These days we are led to believe that big business rules, and individual philanthropy is dead. But there is a small town in the Haute Garonne region of the Midi-Pyrénées in South West France which seems to be bucking the trend. The town is booming thanks to its enduring attraction to individuals who yearn to give something back, to promote and preserve what the French call patrimoine –what makes up the history of a place from architecture to artefacts– along with the life and community of the area.
Set on a hill, amongst rolling hills with views to the Pyrénées, the magnetic attraction of this little town is not a recent phenomenon. Aurignac is one of the most historic towns in the region and people have been making their home here for nearly 300 centuries so there is clearly something to be said for the place. Visitors seem to discover it by accident when they are simply passing through and yet, once they are here, many decide to stay, often for good. Holidaymakers tend to return year after year, never tiring of everything that the region has to offer. All around there are the remains of the 13th Century town, including fortifications, the city gate, church and château and it is possible to climb to the top of the round castle keep for fabulous views of the Pyrénées. Aurignac is also a site of great archaeological interest and lends its name to a whole period of history. In 1852 a cave was discovered in the village with the remains of the people who lived here 30,000 years ago. The shaped flints and bones found in and around the cave gave the name to the Aurignacian period of Paleolithic culture, a period in human development where worked tools in bone, horn and flint were first used by our ancestors. Also found were the remains of species of bears, hyenas, mammoths, wooly rhinoceros and aurochs.
Fast forward to the middle ages which saw the building of a fortified château on a rocky outcrop. Comissioned by the Counts of the Comminges the castle formed the nucleus of the village from where it spilled in tiers down the hillside. Aurignac became the financial powerhouse of the region with the religious centre, the village of Alan, eight kilometers away, playing host in winter to the Bishops of St Bertrand de Comminges.
In living history during the 80s and 90s, however, the little town of Aurignac strugled to keep the sense of community and hold on to its neighbourhood life as more and more inhabitants travelled to Toulouse for work and the bakeries and small shops grappled with the competition from the larger out of town stores. This decline could have been terminal but instead, in the last few years, quite the opposite has happened and Aurignac has seen a form of organic regeneration almost entirely thanks to business partners Eric and Jan, a pair of Dutch investors with a philanthropic streak.
They visited the town in 2008 and fell in love with the stunning buildings of the 250 year old Hotel St Laurans situated in the very centre of the town. The hotel was built and owned by the same family and run for generations as a coaching inn until the beginning of the 21st century. It then went into decline and was barely surviving as the village bar while the buildings crumbled around it. Enter these two Dutch friends who saw not only the potential of this lovely old building, but also felt the vibes and community spirit of the town. They and saw that restoring the hotel and creating a modern heart for the town would be the way to bring people back and encourage the investment and creativity to make the town live and breathe again. So in September 2008 they bought the old hotel and began a journey of restoration and conversion which included buying the building next door, which had not been touched for decades, and turning the whole lot into a business that would serve both the local community and attract people from further afield.
It was an exhausting task requiring huge amounts of time, effort and investment but they successfully opened their doors as planned in May 2010 and immediately found that they had created just what the town and region needed; a comfortable and colourful environment to meet, eat, socialise, celebrate and stage local events and exhibitions. The character of the building was beautifully preserved in the renovation, including the timber and plaster walls and all the original features such as the elegant staircases and marble fireplaces. But alongside these are modern fittings of the highest quality, the features of the future and of course a state of the art commercial kitchen. The building is vast and now includes as well as the original bar and a world class restaurant with courtyard terrace, a conference room and five guest suites in the main building as well as four further guest suites in the adjoining building, office space and a fully fitted gym and changing rooms of the type and quality usually only found in cosmopolitan settings. In just three years, the business is making a profit which just goes to show that Eric and Jan spotted the potential correctly not only to benefit the local community but also creating a successful business thus proving that the two can be compatible and that philanthropy can go hand in hand with good business strategy.
Moreover, the benefit to Aurignac is ongoing; last year three new boutiques have opened as well as a new café and bookshop and there is now a gallery and a delicatessen in the planning. Success breeds success and feeds creativity. Meanwhile the region is investing in a museum of prehistory and the ancient but crumbling church has now been saved from gradual decline by a Texan benefactor who visited the town for a wedding and was drawn into the giving and sharing atmosphere of this little town and donated $200,000 to the repair fund.
So a whole new era appears to be underway again in this historic and lovely town while Eric and Jan have achieved their aim and are now looking to move onto another regeneration project. They are neither hoteliers nor restaurateurs and so now want to hand on the project to someone who will continue to develop and realize its full potential, and have placed the property on the market. At the time of writing of this article the property is available for purchase.
Nadia Jordan is a writer and professional buyer’s agent for the Haute Garonne, Ariège and Southern Gers area.