Najac in Aveyron is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages. The village certainly merits that label, with its ruined fortress, a landmark for miles around, picturesque buildings and striking location strung out along a ridge. We have been countless times with visitors, but rarely have I had a chance to wander around on my own. Yesterday, I was on a mission. Two, to be precise.
New lease of life
Mission no. 1 was to visit la Maison du Gouverneur. This impressive building in the heart of Najac started life in the 13th century and was remodelled in the 15th and 18th centuries. It was originally the residence of rich merchant families. Wouldn’t you just love a balcony like this one, accessed from the first floor?
When we first arrived in 1997, the place had fallen into ruins. As we shepherded visitors up to the fortress, we gave it barely a glance when we passed by. This is what it looked like then.
After 20 years of extensive restoration, the building opened to the public in 2019. It’s now a centre for the interpretation of the architecture and heritage of the bastides of the Rouergue area. And fascinating it is, too, for a history nut like me.
Bourgeois town living in medieval times
The building is on four floors. Each floor comprises multilingual explanations of its purpose and pictures of the restoration work.
The basement was originally a cave, or storage area. It now houses temporary exhibitions. The current one is about medieval food and cuisine. More of that below.
The ground floor was the place where business was transacted, opening directly onto the street.
The reception of VIPs took place on the first floor, accessed by a spiral staircase. Here, the kitchen was situated, and meals were served in the reception room next door.
The original huge fireplace, over which they did the cooking, has almost disappeared, but you can see where it was. They washed up in the souillarde (scullery). Curiously for our times, the same room had a latrine.
The top floor accommodated the bedrooms. On that floor, the permanent exhibition includes an interactive description in French, English or Spanish of the origins and design of the other Rouergue bastides (Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Villeneuve-d’Aveyron, La Bastide-l’Evêque, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue and Rieupeyroux).
These marks on the 13th-century (and oldest) wall on the top floor are not medieval graffiti. They are marques de tâcheron, which were the stone cutter’s signature. Since he was paid by the piece, le tailleur de pierre had to engrave all his stones with his distinctive geometric sign. No sign, no pay.
Back to the basement, the exhibition told me a lot about the food they ate in medieval times and how they prepared and served it. Not surprisingly, there was a big difference between what the seigneurs and bourgeois ate and the daily diet of the paysans. Here are a few snippets I gleaned:
- Dresser la table (to lay the table): stems from the fact that there were few separate dining rooms, so the table was temporary, a series of boards laid (dressés) on trestles.
- Banquets get their name from the benches (bancs) that guests occupied only on one side of the table to facilitate serving from the other side.
- The order of courses was precisely regulated during a banquet. It usually began with sweet wine and seasonal fruits (cherries, plums, grapes).
- Medieval folk used honey as a sweetener but preferred spicy and sour food. They used spices because they liked the taste, not to mask the flavour of rotten meat.
- Only the paysans ate vegetables, and then they chopped them up and boiled them to destruction.
- The base for sauces was usually verjus (grape juice), and they rarely used cream or flour in them. Bread or almonds were thickeners for sauces.
If you visit Najac, it’s worth sparing an hour or so to take in la Maison du Gouverneur, at the reasonable ticket price of €4.
Books and cakes
Mission no. 2 was to check out a second-hand bookshop and tea room, which opened recently under the arcades in the upper part of town (the opposite side to the fortress). An English lady, who also speaks French, runs Café Christophe et Autres Contes and told me she plans to open all year round. This is good news in a place that normally shuts down out of season.
She has a Facebook page, which is actually in French, but it’s easy enough to get the drift from the photos if your French is shaky. The books are in French and English, fiction and non-fiction.
Here are a few other things I saw during my Najac promenade:
A museum I hadn’t seen before but didn’t have time to explore.
Former post office, established in 1840.
Somebody in this house likes owls. So do I.
One of the figures on the 14th-century fountain, supposedly one of the town’s consuls.
And finally, you can’t get away from the fortress’s towering presence.
In other news – beyond black
If you’re a devotee of contemporary art, you might have seen that the abstract artist Pierre Soulages died this week at the ripe old age of 102.
Soulages was born in Rodez, Aveyron, and derived inspiration from his native region. He designed the windows in the Abbey Church in Conques, about which opinions are divided. His speciality became the use of black. Soulages experimented with different textures and applications of black paint and their interaction with light. He called his black ‘outrenoir’ (beyond black).
A controversial figure in the art world, Soulages’ works sold for large sums. He and his wife donated several hundred of his works and documents to the Musée Soulages, which opened in Rodez in 2014.
We still haven’t visited the Musée Soulages, but we hope to before long.
Just to warn you, I shall be back on Monday, since I can’t let Hallowe’en go by without a post about a fearsome creature from French myth. À bientôt.
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Fascinating as always, thank you. We have only visited Najac once and that was out of season years ago, before we lived here full-time. It sounds much more interesting now.
Re the latrine, we were told by someone from the local museum that our house was probably begun in the 15th century and the impressive fireplace on the first floor is 16th century. That this was the main reception area is supported by the fact we have a door above the present front door that was presumably reached by a wooden or stone staircase, (no vestige of it now) a traditional Quercy design in these parts. At that time it must have been one huge open space as all the walls upstairs are more recent brick and the former owners told me they were ‘tochis’ (wattle and daub) previously. At the back right-hand corner of this first floor we have a latrine, now hidden away behind the staircase to the loft! So I was fascinated to read that the Maison de Gouverneur is similar in having a latrine directly off the main salle as ours may have been. Oh, if only walls could talk!
How interesting that you have been able to identify these features in your house. If walls could talk, indeed. I would love to see how our house really looked inside 200 year ago, but it’s been altered too much since then. What’s even more surprising from our 21st century viewpoint is that the latrine in la Maison du Gouverneur was located in the kitchen. Obviously, their ideas about hygiene differed somewhat from ours. At least it was next to the évier – assuming they washed their hands afterwards…!
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So enjoyed reading the Najac post , we are now back in UK for a few months but will
Return as soon as ‘Brexit’ allows First trip will be a return to Najac and perhaps offer some of our no longer needed books to the bookshop for others to enjoy
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I’m pleased you enjoyed the post, Joan. I’m sure you’ll be counting the days until you can return! Brexit has caused so many problems one way or another. I think the bookshop is interested in new stock, probably provided that the books are in reasonable condition. I can see I shall have to make sure I have only a few euros on me when I go in!
Hi Vanessa. What a lovely blog to read on a Sunday morning with a cup of tea. Fascinating insights into banquets and foody history.
I can well imagine it must have been nice to wander just by yourself at your own pace and with no-one else to consider. We all need to do that sometimes, especially if there’s a bookstore/teashop thrown in as well.
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Thanks for the kind words, Mary-Jane. I learned a lot about medieval food, and it exploded some myths for me as well. It was lovely simply to wander around without having to worry that it’s boring for other people. I always prefer these places out of season. I was the only customer in the Maison du Gouverneur, until two families arrived just before I left. Bon dimanche!