Saintes was once more important than its modest size suggests; it was 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, but its most unusual feature is the eleventh-century tower, by turns square, octagonal and lantern-shaped. A classical music festival takes place in the abbey in mid-July.
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 Roman ruins in France. To find it take the small footpath beginning by 54 cours Reverseaux.