A view of Saintes alongside a river

Saintes travel guide

About Saintes

Saintes in Poitou-Charentes is the second largest city in Charente-Maritime and has an historical heritage dating back to Gallo-Roman times with some excellent ruins of Roman baths and an amphitheatre.

The city of Saintes was once the first capital of Aquitaine, home to the Gallic tribe Santon and was known as Mediolanum Santonum, 'the central town of the Santones'. In the 1st century AD the Romans built several monuments in the city including the amphitheatre, measuring 39m x 66m and constructed in a small natural valley in 40 AD that is able to hold thousands of spectators for the gladiator fights and chariot races that were conducted here in ancient times. The remains of the thermae, the Roman baths, have been excavated and show that they were built in the second half of the 1st century and a section of the caldarium (hot bath) remains.

Outside of the city in the nearby towns you'll discover pieces of an ancient Roman aquaduct along the river that once fed the city and the surrounding area whilst the Arch of Germanicus stands proudly as the gate to the city from the river. Moved by a few metres in 1843 when the Roman bridge was demolished, the arch was constructed in 18-19 AD and bears an inscription dedicated to Emperor Tiberius and his successors.

Saintes has a fantastic Archaeology Museum that contains elements of the Gallo-Roman buildings of the city such as columns and sculptures from its temples, basilicas and mausoleums, as well as objects from Roman daily life, which have been discovered during excavations of the ancient city walls that were built in 300 AD from pieces of tall Gallo-Roman buildings.

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, Saintes embraced Christianity and became an important stop on the pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago. The Abbaye aux Dames (Women's Abbey) was consecrated in 1047 and was home to a convent of Benedictine nuns. Damaged several times by war and fire, the abbey was rebuilt but became a prison during the Revolution and barracks during the Empire before being restored to its religious vocation in 1939.

Several other abbeys, churches and the cathedral make this an essential stop for pilgrims. The Abbaye aux Dames and its glorious Romanesque Notre Dame church, famous for its crypt and squat, floral adorned pillars, host the Festival of Saintes and music festivals throughout the year. Other festivals in the city include a Festival of Bridge for card players and equestrian shows. Saintes has several interesting museums such as the Musée de l'Echevinage, an arts museum in the old Town Hall that houses over 100 works of art from the 15th to 19th centuries and the Musée Dupuy-Mestreau filled with regional folk art, pottery, carvings and jewellery.

Explore the outdoors by visiting the valleys of Coran, Seugne and Arnoult, beautiful valleys with a diverse ecosystem. Rich flora and fauna flourish in the valleys and the marshes around the Charente river, which flows through a broad alluvial plain, are great for hiking and mountain biking. 

If you're feeling less active then why not explore the area with a cruise along the Charentes river or simply take the time out to relax and go fishing? The rivers are full of carp, roach and perch, to name just a few species, but don't forget to purchase your fishing permit from a retailer of fishing tackle.

A walk through Saintes lovely squares and streets will take you on a journey through colourful markets, fashionable boutiques and excellent shops selling regional produce and crafts. 

Local specialities to try whilst in town are the famous Cognac brandy from the eponymous city just  30 minutes away, and Pineau, a local fortified wine that was created by accident by a 16th century Cognac winemaker when grape must was mistakenly poured into a barrel of water spirits of the brandy, producing a delicious new alcoholic drink. Galette Chartenaise, a tasty butter cake, and chocolates are also on the local menu with wines from the Cognac region.

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