Abbaye aux Dames de Saintes/

The musical city

Abbaye aux Dames de Saintes

Marion Bertin

The Abbaye aux Dames at Saintes (Charente-Maritime) has been a heritage site for culture (CCR) since 1996. Its music-based project is part of a national and international network.


The Abbaye aux Dames is a former Benedictine abbey situated at Saintes, and was founded in 1047 by the Count of Anjou, Geoffroy Martel and his wife Agnès de Bourgogne. It was placed under the protection of the king in 1378. Its influence was wide-reaching and over the course of time it became one of the most powerful female monastic communities in the region. At the height of its activity the abbey housed up to a hundred nuns, and undertook the instruction of young women often from the French nobility (for example the future marquess of Montespan). It began to suffer a decline from the 18th century – during the French Revolution it became a prison and later a military barracks. In 1924 the town bought back the church and began to restore it, returning it to worship in 1939. In 1972 the creation of the Festival de Musique Ancienne allowed the implementation of a comprehensive restoration project which lasted until 1988. The cultural centre was opened in the presence of president Mitterrand, and in 2006 the Académies musicales became the Festival de Saintes. In 2013 the Abbaye aux Dames became ‘La cité musicale’, its spiritual and temporal influence becoming economic, cultural and musical.


The abbey’s music-based project continues its harmonious and community-minded relationship with its audience and environment, and is centred on four main areas – the Festival de Saintes, the Jeune Orchestre de l’Abbaye aux Dames, a cultural education project and the historic site itself.

The ‘musical city’ is home to social housing, a magnificent Romanesque church and the convent buildings. It welcomes hundreds of musicians from around the world, from internationally renowned conductors to young musicians in training.

The centre is important to the economy of the area, in particular through the income generated by the Festival de Saintes, and helps to attracts tourists to the town (it also houses 33 hotel rooms). It also develops beneficial relationships with stakeholders in community and social issues. This original and ongoing involvement in the life of the local area makes the Abbaye aux Dames a hub of activity open to all.


The Abbaye aux Dames has over time explored different ways to explore the site, its history and music – for example MusicAventure, Carrousel Musical, Voyages Sonores, Siestes Sonores exhibitions and an audio guide.

- The Festival de Saintes gives musicians freedom of creativity and expression, with an original programme and a unique conviviality.

- The youth ensemble Jeune Orchestre de l’Abbaye aux Dames offers training for young musicians which is unique in Europe: ensemble work and classical/romantic performance on period instruments. A complete course bringing together instrumental practice, research and performance experience.

- The abbey also hosts artist residencies, performances, concerts, training and accommodation.


The Abbey de Saintes invites everyone to approach heritage, music and history in a new and original way, and to experience these at the abbey itself as well as in external settings such as churches, neighbouring villages and venues which rarely host cultural events, such as hospitals and prisons.

The Abbaye aux Dames encourages exchange, collaboration, training and a convivial spirit. All year round it welcomes artists, historians, residents, schoolchildren, craftspeople and collaborators who share a wide range of cultural experiences.