Last Saturday and Sunday were journées du patrimoine (heritage days) not only here in France but also across Europe. Thousands of historic sites throughout France opened their doors, many of them free, and put on associated events and entertainment. We decided to visit a couple of places we already knew since experience tells us that we don’t really know them at all. The first was Najac in the Aveyron Département.
I’ve written about Najac before so I won’t repeat it all. We joined a guided tour of Najac organised by the Office de Tourisme. We saw many things but I will just share a few extra snippets and photos. The tour started in the Place du Barry, built from the 14th century and thus one of the newer parts of Najac. This part was a bastide (grid pattern around a central square) tacked onto the original village that grew up around the château at the other end of town. The present chateau replaced the original 11th-century fortress in the 13th century. Our tour was therefore a journey back in time.
Continuing down the hill, our guide Karine pointed out some of the few remaining colombage (half-timbered) houses in the lower part of the town. Here, they used mainly chestnut for the timbers. Chestnut forests surround Najac and they formerly used the wood for making tonneaux (wine barrels) as well. Vines also surrounded Najac until the late 19th century when the Phylloxera bug destroyed them. They were never replanted and we understand the wine was mainly piquette, i.e. low alcohol and not much to write home about.
Here’s the first conundrum: why did the upper floors of medieval houses jut out so far over the lower floors?
Answer: because householders were taxed on the ground floor surface area so they had an interest in maximising the upstairs space. However, this carried several disadvantages. They were a fire and health risk, made the streets dark and obstructed the progress of vehicles. Many of these houses were demolished later.
This fountain, la fontaine des Consuls, sits in a square in the midst of Najac. Hewn from a single block of granite in 1344 (how on earth did they get it there?) it was a symbol of the Consuls’ power and largesse towards the people of Najac. The Consuls were the six principal magistrates who ran the town. The 12-sided fountain includes portraits of the Consuls and other figures such as a bishop raising his hand in blessing and a cat.
In the 14th century, ramparts encircled the town with an estimated 17 fortified gates allowing access. Little remains of them today but one gate, la Porte de la Pique is still in reasonable repair. Our guide showed us the hole in the masonry above the gate where the townspeople could drop stones on the heads of besieging enemies. You can just see it tucked under the centre of the upper stone arch.
The enormous 13th-century church of Saint-Jean marked the end of our visit. It was built in Gothic Languedoc style by the Najacois as a penance for supporting the Cathars. We were unable to go in since Sunday mass was in progress: an excuse for another visit. Apparently, although the church has very few windows, the painted walls lighten the interior. At one time there were two churches in this quartier. The other one was 10th-11th century but was demolished.
The Christ figure above the door of the present church came from the older church.
Now for the second conundrum. What do you think the structure in the photo below is, protruding from a wall about 3 metres up? Answers below, please.
This time I will reserve the answer till 30th September for reasons that will become apparent.
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