Roman Saintes

Saintes is a town in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France. Before it was French, it was Roman. Under Augustus Caesar, the town was built at the end of the Via Agrippa and named Mediolanum Santonum, “the central town of the plain.” It served as the capital of Roman Aquitania until power shifted to Bordeaux sometime in the 2nd century. The wall that once surrounded this Roman city was destroyed during the French Revolution. The city has clung to its heritage and has a very different vibe from the other cities I visited in mid-and southern France.

A short walk from the Abbay aux Dames (a 10th century convent where I spent the night) takes you to the town square and the Arch of Germanicus. Erected in 18-19 AD and dedicated to Emperor Tiberius, it was the gate that marked the end of Via Agrippa, the Roman Way from Lyon. It was the original entrance to the city over a stone bridge that was destroyed in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century the arch was moved 28 meters behind its original location, reassembled and repaired.

The Germanicus Arch is especially dramatic at night when the floodlights turn it red.

The Germanicus Arch lit up at night
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

To the left of the arch is the tourist office, and the archaeology museum that I will detail in a separate post. A large, enclosed building next door looks like maybe a stable, but is actually an abandoned abattoir (slaughterhouse), built in the 19th century on the site of an earthenware factory that stood here 100 years earlier. The columns in front are remnants of monuments that were destroyed at the end of the 19th century, placed here to dress up the space.

An abandoned abattoir
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Tourist destinations in France have this wonderful system called the Green Line – literally a green line painted on the sidewalks, with a map that shows you where the line will take you. Today I am walking the Green Line to the Roman Amphitheater at the outskirts of town. The line takes me up a steep but picturesque hill, past several churches, and a bibliotheque - what the French call a library (libraries here are actually bookstores) where I stop to admire its windows edged in Art Nouveau stained glass.

I’m walking, and walking, the Green Line leads me through a parking lot edged in graffiti, and a Saturday market that is small but very fragrant, with vendors selling flowers, baked goods, fruits and seafood. And I’m walking and walking …

I pass the Saint Louis Church, built between 1600-10 as the administrative building for the Saint Louis Hospital and later became the governor’s residence. Across the street is a public park with a panoramic view of the city. There are wooden lounge chairs and a covered picnic area, gardens, and installation art pieces designed to look like telescopes but are just iron pipes, pointing to about a dozen landmarks across the city.

Iron pipes made to look like telescopes
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The Green Line continues until it abruptly stops in the middle of a short stone staircase. No worries – there’s only one way to go from here. I stroll a path, past a long stone wall, and see these stone cairns but can’t figure out what they are. Graves? Capped wells? Why are they fenced in? (I would find the answer at the Archaeology Museum the next day.)

Stone cairn
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

About an hour after leaving the abbey, I arrive at my destination. Mediolanum was one of the first towns to have an amphitheater - built during the reign of Claudius in 40 AD, it is one of the oldest in Gaul (Belgium-France). The amphitheater was built in a vale – a natural bowl – which allowed builders to set seating for up to 15,000 people into the natural landscape without having to build a surrounding wall. I encounter scaffolding at what must have been the entrance gate (pictured at top of article). Here is a section where restoration has been completed.

There were gladiator fights and animal hunts here. If you opt for the English audio guide, it will walk you down to the floor of the arena, where you get a better view of the seating, as well as glimpses of the two entrances – the Sanavivaria Gate (Gate of the Living) where victorious gladiators emerged, and the Libitinensis (Gate of the Dead) where dead gladiators and animals were carried out, to be buried in a nearby necropolis. There is also a fountain here, dedicated to Saint Eustelle, although I could not spot it.

Stone seating at the amphitheater
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

There are posters along the surrounding chain link fence showing its more modern uses. It was used as a stone quarry during the Middle Ages, and the first documented equestrian event was held here in 1560. It was declared a historic monument in 1840, with restoration work beginning in 1870. In more recent centuries it has been host to a variety of festivals and operas.

Poster showing some modern uses
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno


Hours: Tuesday to Saturday year round, generally 10 AM – 5 PM with a break for lunch, check website for specifics.

Admission: Adults – 4 Euros / under 18 – free

There are restrooms and a snack bar on site, and a small gift shop. Free activity booklets for kids 7-12 years old, and entertainment programs throughout the year.

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.