Saintes is a pretty market town famous for its Roman heritage, of which the best preserved are the Roman Amphitheatre and the triumphal Germanicus Arch, dating from the reign of Tiberius. The town also has an attractive geographical position; situated in the charming countryside of the Charente-Maritime, it is very close to the Atlantic coast and the islands of Ile d’Oléron and Ile de Ré.
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Saintes is located on the banks of the Charente River, between La Rochelle and Bordeaux. La Rochelle airport, with low cost airlines to London, Bristol and Ireland, can be reached in 1h. Bordeaux airport can be reached in 2h. Alternatively, there is the Eurostar to Paris then a TGV to Angoulême and then a local train to Saintes.
Saintes was founded in about 20 BC and originally called Médiolanum Santonum, until 250-270 AD when it took the name of its people (les Santons) and became known as Saintes.
In 18-19 AD, the Germanicus Arch was built and in 40 AD, the Amphitheatre followed, in order to host gladiatorial contests for 18,000 spectators to watch. The River Charente also gave the town great importance as it provided a principle means of transporting salt, liquors and stone between the Atlantic coast and the inner ports.
In 1242, Saintes was at the centre of the Saintonge War, a feudal dynastic encounter between Louis IX of France and Henry III of England, in which the latter lost. In 1360, Saintes did belong to the English once again, but not for long as the French managed to win it back in 1372. Then in the 16 th century the French Wars of Religion hit Saintes. Christanized but surrounded by Protestants, the bishop in Saintes fought hard to counter their attacks, yet the Cathédral Saint-Pierre still suffered greatly.
In 1730, a new era began in which the city landscape was engaged in numerous changes, starting with the construction of the hôtel du Marquis de Monconseil. In 1810, Saintes hosted the wedding of Napoléon and Marie-Louise, in 1846, the Haras National de Saintes was created, in 1852 the theatre opened and Pont Neuf was built, in 1860 the station was installed and in 1863 a new Palais de Justice was built.
On the 11 th November 1871 a terrible fire took place in the town hall and the town’s archives were all destroyed. In 1940, things got worse with the invasion of the Germans; on the 24 th June 1944 the town suffered terrible bombardement. Liberation finally came on the 4 th September 1944, then on the 14 th June 1963, General de Gaulle, Président de la République, visited Saintes and in 1977, restoration of the historical quarters began. However, the town was then flooded in December 1982, going down in history as the flood of the century.
Nonetheless, Saintes stands well today, preserving its Roman ruins and housing museums, art galleries, charming restaurants and numerous shops.
Popular sights to see are: the Germanicus Arch, the ruins of a superb Roman Amphitheatre (Les Arènes), now used for music concerts, a maze of Roman construction activities in the first century AD (Le Vallon des Arènes), an aqueduct also left over from the first century, the 6 th century Church of Saint Eutrope which is one of the most important monuments of Romanesque art and is particularly famous for its crypt and 3 rd century tomb of Saintes’ first bishop, Eutriopius, the abbey church (Abbaye-aux-Dames) which has Romanesque doorways and rich sculptural decoration, the 15 th century Château de la Roche-Courbon and the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre.
The main museums are: the Musée de l’Echévinage, which has collections of Sèvres porcelain and paintings from the 19 th and 20 th century, the Musée d’Archéologie, which houses a large collection of Gallo-Roman finds, including sculptures, inscriptions and a cart, the Musée du Présidial, a Mannerist architecture with a collection of regional ceramics and paintings from the 15 th and 18 th century, and the Musée Dupuy-Mestreu, a folk museum with local costumes, headgear and jewellery.
The Charente River is filled with craft, angles and holidaymakers in houseboats, and can be used for fishing, canoeing, kayaking and boat rides. There is also a market held twice a week, a large fair on the first Monday of each month and a 10-day festival every July (Jeux Santons), that celebrates ancient music and includes folk dancing, contemportary music, singing, conferences and exhibitions. Started in 1972, when several young visionary conductors rediscovered music from 1600 – 1750 (Baroque music), it has since granted Saintes the title ‘ Mecca of Baroque-lovers.’ More than 30 concerts are given over the 10 days, from noon until midnight and an average of 12,000 spectators are welcomed.
Golf is also popular, due to an 18-hole golf course for all abilities being situated nearby (Golf Louis Rouyer-Guillet), and the seaside (Royan) is only 30 minutes away from the town.
Seafood is very popular as the close proximity of the Atlantic coast ensures the seafood is delicious, Moules Marinière in particular. Other local recipes include: Veal with Pineau, Melon with Pineau, Daube de Boeuf a la Saintongeaise, Pudding au Pain, Walnut Paté and La Galette de la Rois (a cake made especially for the Epiphany to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings. Inside the cake is a small porcelain sculpture and whoever finds it in their portion is crowned King for the day)
Cognac and Pineau des Charentes are locally produced drinks that should be tasted. Pineau des Charentes was discovered by mistake in the 16 th century when a winegrower accidentally mixed grape juice with Cognac eau de vie. It comes in the form of an aperitif, a cocktail, and a sauce (for food), and can only be bought in France
Le Petit Bistrot, 7 rue Victor Hugo, tel no: 05 46 91 56 24, www.lepetitbistro.webobo.com, menu 8-11 euros with simple French cuisine
Le Relais du Bois Saint George, Parc Atlantique, tel no: 05 46 93 50 99, www.relaisdubois.com, menu from 60-90 euros with gourmet food.
Chez Tartine, 10 place Blair, tel no: 05 46 74 16 38, menu 15-30 euros with salads and quiches.
Le Parvis, 48 rue St Eutrope, tel no: 05 46 97 78 12, menu 15-30 euros with seafood.
Our team of sale advisers at Sextant Properties will be happy to help you to find a property in Saintes. We have a large network of partners in Saintes. All of them are registered French real estate agents and speak both French and English. Whatever kind of property you are looking for: farmhouse, longere, barn, gite, B&B, country house, mill, castle or chateau, we will do our best to find a property in Saintes matching your requirements.