Green Spain

Northern Spain, or Green Spain, is not usually where the tourists go, and certainly not where most people choose to buy property. This could be a mistake, but I suppose it depends on what you want to find.
The sea, and indeed the weather, is not so hot as it is down on the Costa del Sol. There is more rain, and the countryside is more like green England.

There are the Picos de Europa, which are steep and rugged, and have snow on them during the winter, and of course the Pyrenees are not far away.
The bays and charming little coves are really sweet, and I would certainly recommend the area for a holiday expedition.
Cantabria is the name given to the strip of land between the Cantabrian Sea, otherwise known as the Bay of Biscay, and the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain.
Biscay is a corruption of the Spanish word Vizcaya, meaning a mountain or cliff, and probably relates to the way the Picos de Europa dominate the northern coast of Spain facing the bay.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Cantabria regained its independence from the rule of the Visigoths, and remained independent until the Arab invasion. In the year 714, a mixed Arab/Barber army invaded the upper valleys of the Ebro and succeeded in capturing Amaya, then the Cantabrian capital. However, they did not get beyond the mountains, and this strip of Spain was the one area the moors did not manage to settle.
When I last travelled along this northern coastline with Julie we stopped in the little town of Castro Urdiales, which is Roman in origin and was originally called Portus Amanus. In AD 74 a Roman colony was established under the name Flaviobriga, during the reign of Vespasian, probably to mine the abundant iron ore in the area.
The chief industries now are mining, fishing, and the preservation of fish in oil, especially sardines and anchovies.
Many people from Bilbao and other parts of the Basque Country and Cantabria as well as Northern Spain in general keep summer homes in the town.
By its name I assumed it was an old Roman town. The centre is certainly old, but not much of the very old is left. There is a charming small inner harbour filled with the usual bobbing boats, but one or two of the ancient houses in the suburbs are rather fine villas.
All along the north coast of Cantabria are the foothills of the Picos de Europa, covered in lush green, with small valleys funnelling into the sea; small inlets where the sea brushes in beside the hills, and, as it retreats, leaves a bank of sand overshadowed by woodland clinging to the steep sides of the hills.
Inlet after inlet cuts the coastline. Here and there are villages, usually set back from the coast behind a rise in the land for protection from the winter winds. Farmers are cutting small patches of grass. Behind are wife and children with rakes, collecting the new-mown grass into rows, and then into small domes.

Down on the beach another farmer is raking up the seaweed left by the retreating tide and bundling it into a cart. The tractor tows the cart up a perilous track, and the seaweed is dumped in what look like giant molehills on the fields as fertilizer. This is then spread slowly with a long-handled rake wielded by a farm-hand with a bent back.
Further along the coast is a large valley where the river runs from tiny stream to estuary over the space of half a mile. Set in behind the trees, and in amongst the folds in the rock, are secret houses.
The sun is shining, the beaches are empty, the leaves glisten with the drops from yesterday’s rain, the fields are green, there are cows with massive horns, farmers are tilling tiny plots, and up in the sky a few white clouds define the clear pale blue.
Further west are the high mountains of the Picos de Europa, with snow shining on them. The mountains are a jagged lot, and all around them are the lesser mounds of the Cantabrian mountain range, which seems to stretch almost from the Pyrenees to the edge of Asturias. To the north is the blue calm sea, and dozens of little bays. For every steep valley that cuts into the foothills, there is a small rushing stream tumbling down the rocks and fanning out onto a small flat lea before being claimed by the waves toppling onto a crescent sandy beach.

Murcia

Murcia

The latest craze in Spanish property is the development of Murcia. Traditionally, this region of Spain has had a very low profile. It is the one region of Spain that other Spaniards tend to forget exists. It is not part of a larger grouping. It isn’t part of Andalucia, or indeed any of the other more well known departments. It also has a feel about it that is different from any of the other regions.

It has a very small coastal zone which they call the Costa Calida, or the Warm Coast, and there is an arm of land curving round in a crescent and sheltering a stretch of sea that is more like a lagoon and is called the Mar Menor (the little sea). The region is not well known, but it is getting built up like the rest of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. However, the guts of Murcia are the inland areas.

Traditionally it has been a very fertile vegetable and fruit growing region, and the whole of the flat plain that stretches from the sea due west is laid to truck farming. You drop down from the mountains that act as the boundary between Murcia and Andalucia, and you can see almost all the way to the coast across this vast plain.

Up in the mountains there is snow often beyond easter. When we drove through the area a week or so before easter earlier this year there was a scattering of snow all along the main highway, with great swathes of it covering the flanks of the peaks to the south and east.

