When we first moved to France, we rented a house in the Landes while we set about finding out where we wanted to settle long-term. We had a vague idea we wanted to live near Bordeaux, not too far from the beach, and preferably in a beautiful village or small town. Not too hard you might think! Then we added proximity to a great school to the wish list and suddenly everything got a lot more difficult.
After our initial despair, we visited Saintes and everything just clicked. We immediately felt like this is where we were meant to be. Let me fill you in on why this bucolic little town has stolen our hearts…
My husband is used to my impassioned declarations about French towns/countryside/beaches by now, but I’m sure even he is tired of hearing “it’s just so beautiful” every time we walk through the old town, or stroll along the river, or discover a new (to us) part of town that is perfect in its authentic shabby chic style.
…and it Looks Great in Every Season
Ok, so we only got a glimpse of springtime in Saintes this year, but if the other three seasons are anything to go by, Saintes looks just as good under a dazzling sun as it does under an ominous winter sky. In the summer months, the Charente gleams invitingly as it divides the town in two. When autumn approaches, the trees turn brilliant colours, perfectly complimenting the terracotta rooftops and grey Charentaise stone. In winter, the morning fog creates a thick enveloping blanket around the town from which only the tallest of church towers protrude. And in spring, seasonal flowers take centre stage – tumbling out of window boxes, sprouting through cracks in the pavement – and don’t even get me started on the surrounding sunflower fields – sublime!
Saintes is a history lover’s dream destination. Coming from a country where the oldest building is not quite 200 years old, it blows my mind that my son now plays cache-cache (hide and seek) around the pillars of the 2000-year-old Arc de Germanicus. Nearby, the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre conjures up images of the bloody battles that took place many centuries ago. A walk through the Saint Eutropius crypt is an intriguing experience, and take the time to look up as you wander around town – you’re sure to spot the distinctive bell towers of an ancient church or two.
Saintes has much more to offer than a pretty face and some impressive historical sites. The town is also well-known as a centre for art and culture – a reputation they don’t take lightly. Galleries displaying locally produced art are scattered around the old town, there are multiple museums revealing secrets of the town’s diverse history, and the Gallia Théâtre is the local hub for performing arts.
Throughout the year, Saintes hosts music festivals, art strolls and other captivating cultural events. The month-long Christmas markets were an enchanting experience also.
In Saintes, it’s hard not to get drawn into the cosy looking boutiques selling everything from artisan tea, to handmade hats, to high-end fashion. Surprisingly devoid of the standard souvenir shops you’ll find in any town close to the tourist route, the old town centre’s stores are worthy of the most discerning shopping aficionados attention.
Being located just-far-enough from the nearest sizeable city (La Rochelle, Bordeaux), Saintes has to be fairly self-reliant. This means you have all the usual ‘mega’ stores (located conveniently away from the town centre in a purpose made commercial centre), as well as some of the more famous French homewares and fashion stores such as Maisons du Monde, Sud Express and Galleries Lafayette.
There’s also a daily (except Monday) farmers market – the perfect place to sample local delicacies and stock up on fresh produce.
While it’s easy to miss the variety of child-friendly activities we had on hand in Hamilton (it’s understandable that a town of roughly 30,000 inhabitants doesn’t match up), Saintes hosts some awesome family events and has an abundance of large natural spaces – and aren’t they the best playgrounds anyway!
We do love the large centrally located park, which has separate play areas for the different age groups. It’s a favourite with local families and is always bustling with activity.
Nature and Parks
As much as I love the city, I need to be near nature. Even a town as petite as Saintes can get stifling without green pastures to breathe in, and leafy trees to shelter you on a hot day. But this is where Saintes stands out once more. Where else in the world would you find a historic, yet bustling little town with 120ha of protected prairie right in the heart of the town? You can literally walk off the main street and be knee-deep in uninterrupted wilderness within 10 minutes.
The public gardens are also a beautifully maintained gem in the town centre. We love strolling through the park-like setting at any time of the year. Stopping to feed the ducks, or give a friendly goat a scratch behind the ears.
My most recent discovery about Saintes – and one that enforced my endearment – there has been no use of pesticides in public spaces since 2008. Instead, the council preserves biodiversity and decreases water consumption by selecting and planting low-maintenance, strong plants that need little in the way of human intervention.
As a family who vehemently opposes pesticides – this was music to our ears!
So for now, Saintes is our perfect French town. We’re not sure how long we’ll stay as we’re a semi-nomadic family who likes to take new opportunities as they arise! But wherever we may roam, we’re sure Saintes will always have a special place in our lives.