Najac Revisited – and a Couple of Conundrums for You

Dominating château of Najac – smaller Seneschal’s house on the left

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.

Place du Barry

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.

Fontaine des Consuls

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.

Detail from fountain

 

La Porte de la Pique

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, with huge buttresses since it stands on a hill. 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.

Eglise Saint-Jean – steps are 19th-century

The Christ figure above the door of the present church came from the older church.

10th-11th century Christ

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.

Strange protuberance

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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18 Responses to Najac Revisited – and a Couple of Conundrums for You

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  7. Sue Whatmough says:

    Hi Nessa, Yes Najac is beautiful and thank you for such an illuminating post. I haven’t read other people’s comments, but I would say the jutting out bit is a loo! Not much fun for the passers-by below.

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  8. Evelyn says:

    My guess is a loo, too! I know in many medieval buildings they built ‘attachments’ that overhung a stream to wash away the waste. You must go back and see the inside of the church. Its round glass windows (which you can see in long vertical rows on the outside) are quite beautiful and different from other stained glass windows that I’ve seen in churches.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for your guess! I will reveal all at the end of next week. We were sorry not to have the opportunity to go into the church but will save that for another time.

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  9. Paul Diamond says:

    Interesting reading about the ancient taxation on ground floor of house, as a similar thing still exits on our island in the Caribbean. You will often see new, one story houses with flat roofs, with re-bar and plastic conduit sticking out of it. It looks very ugly. However, the local law says that you dont pay (full) property tax on your home until it is ‘finished’. So people deliberately dont finish their homes, just make it appear that a 2nd story is in the works, without the intention of actually building it. Using tax loop-holes, somethings never change.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Interesting that it still exists chez vous. Throughout history, taxing buildings has been a major means of raising revenue, whether it’s floor space, hearths, windows, whatever. Actually, a lot of people around here don’t finish off their newly-built houses but I’m not aware of a similar dispensation in France; you are exempt from property tax for a couple of years, though, I think.

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  10. I decided to cheat (as the loo answer had already been taken) and typed 30 september and Najac into google. Having discarded the meeting room for the lotto, the site for the marché traditionnel, and the stable for the equestrian ‘sortie’ by virtue of size, my guess it is something to do with chestnuts – either cooking or storing – so my guess is a chestnut store!

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  11. Najac is certainly beautiful. But what that protuberance is … nope, no idea. It seems to be completely sealed so my thought that it was for birds perhaps is clearly wrong. I guess it must shelter something accessed from inside – a hidey hole? No, too obvious from outside. I give up for now … but I may return!

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  12. A loo?
    I’ve only been to Najac once with my mother and she insisted on going to a cafe and having lunch immediately, then said she was tired and wanted to go home, so we never got to explore.

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