In that respect Murcia is a miniature Spain all to itself. One is reminded of that little phrase Quien dice España dice todo, which means, he who speaks of Spain, speaks of everything. From snowy peak to warm sea; from rock to rich black loam; from backwoods shacks to glass and concrete high tech skyscrapers.

Like most Spanish cities, the town of Murcia is very modern. The building has been growing apace over the decades, and the town is ten times the size it was when I first wandered through here in the dark sleepy sixties.

But things are stirring in other ways. Paramount Pictures has chosen the region of Murcia for the construction of a new theme park and entertainment complex in Spain.

The theme park will take four years to construct and will open in 2015. It is to be built on 108 acres of land in Alhama de Murcia just 20 minutes from the new international airport at Corvera which supposedly opens in 2012, and 20 minutes from the beaches of the Mediterranean and the Mar Menor.

The first area called “City Adventure” will include three major attractions. One of them will be based on the film Titanic and will feature a huge reproduction of the ocean liner. This area will also host one of three roller coasters to be built in the park based on “The Italian Job” and a virtual reality feature entitled “Mission Impossible”.

The second area, “Lost Valley”, will feature a water ride recreating a trip down the Congo river along with a recreation of the crypt from Tomb Raider and a rollercoaster based on the legend of Beowulf.

Especially designed for children is the “Woodland Fantasy” area. A more tranquil offering, dominated by a large tree and featuring magic workshops and interactive adventures including one based on the “Spiderwick Chronicles”.

Plaza Futura is the cutting edge technology area which will feature Star Trek and a spectacular recreation of “War of the Worlds”. Not for the faint hearted this area will feature a passage of terror based on the feature film “Paranormal Activity”.

The centerpiece of the park will be an avenue flanked by hotels, restaurants and a shopping centre with a pavilion focusing on the attractions of the region of Murcia and Spain.

Over one billion Euros is to be invested in the park which will employ in excess of 10,000 people during the course of construction. The park will also contain an auditorium with capacity for 15,000 people and the largest convention centre in the region of Murcia capable of accommodating over 3,000 people in its main hall.

Great things to come, and this will obviously pull in the crowds. However, to the north of the city there is an interesting culture. It’s quite fascinating to look down on the broad growing zones from the hilltops, or from a low flying aircraft. At easter the countryside looks like some college scarf unrolled across the ground. You have the different colours of the crops coming into flower. There are the different coloured blossoms of the fruit trees. There is a wide swathe of red, then a swathe of white, then pink, then cerise, as almond changes to plum, to greengage, and so on.

And then there are the wines. They used to be pretty average, and not well known. However, things have changed quite drastically since I first stopped at a bodega on main street Jumilla. Back then I filled my goatskin with the local red, and it was a pretty nondescript drink which suited me well, but certainly had no class or finesse to it.

Some of the old styles still persist here, and one of the reds is still made in the traditional style. It is most definitely an acquired taste. I find it has a kind of mouldy taste to it. Apparently the younger folk in the area dont like it that much either. It is drunk mainly by the older people, who give it a special term which is not usually used in wine parlance – rancid. They dont mean it is going rotten, but that it has a slightly “off” flavour. Most definitely an acquired taste.

Move to the more modern vintages and the quality of the wines is in my opinion very good indeed. There is a clean sweet white wine which I was drinking only the other day. Curiously it is made from red grapes. Unlike so many white sweet wines it is not sickly or mucky in the mouth, but has a clean tang to the sweetness. I have several bottles in my cellar at the moment, but unfortunately I dont have my tasting notes from the rest of the wines I tasted on my last visit to that big bodega on main street. What I can say is that if you are a wine buff then this dusty country town with a definite hick feel to it is a place you should mark in red on your travel map.

Then you should journey north through a veritable Mondrian of orchard colours, pretty in spring, and delicious in summer.

I am beginning to get a taste for Murcia after all these years. I shan’t be settling here, but I will jump at the chance to visit again. It’s also a cheap neck of the woods. The coast is cheap nowadays with the sea-view business firmly lodged in crisis mode, but the countryside has always been cheap.

I also noted that this region is embracing the crisis in useful ways. Town after town has restaurants boasting not just the menu del dia, and the tasting menu, but also a super cheap (7 euros a three course meal with drink) menu crisis. I haven’t tried one, but if the meals back out in the wilds of the valleys in the north of Cadiz are anything to go by you cant go wrong.

john

Cheap Spain

Cheap Spain

Mr Henderson’s Railway Part 5:

We drive along the valley to the village of Cortes de la Frontera. Why this place was ever on a frontier goodness knows. It is a small village. The railway line runs through it, and it is at the bottom of a valley and cant possibly have had any strategic importance, and there is certainly no castle.

