Not far from buoyant Olargues (one of Languedoc’s most beautiful villages, blessed with a medieval ‘devil’s bridge’) there is a hamlet called Ardouane. A narrow and almost vertical road leads up to the tiny church. It looks shabby and one doesn’t have to be an expert to see that it badly needs some love and some money to restore it. My guess is that the few inhabitants left in Ardouane will not be able to take care of this themselves.
Opposite the church there is a massive building, locked away behind a fence with an official warning to ‘keep out’. Compared to the deplorable state of advancing ruin this huge building finds itself in, the fading little church no longer seems to have the moral right to complain of neglect. After the roof of one of the building’s side wings has recently collapsed, the rain and wind can enter freely to speed up decay. The sign on the fence only tells us that this is the ancien collège of Ardouane. Entering the wrecked building is easy, since everything that could stop us is open or missing: the fence, the front door, the windows.
The many rooms of the collège are full of discarded stuff; the villagers obviously have decided to assemble all of their products that have lost their use in this sad and broken building, being the largest local symbol of the useless. This present state of futility is a sharp contrast to the elevated position and noble function the collège once had. Many children and young adults from all over the south of France – boys and girls – received their education here and in the process were saturated with the values of traditional Catholicism.
The useless has a strange aesthetic attraction. In decaying buildings and constructions of any kind (mansions, villas, castles, convents, towers, and bridges) resides a mystic beauty that is unique to their category. All over Europe photographers – more than any other species – are in love with the tragedy of crumbling stones and cracking arches. Their pictures show us how the trees that once were the building’s trusted green companions have now gone wild, their intruding branches pushing through a wall, their roots bursting the floor.
The situation of the ancien collège of Ardouane is not yet as dramatic as this. And we would be wrong in thinking that nobody cares. What to do with it has been much debated in the adjoining communities of Riols and St.-Pons de Thomières. The main reason for this seems to be that so many people in the region do not only remember the building in its former glory, but the institution as well. This used to be the ‘Ancien collège Saint-Benoît’, also called the ‘École libre’. In 2007 a plan was launched to restore the building and turn it into a complexe touristique: a hotel, a spa or an equestrian centre.
But a serious investor could not be found, which should not surprise us. This is a relatively poor region. Besides, the tourists would surely be disappointed that the Mediterranean is a one hour drive away. Even to get from here to the fashionable winegrowing area of St. Chinian will take you half an hour. The attraction of nearby picturesque Olargues seems, by itself, not enough to fill a large hotel for most of the year. Still, the council of Riols (of which Ardouane is a part) at the time believed the building could be sold for a very decent price.
Ten years later all hope seems to have gone. The building has much deteriorated and as a result the costs of a possible restoration have risen. The pessimist’s view is that even tearing it down would, because of its substantial size, be too expensive. Just leaving it there as it is and “let it in the hands of time to complete its job” (as a local website somewhat poetically suggests) seems the only way to go. Unless some kind of miracle will occur, the inevitable will happen: miles of cobweb will be woven in every corner of the old building, the mosses and the fungi will thrive, while stone and chalk will crumble to dust and wooden beams will, in the end, crack like match sticks.
In the old days a train connected Ardouane and the collège to the rest of the valley, but the track has been transformed into a route verte for hikers and bikers. That is a fine example of a useful transformation. But, of course, it cannot make the glorious past return to Ardouane. Nevertheless, as long as the remains of the collège are still standing, there will be a visual incentive to remember and to retell its history. Long ago, in 1823 to be precise, Monseigneur Fournier (the bishop of Montpellier) acquired a monastery in St.-Pons de Thomières in order to establish a seminary there. This seminary was later, in 1907, moved to Ardouane, to the abbey the Benedictines had founded here in 1860. That is how Ardouane came to its Catholic collège, devoted to “the holy heart of Mary”.
The abbey-collège had its own vineyards and cherry orchards and, enclosed in the middle of the square building, there used to be a wonderful monastery garden. Nothing of these wonders – engraved in the memories of thousands of pupils who had their education here – has survived. Even the many dairy farms for which the region was known, producing their own brand of cheese, have disappeared. Decline has been rather merciless in the case of Ardouane.
Rumour has it that, if anyone were interested, he or she could now buy the whole building for the symbolic price of one euro. But unless a useful and viable idea is formed on the building’s future destination, this bargain will not bring along the desired miracle. Even a basic restoration will need substantial funding of a million or more. After a short revival around 2011, the plans to restore and rebuild seem to have come to a complete standstill. The ancien collège is now in a time zone of its own, or rather in a zone of timelessness since it has no function left to connect it to time’s processes.
Ne me quitte pas, Jacques Brel sang. These could very well be the words of the ancien collège, moribund but, in a way, still speaking to us. Ne me quitte pas. Here is, from that great chanson, Brel’s ray of hope for the rekindling of a lost love: Don’t leave me now/We’ve so often seen/the rebirth of fire/in the ancient volcano/everyone believed to be too old/And is it not true/that the earth when scorched/will give more wheat/than April at its best?
As always, the original is to be preferred:
Ne me quitte pas/On a vu souvent/rejaillir le feu/de l’ancien volcan/qu’on croyait trop vieux/Il est, paraît-il/des terres brûlées/donnant plus de blé/qu’un meilleur avril.