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A Day in Saint-Savin sur Gartempe and Its Surroundings

After living in Paris for 3 years, my love of France developed into a passion. My holiday home there allows me to explore the whole country.

Eastern end of the abbey church in Saint-Savin

Eastern end of the abbey church in Saint-Savin

About Saint-Savin

If I hadn't been such an avid postcard collector, I would never have noticed what is so special about Saint-Savin sur Gartempe. In fact, I have to confess I had already visited the town without spotting anything very special about it, other than its being a pleasant town with a lovely riverside walk. I passed on by. Then I came across the postcard that opened my eyes to the fact that the abbey church in Saint-Savin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We visited it again and spent more time. I fell in love with the Abbey and its surrounding area, and now I want to tell everyone about it.

Where Is Saint-Savin?

Saint-Savin is more or less in the centre of France. If you were already in the Loire Valley, you could be there in 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on where you were staying. As the Michelin guide would say, it's worth a detour and personally, I'd say it was worth a special trip.

The Abbey Church is right in the centre of town, you can't miss it.

'The Romanesque Sistine Chapel'

I'd heard about the church, in the centre of rural France, heard that it was listed as something special by UNESCO, so I set off for a visit dragging along a reluctant companion. It's true, it's quite a long way from anywhere, about 45 kilometres from Poitiers which is the nearest city.

We arrived and, yes, it's a very pleasant French town and a lovely church attached to an abbey in a pretty setting, but still wondering what the fuss is about, we went inside for a guided visit. Walking through the door our breath was taken away—and that includes my reluctant companion. It is completely unlike anything I've ever seen.

Inside the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin

The whole of the inside of the church is covered in paintings—frescoes created almost 1000 years ago by monks. The ceiling is covered in scenes from the Bible. The pillars throughout are painted to look like marble with beautifully carved capitals. The walls are painted to look like brickwork.

According to UNESCO's criteria, it has been included on the list of World Heritage Sites because it is an example of human creative genius and of a cultural tradition that has now disappeared. The paintings—the largest known collection—are in a remarkably good state of preservation, and restoration work is continuing in a very careful way. The church is often referred to as 'the Romanesque Sistine Chapel'.

Guidebook or Tour?

We opted for the guided tour. It may not be ideal for everyone because the information was at times very detailed and very academic. While we were there, it was also entirely in French. I found it interesting, but a lot of it went right above my head. You may prefer to wander around on your own, but don't forget a good guidebook.

Entrance to the church is completely free of charge but, as I am aware that the cost of upkeep must be enormous, I'm always very happy to buy guides and postcards. The shop is in the old monastery, right next door.

Noah's Ark painted on the ceiling of the nave at the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin

Noah's Ark painted on the ceiling of the nave at the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin

What Makes It Special?

Why has this church been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1983? The Abbey Church is known as the Romanesque Sistine Chapel because of the wonderful frescoes painted throughout the church. It is one of only 32 sites in France that are on UNESCO's list, so that is some measure of its exceptional worth.

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The nave is over 17 metres (56 feet) high. One thousand years ago, monks painted about 50 different Old Testament stories on the ceiling to illustrate them to the people, most of whom couldn't read or write. You could call it a picture-book library on the ceiling. Apart from the nave, you will see that the entrance porch, the chancel and the crypt are painted too. It is considered by UNESCO to be a masterpiece of creative genius and evidence of a world gone by.

There's More to Saint-Savin

Don't just visit the church and leave. Don't miss the town itself. It has plenty of interest too: charming buildings, a beautiful medieval bridge, a riverside walk, a wonderful restaurant. What more could you want?

The old abbot's residence, a building with an odd-looking turret, was built on medieval foundations but rebuilt in the 18th century. Then, in 1892, it was bought by Léon Edoux, who remodelled the interior extensively. He was responsible, too, for building the tower for the 'château' as it was called locally. The tower provided access for the supply of running water and also a hydraulic lift. He was the engineer who built the dual lifts in the Eiffel Tower which continued to function from 1889 until 1984.

If you walk down to the riverside, and you really should, turn left by the abbey and church, you will come to the bridges. Beyond the more modern 19th-century bridge, you will find the old bridge dating from the 13th century. The monks in the abbey charged tolls to cross this bridge and, in the 17th century, were ordered to repair it because Parliament told them that the proceeds of the toll were intended for that purpose. The bridge has been protected as a historic monument since 1896.

In the other direction, there is a lovely riverside walk, 'La Vigne aux Moines', which takes you along the valley of the Gartempe, also known as the Valley of Frescoes because of the large number of frescoed churches and other buildings in the area.


The most wonderful restaurant I mentioned earlier is the Restaurant Cadieu. It's not only my opinion; it has a Michelin star, or it did when I was last in town. It is undoubtedly that standard.

There is also Le Patisson, where you can have a good set midday meal for 11 euros, or in the evening four courses for about 19 euros; very good value.

A snack bar which serves pizzas, salads, burgers and more, is across the square from the church. It's a great spot on a sunny day, and the food was good on our last visit.

Don't Forget the Valley of the Frescoes

A side trip you might like to take could be to follow the itinerary that visits several small painted churches. You can get information about it from the Abbey website or direct from the Abbey itself.

Not only will you see some lovely small painted churches (be sure to check on whether or not they are open for viewing) but also beautiful French countryside, small towns and villages.

Both Chauvigny and Angles sur Anglin are relatively nearby (see the map at the top) and are worth visits in their own rights.

And Finally...

...I'll leave you with UNESCO's own video of the Abbey Church. It's well worth watching. It tells you all about how the frescoes were made, and it's in English.

© 2012 SheilaMilne

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