What to do and see in Saintes and the Val de Saintonge
Low-slung Charentais farmhouses, windmills and châteaux plus pretty towns and villages of fine white limestone – this is a beautiful part of the countryside to explore. To the east of Poitou-Charentes, at the heart of the area is Saintes, established by the Romans and today pretty market town famous for its architecture, both Roman ruins and Romanesque churches – and for being the birthplace of a certain Dr Guillotin! It is a lovely town to stroll around, go shopping and stop for a coffee or a meal.
What to see in Saintes
The Roman Ruins: The L’Arc of Germanicus (see picture above) by the riverbank was originally built in 19AD and dedicated to emperor Tiberius, his son Drusu and his nephew Germanicus. Originally standing on a stone bridge in the town it was moved to its present location in 1843 when the bridge was demolished to make way for a newer one. Next door to the Arc is the archaeological museum with more Roman artefacts and reconstructed walls and pillars.
A popular Roman tourist attraction is Les Arènas that’s found a little way out of the town – take the footpath by 54 cours Reverseaux. The remains of an amphitheatre, it was built in 40AD and once held 15,000 spectators. Today the seats are grassed over but you can still see the shape of the amphitheatre and get a sense of what it must have been like.
The Thermes de Saint-Saloine are the excavated remains of the early fourth century buildings and are thought to be part of a network of spas.
Romanesque architecture: The Cathédral of St-Pierre is the town’s landmark but also take a look at the 12th century Abbaye aux Dames church that was once part of a monastic collective for women founded 100 years or so earlier.
Situated on a major Santiago de Compostella Pilgrim route and now a UNESCO world heritage site, the Saint-Eutrope church was built by Benedictine monks and consecrated in 1096. The spire was built in the 15th century after a donation from King Louis XI and the carvings inside are striking. The crypt, which houses the tomb of Saintes’ first bishop, Eutropius, is entered from the street and is nicely spooky.
Horse stud: Equine lovers should head to Le Haras National de Saintes – one of the 23 the national horse studs of France. This network, originally created to provide King Louis XIV with horses, is today responsible for maintaining the standards of breeding and for protecting local breeds – including this area’s Poitevin draught horse and Poitou donkey. Take a guided tour to see the horses housed in elegant stables set in landscaped gardens. Tel: 05 46 74 23 82
Take to the river: There are plenty of ways to explore the Charente river from Saintes, from riding a gabarre, a traditional flat-bottomed oak boat once used to transport cognac, salt and other produce, to a santon, a small electric boat or a much larger cruiser. See the tourist office for details.
Tourist attractions in Val de Saintonge
Church of Saint Pierre d’Aulnay: One of the most magnificent Romanesque churches in France and now a UNESCO world heritage monument, this church built in the 12th century is famed for the sculptures on the western and southern portals which, amongst many different scenes, portray the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Saintonge Sermon over the front entrance includes figures from daily life and the zodiac. Inside see carvings of lions and elephants. Aulnay-de-Saintonge, a short drive from Saint Jean d’Angély
The royal abbey of Saint Jean d’Angély: founded when a head was brought back from the Far East to the then Duke of Aquitaine, today its gruesome history is behind it – it’s the centre of European Culture and is open to the public.
Château crazy! If you love noseying around a château, these are well worth a look:
* Château de Dampierre: a magnificent 16th century chateau set on an island in the middle of the Boutonne gardenin the town of Dampierre-sur-Boutonne. It boasts lovely arched galleries and an elaborately sculpted ceiling. Outside are the award-winning gardens including a labyrinth maze. Tel: 01 30 52 53 24 ; www.chateau-de-dampierre.fr
* Château de la Roche-Courbon: this 15th/17th century castle in Saint-Porchaire is known as the Castle of the Sleeping Beauty after being found by French writer Pierre Loti abandoned and overgrown. He launched an appeal to save it, prompting a local man to buy and restore it, and his descendents live there today. You can take a guided tour of the ornately decorated interior, and see the award-winning formal French-style gardens. For children, there is an area of old-fashioned games such as ‘Indian Top’. Tel: 05 46 95 60 10; www.t3a.com/larochecourbon/
* Château de Crazannes: a 14th century chateau in the town of Crazannes that was built on the site of an 11th century fortress – you can still see the chapel and castle keep. Its illustrious guests have included the Black Prince and King FranÃ§ois I of France. As well as the fairytale turrets and elaborately carved entrance, inside it is luxuriously decorated and furnished. Tel 06 80 65 40 96 http://www.crazannes.com
* Château de Montendre: started in the 9th century and rebuilt in the 12th and 15th centuries, this chateau with its imposing stone tower is known for the museum that showcases a comprehensive collection of costumes, tools and utensils of everyday life during the 19th century. Montendre; tel the local tourist office for more information: 05 46 49 46 45.
Donkey sanctuary: at ‘La Maison du Baudet du Poitou’ you can see the Poitou donkey – Le Baudet de Poitou. An endangered species, this shaggy donkey is thought to have existed since Roman times and is known for its hard-working nature. Although once popular, it declined in numbers after WWII – in 1977 there were only 44 registered donkeys left. Today, this sanctuary at La Tillauderie, Dampierre- sur-Boutonne, is helping to keep the breed alive and you can stroke the animals as well as learn about their history. Tel 05 46 24 07 72
Set sail on a Mississippi paddle steamer! Children will love taking to the water on the miniature replica boats that include a paddle steamer and cargo boat, at this étang. The boats have been adapted for easy steering and the children are supervised at all times. Le Port Miniature de Saint Savinien, Ile de la Grenouillette; tel Tel. 05 46 91 71 84
Get rambling: one of the best ways to discover the charm of this area is to get out your walking shoes. There are 80 marked tracks for you to choose from – ask any of the local tourist offices for ideas on where to take a Grand Randonee or check out the website of the Federation Francaise de la Randonnee Pedestre – http://www.ffrandonnee.fr..
Surgères: Just north of Saint Jean d’Angély this attractive town was the capital of France’s dairy industry and butter during the 19th century. It is still considered among the best in the country with an AOC rating. For an enjoyable walk wander through the riverside park of walnut and chestnut trees that surround the medieval fortress with its 20 round towers. Also here is the stately Romanesque church of Notre-Dame.
Aire-jardin de la Saintonge Romane: a must for those who love Romanesque architecture. It contains reproductions of the most beautiful examples of the period. There is also a lovely medieval herb garden. At Lozay (access via the A10 or the D107), it’s open every day.
Saintes & Saintonge: 62 cours National, Saintes; tel: 05 46 74 23 82
Saint Jean d’Angély: rue de la Grosse Horloge, place du pilori; tel: 05 46 32 04 72
Surgères: 5 rue Bersot; tel: 05 46 07 20 02
Where to eat: search restaurant and cafés in Saintes & Saint Jean d’Angely
Travel: Angoulême and La Rochelle airports are an hour or so’s drive away. You can also take the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux, Angoulême and La Rochelle. The journey takes between two to three hours.
WORDS: Rachel Loos