Najac, perched on a cliff top.
The château royal in Najac was part of a network of châteaux royaux located in the Aveyron valley (Midi-Pyrénées). The village of Najac is perched on an exceptionally long rocky ridge and surrounded by forests. At one end is the imposing château, the river Aveyron meanders gently below. Along the lone street are picturesque old houses and a fountain which dates back to the 14th Century.
Najac château is very well preserved and its circular dungeon was defended by archers at a height of almost 7 metres, the tallest in France! A place of narrow walkways and secret passages, fabulous views over the village and surrounding area, this extraordinary monument makes for a wonderful visit with its echoes of times gone by…
Najac has been inhabited since pre-historic times, it is known that the Gauls mined copper and that the Romans farmed here. The village of Najac spills along a narrow ridge that ends at a rocky point with a commanding view over the Aveyron River far below. As a strategic defense site, it is unequalled. The Counts of Toulouse made it a showcase of their might and power – building a fortress that anchored the original village. As its population grew, the village overran the fortress walls and snaked along the ridge with each new section being gated and walled. All these walls and gates further secured the fortress by throwing up additional barriers and defences.
Construction of the fortress was begun in 1100 by Bertrand, Count of Toulouse. It was built strictly for defensive purposes, its inhabitants were garrisoned soldiers whose job it was to defend the lands of the Count. Najac was the first fortification along the Aveyron, joined later by fortresses in Laguepie, Saint-Antonin, Penne and Bruniquel. Initially a simple, square stone structure, over the next 200 years it was expanded, its walls built higher and a keep was added along with inside passageways. Narrow slits in the walls at dizzying heights gave archers an advantage over any invader. Rounded corner towers were constructed which better withstood blows from battering rams. Sheer walls rising high above the steep ravines of the Aveyron River discouraged attempts to climb the outside walls. The fortress was considered by all to be impregnable. Indeed, it was never captured by invading forces.
They say that Richard the Lionheart slept here. Yes they say that about a lot of places in France, but in Najac’s case – it’s unequivocally true.
But how did he come to be here at Najac? It is a story steeped in politics, war, broken promises and violent fights over succession of power. While the Counts of Toulouse laid claim to the Aveyron, so did the Dukes of Aquitaine. The most famous member of that Duchy is Eleanor of Aquitaine who married Henri II of England bringing with her dowry much of the lands of Aquitaine including the Aveyron. When Henri II laid claim to his marital property, the Counts of Toulouse refused to relinquish what they considered their property. Fighting ensued, lives were lost, and much money spent. Finally, an agreement of alliance was reached, and Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor and Henri II’s son and representative of the throne, travelled to Najac to sign the papers. Alas, this treaty didn’t end the disagreement. English troops took Moissac and Cahors and for the next 100 years, war between England and this part of France raged on and off.
The story of Najac is full of other interesting details of medieval life. The Knights Templar played a role here as did the Cathar heresy. Najac hosted pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostele as well as Crusaders.
If you visit the village, come prepared for walking! It’s quite a trek through the village to reach the fortress. The fortress itself is fascinating in its unrestored state; it encourages you to use your imagination to imagine what life must have been like for the soldiers here. If you are able, do climb the stairs to the top of the 40-meter-high Keep with its murder-hole – the view from the top is unrivaled. The stairway spirals clockwise in a way to make it difficult for invaders carrying swords to raise their arms and the narrow arrow slits were the highest in the world at one time.
Najac, another wonderful place to visit during your stay here at French Escapes.