We stop for a coffee. There is a small cafe by the railway line. A coffee is 75 cents. I rather fancy a tapa. There are several tapas in trays on the counter. One is a rather nice salad, with the usual scattering of tuna, plus some quail eggs. The barman scoops up some, and some more, adds more eggs, and hands me a substantial portion, and asks me for 80 cents. Wow! Maybe we should come to live here. This is seriously cheap.

If you want to live in a charming valley at a slow pace, yet less than an hour back from Marbella or Gibraltar, then this is the place to be. It’s beautiful, it’s sheltered, it’s quiet, but to get out again is another matter. I tried one road, and it went nowhere. I tried another. It ended in a cul de sac.

We drove back to the bar. “How the heck do I get out of here?” I shouted to my new friends sitting at one of the tables.

“You have to drive to the top of the mountain where you meet the main road,” they said. And so we drove until we met the main road from Ronda to Algeciras, turned right, and drove back to Gaucin.

Gaucin Station

I really like it in these valleys. Things are quiet, the scenery is magnificent. The food is dirt cheap, living is simple and calm. Yet three quarters of an hour away is Algeciras, and Gibraltar to the south, and Marbella to the East, and it’s only half an hour to Ronda in the north. And I bet you could buy a hideaway dirt cheap here.

And on the way home we passed a rather unusual stork home. Usually storks live singly in a nest on top of an electricity pole or the like. Occasionally you see a couple together in the same pole, but we passed what amounts to a block of flats; four of them on one pylon.

Stork Nests
john

Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Prehistoric Cave Paintings

I got lost and found myself in the wrong valley, miles from the river and the railway line, and so it was some months later that, on my next visit to this neck of the woods I came to Mr Henderson’s railway from the north. I was driving down from Osuna, and every time we hit a tiny village we had to wait, wheels on one pavement, while the oncoming traffic negotiated its way down the high street which is simply not wide enough for two.

Eventually we came into a wide valley where you can see across a large, well populated basin that lies directly to the north of Ronda. There’s a general strike on, so village after village is closed down. There are people lining the sides of the road, sitting, talking, doing nothing. I have never seen the villages so full. Oddly, not a single bar is open.

Luckily the service station on the Ronda bypass is open and we stop for refreshment. We are now almost at the point where Mr Henderson’s rail line meets the Madrid line, and we can work our way back down the line to Gaucin, where we left it last time.

We turn off the main road as it curves round to the bottom of the valley. Once again we are following the river and the railway line. We zoom along until we reach the Cueva del Gato.

There is an interesting restaurant overlooking the railway line. There is rabbit, deer, partridge, and all kinds of interesting dishes on the menu. Maybe next time I will stop here for a meal.

We cross the line and wind our way down the valley to the village of Benaojan. This is where things start to get interesting. Approximately four kilometres south of here the road passes a small parking area leading to a set of roughly made steps. These steps climb steeply up the mountainside to a small cabin and a set of wooden benches. Beyond the cabin is a metal door leading to a cave; the Cueva de la Pileta.

This cave was only discovered about a hundred years ago by a farmer who was trying to rescue one of his sheep that had slipped on a rock, and got stuck in a crevice. That crevice led down to a shaft that in turn led to a cave. With help from a neighbour the farmer widened the shaft and crawled in.

Inside the Cueva de la Pileta is a whole galaxy of interconnecting caves that were hollowed out millions of years ago by a river. Obviously the course of the river changed, and eventually the caves were discovered by primitive man and used as a home.

It is estimated that at one time about fourteen people lived together in the caves about 30,000 years ago. Habitation continued until about 3,000 B.C. There is evidence of fires set underneath gaps in the roof for the smoke to drift up and out of the cave. There are remains of primitive tools, bones, and even what appear to be evidence of some kind of religious rites. Most of these finds have been transferred to a museum in Malaga. What’s left are the paintings on the walls.

Cave Drawing of a Horse

La Cueva de Pileta drawings

There are marks which look as though they are some kind of calendar, where people have crossed off days. There are several paintings of horses, and a rather fine picture of a fish.

La Pileta de Cueva Fish
The caves wind around for several kilometres, and in places they double back so that there is a top cave, a floor about four metres thick, with another cave below.

Pileta Horse Painting

The caves are open throughout the year, but I would not advise anyone with a disability to try to get in. The steps up to the cave entrance are only for fit people, and there are many steps inside the caves.

There is nothing spectacular to see, but for those who like this sort of thing it is certainly worth the visit. It is indeed interesting to see what primitive man called his home and his castle.

