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Najac Chateau in one of the most beautiful villages in France

Najac Chateau

The château royal in Najac was part of a network of châteaux royaux located in the Aveyron valley (Midi-Pyrénées). Najac is one of ten of the “most beautiful villages in France” in the Aveyron and stretches out along a single street. Along the street are picturesque old houses and a fountain which incredibly dates back to the 14th Century. The village of Najac is perched on an exceptionally long rocky ridge and surrounded by forests. At one end is the imposing château fort, below the river Aveyron meanders gently through the countryside.

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 area, this extraordinary monument makes for a wonderful visit with its echoes of times gone by…

They say that Richard the Lionheart slept here. Of course, they say that about a lot of places in France, but in Najac’s case – it’s unequivocally true.

najac chateauLocated deep in the Aveyron, northeast of Toulouse on the extreme edge of the Massif Central, Najac and its environs has been inhabited since pre-historic times. Little evidence remains of those ancient peoples, but it is known that the Gauls mined copper here and that the Romans not only explored the area, but farmed here as well. 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 to invasion.

Construction of the fortress was begun in 1100 by Bertrand, Count of Toulouse. It was built strictly for defensive purposes. It is not a fortified castle; no rulers lived there. 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 escalade. The fortress was considered by all to be impregnable. Indeed, it was never captured by invading forces.

najac chateauBut how did Richard the Lionheart, King of England come to be here? 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.

Najac, however, continued to flourish and grow. At the zenith of its Golden Age in  the 12th and 13th centuries, over 6,000 people lived in the village which had governmental control over 60 other smaller villages and hamlets. Its future looked bright until the mid-14th century when France was swept by waves of the plague – the Black Death. That coupled with the on-going Hundred Years’ War eventually brought about the decline of the village. It had brief moments of glory in later years, but never again held the power it had under the Counts of Toulouse.

najac chateauThe 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. Political intrigue and power struggles permeate its history throughout the centuries.

If you visit the village, come prepared for walking! It’s quite a jaunt through the village to reach the fortress. The fortress itself is fascinating in its unrestored state; it encourages you to use your imagination to envision 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.

There is a nominal entry fee to enter Najac Chateau and the kiosk where you buy your ticket is well-stocked with guide books in English to help you learn more about Najac. It’s a beautiful village and the Chateau is well worth a visit.

By Evelyn Jackson

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