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.
You might also like these related posts:
Copyright © Life on La Lune 2022. All rights reserved.