Text read by Mary Peters

We start our leg of this tour in Saintes, a very old town. It dates back to Roman times. I suggest you first visit the Gallo Roman amphitheatre built around 40-50 BC. It was a big amphitheatre with a capacity of 15000 spectators. Let the spirit of the theatre embrace you by sitting on a step. Then, walk to the “Porte des Morts” (Gate of Death) and feel the glorious victory of a gladiator as you emerge from the “Porte des Vivants” (Gate of Living).

Just outside of town are the remains of a Gallo Roman aqueduct. It supplied the necessary water to the town and to the thermal springs there. 160m long, 27 arches, the highest point is 16m.

The “Thermes de Saint-Saloine” was built in the 1st century AD in two steps. The remains show us the warm basin (caldarium) surrounded by a wall. In the town centre, itself is the Arc de Germanicus. This is a monumental gate that was erected in 18-19 AD. It was the start of the “Via Agrippa” and served the entrance to the town. It was rescued by Prosper Mérimée in the 19th century. He was one of the pioneers of the novella or short story and dedicated the Arch to Tiberius and Germanicus, important witnesses to the town in the 1st century.

Weaving our way through history, there are also many castles (Château de Crazannes; Château de Panloy, Château de la Roche Courbon) to explore and you can also stroll along the Charente River.

Just a hop, skip and a jump away is of course the famous town of Cognac. Visit and take part in a “degustation”, a Cognac tasting.

Northwest of Saintes, on the coast, is La Rochelle. The city has the feel of an open-air museum.

Free from feudal tutelage, the town greatly benefited from its newfound liberty, as it began to develop maritime commerce thanks to the wine and salt trade. We remember that the vineyards in Charantais were the biggest in France. With this independence secured by trade, it welcomed the new ideas with the Reformation and became a Protestant bastion. Threatened by the political unification of the King of France, La Rochelle was destroyed in the great siege of 1627/28.

It was the ocean that gave La Rochelle a second breath with the commercial trade to New France (Canada) and the Antilles. It was the age of shipowners. With the effects of the French Revolution and the following empirical wars, the town fell into a slumber until the creation of the “Port de Commerce de La Pallice”, which is now the 6th largest French harbour.

In the 1950s the town’s population grew rapidly, new districts were created and the town was modernised. During the 1970s the town turned “green”, leading the way in ecological and environmental projects.

Synonymous with La Rochelle is the frigate, the Hermione

The original frigate was constructed in 1779. Under the orders of La Touche-Tréville, the ship’s maiden voyage was on March 10, 1780, to take part in the decisive victory in the American War of Independence. It became a symbol of the “Frigate of Freedom” and the Franco-American friendship. It sank in the Loire estuary in 1793, but the original anchor and three original cannons can still be admired in the “Ducs de Bretagne” castle in Nantes.

In the 1980s, a group of friends decided to breathe new life into the armoury of Rochefort, one of the most beautiful armouries dating from Louis XIV. A curious project crept into their minds: to rebuild the Hermione. It was an ambitious undertaking.  

Although some 550 vessels were built over a period of two and half centuries at the Rochefort Armoury, the group had to research the plans in the port archives. It is an irony of history that they found the plans of Hermione’s sister ship “Concorde” in Greenwich, England. The replica was constructed using the plans of the Concorde.

The Hermione – La Fayette Association was established in 1992 under the leadership of the Mayor of Rochefort (Jean-Louis Frot) and the author and academic, Erik Orsenna. Benedict Donnelly was the association’s Chairman.  There were 5000 members who followed the adventure of the Hermione.

In the spring of 1997, the main keel was laid. To construct the replica, 2000 oak trees from French forests, 1000 pulleys, 400,000 pieces of wood and metal, 25 km of rope for the rigging and 2131 m² of sailcloth were necessary. Having a width of 11m and a length of 44.20m, it was equipped with three masts. The vessel has three decks for navigating, artillery, and crew quarters.

On April 18th 2015, Hermione was brought from Rochefort to the Île d’Aix on the Loire Estuary, accompanied by thousands of spectators.

Like the original vessel, the Hermione sailed from Rochefort to North America. After sailing for 27 days across the Atlantic, its first port of call was Bermuda and then it sailed north along the East Coast of the United States and Canada, stopping 12 times en route. 

Its highly symbolic journey reinforced the Franco-American friendship. The crew wore original uniforms upon arrival in the US.

Further voyages to the Mediterranean and Brittany were made in 2018 and 2019.  Now, I must stop again. There is some Cognac waiting for me. A bientôt!

Read about the Hermoine’s arrival in New York City in the New York Times. Click Here

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