable set of buildings was originally a Benedictine convent but has also served as a garrison and a prison.
Wander around the narrow streets of the St Pierre district - the heart of the old town but now full of chic shops and an array of restaurants and cafes.
Take a river trip on one of the many boats that travel along the Charente.
Visit Royan with its wonderful beaches and admire the Belle Epoque villas that still remain as a glimpse of what the place was like in 1900.
Visit La Rochelle, one of the prettiest towns in France, with great shopping, an ancient port and enough good restaurants to keep you busy for a month or more.
Wander through the market in Saintes. It is a people watchers’ paradise and a fantastic experience to see stalls offering an amazing variety of fish, meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. Open Wednesday and Saturday.
Eat oysters – fresh seafood and fish are brought in daily from the nearby Atlantic ports which are known across the world for their oysters and mussels.
Taste cognac and pineau – Saintes is in the heart of the Appelation Cognac Controlée and there are lots of local distilleries that offer tastings.