The second largest city in Charente-Maritime, Saintes is located in the heart of the Saintonge. Gateway to the south, crossed by the Charente, the city is famous for its gentle way of life. The traveller comes to taste this gentle atmosphere, but also to immerse himself in history by contemplating the mansions bathed in light that line the quays and nestle in the historic centre. Listed as a "City of Art and History" for more than 30 years, Saintes is committed to preserving its rich heritage, which is highlighted every year. Two thousand years ago, it was the capital of the entire Gallo-Roman Aquitaine, which then stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees. The amphitheatre and the arch of Germanicus recall this past greatness, from the time when the city radiated over the whole of Saintonge, in the axis of the great road linking Lyon to Aquitaine. It was at the meeting point of the Charente and this artery that the new town, Médiolanum, was founded in the 20's BC. The Roman city was created on a Gallic territory occupied by the Celtic tribe of the Santons who gave their name to the city and the province, the Saintonge. The city reached its apogee in the 2nd century, as the monumental blocks preserved in the archaeological museum testify. The Roman Empire recycles Saintes towards the end of the 3rd century in a restricted stronghold protected by a powerful rampart. During the High Middle Ages, it gave way to a Christian town, which was then reduced to the present Saint-Pierre district, whose narrow cobbled streets still bear the traces of that era. During the Middle Ages, religious foundations multiplied. In the 11th century, the Ladies' Abbey was founded while the church of Saint-Eutrope became a priory dependent on Cluny, the great Burgundian abbey. Suburbs developed around the main churches and the town became an important stopover on the road to Santiago de Compostela from the 11th century onwards. The town prospered modestly, its economy being based mainly on agriculture, textile industries, river trade... The Wars of Religion invited the central government to reinforce the city's defences by building a citadel at the beginning of the 17th century. The following century was the century of prosperity. The wine and brandy trade gave the whole Charente valley a certain dynamism. Private mansions appear and the town becomes the capital of the Lower Charente. But in 1810, Napoleon was disappointed by the welcome received by the inhabitants. Exasperated, he left by slamming the door! The future of Saintes was sealed. The city of Saintongeaise lost its status as a prefecture to the less prudish La Rochelle, but kept the Cour d'assises through it thanks to its central position. Better still, the town experienced an economic revival when, in 1870, it became an important railway junction between La Rochelle, Rochefort and Angoulême. The right bank developed as did the workers' housing estates, which benefited from the creation of repair workshops.
Today sub-prefecture of Charente-Maritime, the city has nothing to be ashamed of when faced with seaside towns. The sun does not warm the ocean, but settles gently on the Charente, a river that is ideal for trips on a solar-powered boat to reach a gabarier village, on e-boats or by canoe to discover the city differently. The return to land is no less delightful with the discovery of a rich religious heritage: the Saint-Eutrope basilica and its crypt, the Saint-Pierre cathedral, a masterpiece with an unmissable silhouette, the Protestant temple and the Ladies' Abbey, the first women's monastery in Saintonge. The Arch of Germanicus occupies a special place. This Roman vestige saved by Prosper Mérimée is installed in the heart of the city, a stone's throw from the river. Although the remains of the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre allow visitors to appreciate its grandeur, the monument is in need of restoration. A Heritage Lottery cheque allows work to begin on a site that the city wishes to revive through cultural programming.
Like its big sister in La Rochelle, Saintes is ideal for strolling. The stroll often starts on the banks of the Charente to appreciate a preserved environment such as the Palu meadow. A bridge and a few steps are enough to reach the lively town centre, which conceals a few secrets: market, squares, gardens and these small streets leading to private mansions, some of which house museums. Since 2018, Saintes has benefited from a revitalisation agreement which aims to revitalise the town centre by improving the living conditions of its inhabitants.

The must-see places in Saintes

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