Saintes

For anyone who loves wandering off a beaten path and being rewarded with the sights of everyday Roman life, Saintes is a destination.

Quietly situated off the route south to Bordeaux, this river city perches along the pretty Charente and boasts a votive arch and sylvan amphitheatre amongst its classical heritage.

Along the Charente

Standing high on a riverside bank, the white sandstone houses under terracotta rooftops that lined flagstone streets had a Mediterranean feel even on a cloudy and cool spring day.

Crossing the river we admired the double arcades of the Roman Arch of Germanicus, fully intact as moved to the south bank in the 19th century, with still-readable dedications to the Emperor Tiberius and his son Drusus.

Arc de Germanicus

Crossing the green and frothy waters into a smart and well-heeled centre of perfumeries, fashion and kitchen shops we sought out the massive bell tower of the cathedral, St Pierre. Never completed, the enormous buttresses which support the belfry dominate the skyline. Inside the church is stunning in its simplicity.

Romanesque style columns from the 12th century butt into 11th century stone walls. The alter is a simple stone table. Leaving through its massive doorway we remarked on the elaborate arched montage of tiers of carved angels, martyrs, saints and sinners.

Terracotta rooftops

Wandering the cool stone streets at lunchtime was a pleasure as the many bistros and cafes were full of smart and well-dressed diners. All the shops were closed. Any hope of picking up a couple of essentials evaporated and instead we enjoyed turning into unexpected corners of ancient wooden doorways, quiet gardens and open, stone courtyards bubbling with ornate fountains.

Heading uphill and westwards out of town we found, in the middle of a smart suburb, the Arénes.

One of the oldest surviving amphitheatres of the Roman Empire, it was built during the first century AD. Its dimensions are small, measuring only 125m long by 102m wide, but it held upwards of 20,000 people.

Roman amphitheatre

At the time it witnessed theatre but also, of course, Christian persecution. St Eurotrope was dangerously preaching the gospel in Europe and one of his young female disciples, St Eustelle, was beheaded here. 300 years later Constantine would become the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity.

The violence of the site is belied by its sylvan green beauty. Nature has reclaimed the boisterous terraces and a quiet velvet green lawn covers the seats and stairways. The arena floor is kept clear for local events and theatrical performances.

Spring stroll

We wandered back through the prettily planted public gardens admiring spring beds of daffodils, tulips and primroses amongst which were set Roman artefacts, some indescribable and now a little wonky, but all remarkable.

The massive limestone complex of the Abbey Aux Dames was cheerful and comforting but noisy with the erection of some bizarre inter-stellar art work.

Abbaye Aux Dames

We hastened past the pretty cloisters as the high-pitched drilling from an army of high vis wearing workers threatened to bring on headaches. Saintes is a charming corner and a lovely place to spend an afternoon meandering.

 

 

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