In truth, we did invite the boys, but they didn’t want to come! Jack would rather stick pins in his eyes than spend an afternoon browsing in shops and Roddy, although an excellent companion when one needs a little retail therapy, had a myriad of things he wanted to do at home. So after plenty of grey and damp days the sun finally returned last Saturday and the girls and I set out for Saintes, leaving the male element to fend for themselves.
The instant the title “For Ladies Only” popped into my head, something else also came to mind, it made me immediately think of my great grandmother’s autograph book from the late 1800’s, known as her ‘writing album’. Such books were traditionally exchanged amongst friends, often cousins and distant relations, to be filled with poems, drawings, personal messages and small pieces of verse. I am fortunate enough to be the guardian of two of these little volumes; the drawings are exquisite and some of the writing is incredibly amusing, I will share them with you at another time for they really are great treasures. But for whatever reason, it was the entry below that I thought of; I have read it many times and it never fails to make me smile!
These few words have caused much debate here as there is no ‘Stewart’ in our family history, and this makes me think this note was obviously written by a friend in 1889. Throughout the books the notes are from both males and females, so here’s a question for you – do you think this was a lady voicing her opinion of men, or vice versa? We’re split down the middle at home. But whichever way you look at it, these little books happen to be a wonderfully convenient reminder of how much I value history in our modern world, a value that is amply demonstrated throughout France by the evidence of the past on every corner of every street, in virtually every town and village.
Saintes has a history that goes back to Roman times, one of the things I love most about this city is the way that contemporary shops rub shoulders so comfortably with ancient Roman columns and historic buildings; so often differing architectural styles can be at odds, but here the old structures loom over the modern parts of the town, continuing to play the same roles they have starred in for centuries, where streets have echoed to the sound of so many different voices.
Saintes has a population of around 27,000 inhabitants, and it’s been a busy town since before those Roman times, when the indications are that it existed as an important Celtic town; and because of its gallo-roman, medieval and classical heritage, Saintes is officially listed as a ‘Ville d’Art et d’Histoire‘.
We parked the car and wandered along the narrow roads towards the centre of the town, most of which lies on the west bank of the River Charente.
Back in those far-off Roman days, Saintes was the first capital of Aquitaine. Today Saintes remains an influential commercial city, influenced not only by its continued transportation links, but also thanks to its important administrative, industrial and public service sectors and because of its past, Saintes is also a major tourist destination.
One of the few complete Roman arches outside of Italy, the Arch of Germanicus was a gesture of triumph built by a common citizen that was was originally constructed at the entrance to a bridge crossing the river. In 1843 the arch was actually moved 15 metres along the quay when the old bridge was demolished but it still remains today in much the same state as when it was first put together in 18 and 19 AD.
Christmas is coming of course, so all along the banks of the river, wooden chalets have been imported ready for the festive season, (here this does not kick off until the first weekend in December), and the earth is waiting for the dozens of Christmas trees which will be temporarily planted. By the weekend this will all be buzzing with activity; we were a week too early, but it’s a good excuse to return!
Sitting in an imposing position is the Galeries Lafayette, one of France’s largest retail chains. It has four floors of fashion, make-up, children’s clothing, toys and home decor and I suspect the four of us dallied a little too long amongst its offerings.
It was Millie’s suggestion that we take a right hand turn off the pedestrianised cobbled street and walk down to the library; “It’s fabulous” she said, for she had been here a couple of weeks ago doing some research with a couple of school friends. This area is a classic example of the ancient and modern co-exisiting in perfect harmony, the audiovisual library sits alongside the former Convent of the Jacobins.
Continuing along the narrow streets between houses dating from the 17th to 19th centuries
we passed a small pre-school, the Ecole Maternelle Les Jacobins.
Dominating the view from almost anywhere in the town is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Saintes. The rather different dome on the tower is a result of economics, as the planned spire proved too costly for the funds available at the time!
The Musee du Presidial is a fine arts museum built in 1610 and houses paintings of the XIXth and XXth centuries, and a collection of Sèvres china; it also holds many temporary art exhibitions.
As dusk was starting to fall we crossed back over the river
and stopped at the Archaeological Museum which is sadly closed at the moment; however we were able to peek inside through openings covered in old wooden latticework.
This museum has an interesting collection of Roman lapidary, including columns, capitals, architraves and bas-reliefs, and the rare metal remains of a ceremonial axe from the late 1C are also on display.
Lastly, Saintes is also home to a complete Roman amphitheatre, built in the 1st century AD. The amphitheatre originally seated 15000 people and although we have visited this on many previous occasions, we didn’t have the time to do so today; we were dining at a friend’s house and had to rush to get home and change. There were apéros around a glowing fire and a delicious meal followed; fabulous fun, great company, and a wonderful start to any weekend.