This morning, we went walking around Najac, in Aveyron, with our walking group. Najac is “l’un des plus beaux villages de France” (one of the most beautiful villages in France), a designation it shares with 154 other picturesque towns and villages. In fact, the Aveyron has the highest concentration of plus beaux villages in the whole of France, with no less than 10.
See also my post about Belcastel in Aveyron.
The difference between summer and winter in such places is very marked. In winter, not more than about 100 people live in Najac. In summer, second homeowners and holidaymakers considerably swell their numbers. In the high season, the place is heaving, you can’t get anywhere to park and the restaurants are full. In winter, only a handful of essential services are open and most of the village houses are empty and shuttered up.
I took most of the photos in this post last summer. The improbably blue sky is real. Today it was grey and the countryside around was winter-bleak.
Najac is not unlike Shaftesbury in Dorset, being virtually a single street built down a hill. From the main square at one end of the town, the street descends steeply before going up on the other side to the ruined château. The fortress itself is a landmark, perched on top of its rocky mount and visible from the surrounding hills. With the panoramic view, you could see the enemy coming from all directions.
In striking contrast to its sleepy aspect today, Najac was once a thriving, strategic town with 3,000 inhabitants in its heyday. It played an important part in the turbulent history of this region during the Middle Ages. The town developed around the château during the 11th century. The Counts of Toulouse then rebuilt the château during the 13th century as a defensive fortress when they chose Najac as the capital of the Bas Rouergue.
The Black Death cut great swathes through the population in 1348 and the English then occupied the château during the Hundred Years War. From then on, it was used only as a prison until the Revolution, when it was pillaged for stone. Enough of it remains, however, to get a sense of how imposing it must have been.
Although the railway was constructed during the 19th century, Najac’s economic prosperity was dealt severe blows by the phylloxera outbreak, which destroyed the wine-making industry, by World War I and by the rural exodus that took place throughout the 20th century.
In addition to the château, there are a number of interesting buildings to see, including the Governor’s House, the Seneschal’s House and the Church of Saint-Jean l’Evangéliste. The town is full of picturesque half-timbered houses with split stone roofs.
Letting the train take the strain
Najac has its own little station at the bottom of the hill by the River Aveyron, infrequently served by two-carriage trains. The line comes up from Toulouse and continues through Villefranche-de-Rouergue to Figeac and Brive. It’s a scenic route, running partly alongside the river, partly in a series of tunnels through the hilly surroundings. The line even had to go underneath the hill on which the town itself stands.
There is also a laid-back station master (there was, anyway – not sure if he is still there) whom we met once at a party. A few years ago, I dropped the Statistics Freak and my brother at the station so that they could take the little train up to Villefranche. They approached the station master but he told them that he was unable to sell them a ticket. His role was to wave a flag and blow a whistle when it was time for the train to depart. Tickets had to be bought from a machine on the platform, which provided no change. Since they didn’t have the right money, and no one checked the tickets on the train, they got a free ride to Villefranche.
The bars and crèperies are OK, but tend to cater mainly for tourists. However, Najac has several other good places to eat.
- A very nice Italian restaurant, Il Cappello; no views, but good and reasonably priced food.
- There is also a more upmarket hotel-restaurant in the town, L’Oustal del Barry, where they do local specialities with an haute cuisine twist. The service in summer can be a bit wayward, though. The hotel is the building in the corner in the photo below.
- Down by the river, just before the station, is L’Hôtel Belle Rive. It has a pleasant terrace overlooking the river and a spectacular view up to the château, which is lit up at night. They serve good food at reasonable prices and their moelleux au chocolat is to die for.
Najac is well worth a visit, but it’s best out of season.
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