France // Poitou-Charentes and the Atlantic coast //


Saintes was once more important than its modest size suggests; the capital of the province of Saintonge and a little cog in the Roman machine.

Its abbey church, the Abbaye aux Dames, is as unique as Notre-Dame in Poitiers. A sculpted doorway conceals the plain, domed interior. Its most unusual feature is the eleventh-century tower, by turns square, octagonal and lantern-shaped. A famous classical music festival takes place here in mid-July, and there are atmospheric concerts in the abbey.

The town’s Roman heritage is best seen at Les Arènes, one of the finest amphitheatres in France. The remains are perhaps all the more extraordinary for their location: this monumental vestige from an ancient past, now a little grassy in parts, sits embedded in a valley almost completely surrounded by bland suburbia; a forgotten, sleeping relic dating from 40 AD, also the oldest surviving Romain ruins in France. To find it take the small footpath beginning by 54 cours Reverseaux. On the way back from the amphitheatre call in at the eleventh-century church of St-Eutrope, with its carved choir and atmospheric crypt, that houses the third-century tomb of Saintes’ first bishop, Eutropius.

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