It’s warm inside. I went in on a blustery cold day, and we were all quite comfortable inside without jackets. In summer it is probably cool. There are guided tours roughly every couple of hours during the morning, and then again late afternoon. (Remember siesta time.) The tour takes over an hour, and parties of up to 25 can take the tour. You trek through the caves carrying a battery powered lantern. There is no electricity here. It’s an adventure. After all it is a cave-man’s home. It doesn’t sport modern comforts.

The Railway Part 3

Mr Henderson’s Railway -3

The road winds gently along the bottom of the valley, roughly keeping alongside the river and the railway line, but we are coming into the mountains. In Spain there are so many mountain ranges. They leap up all around you. Ahead we have to navigate around the foothills, and try to follow the river and Mr Henderson. It’s proving difficult.

We drive through Los Angeles. Across the valley is Jimena, another white town, set on a hillside, facing south-east. The main street is quite steep, as in so many of these white towns of Cadiz. And again, like so many of these little towns, the high street is all. Turn off into a side street and the pot holes lurk to catch you unawares, the pavement disappears, and the view leads down a steep incline, across the valley bottom, and up to the rolling foothills of the sierra.

Jimena de la Frontera

Everywhere the fields are full of cattle. This is a rich agricultural region. Where the land is flat are fields of low rise cotton, the small white fluff blowing in the wind. A lorry roars along in front of us. There is no tarpaulin over its load, and parasols of cotton fly out from the back and scuttle across the road in front of us.

Cotton Field

We pass through the village of San Pablo. But just before the village is a rather fine restaurant, with an interesting menu. We sit under the awning, and while away a pleasant hour or two, swapping notes with the folks next door who are eating dishes that I have not come across before. Rabo de Toro (bull’s tail) I have eaten many times before, but not cooked in this strange black sauce. It looks rather good. Then there is something that looks like a soggy milk pudding, but is a kind of pesto, which I have eaten up in the mountains at Tragacete at the source of the River Tajo (or Tagus). However, once again, this version is totally different, as it has been puréed.

On my second trip through here we stop again. It is a weekday and instead of day-trippers up from the coast there are delivery men, and locals, plus the occasional tourist. We have four large tapas, a pudding, a coffee, an orange juice, and two glasses of rioja; the bill is eleven euros.

Gaucin Station
The road is really starting to twist and turn as we approach Gaucin. This is a long straggling village, and it is where we briefly hit the railway again. The station is well to the west of the main village. It is very picturesque. Everywhere is green. There are trees, small fields, brightly coloured flowering trees and bushes tumble over outbuildings, with long fronds of pink and red.

Spring flowers
As I wander among the rail tracks there is a blast from somewhere down the line, and a few moments later a long white train appears from out of the trees, and rattles past us, and disappears around another bend, further into the mountains towards Ronda.

We head up the wrong road, going the long way round to Cortes de la Frontera. The road almost immediately goes over a cattle grid into an ancient forest, which, according to the inscriptions on the tourist wall maps outside Gaucin station, is part of the last great rain forest of Europe. How far back this was all rain forest the text doesn’t say.

I quote: “there are many protected nature reserves… Los Alcomocales, the last Mediterranean rain forest; La Sierra de las Nieves, home of the Spanish fir….” (This fir seems to have a much longer leaf structure than the usual fir tree) “…and La Sierra de Grazalema, with a striking landscape caused by the exceptional rainfall; it receives more rain than any other region of the country.”

Well, that’s what it says, but somehow I find it hard to believe that this area receives more rainfall than the coastal regions of Galicia, and the mountainous area of Asturias.

The main tree is the cork oak, and there are great stacks of cork drying in a field. Then we are onto a twisting road that pushes its way through the trees with their orange-brown trunks, naked up to the first branches, which are themselves still clothed in the deeply rutted cork bark.

Cork drying
The trunks are stripped of the bark about every nine or ten years. In Portugal the trunks are numbered. Here no-one bothers. I have in fact wondered about the numbers in Portugal. Surely over the years they are covered by the new growth of bark, so that when the essential time for stripping it off again comes around they are not visible.

Cork Forest
Back down in the valley are the caves with prehistoric paintings, but we’ll reach them next week.

john

Cheap in Spain

Cheap in Spain

If you are finding it difficult to make ends meet, maybe you should consider moving to Spain. Everything is cheaper. There are deals in the shops, restaurants and bars, never mind the cheaper petrol.

House prices may still be on the slide, but the interesting thing is that living costs are dropping rather than rising like there are in the UK and other less fortunate places. Yes, it’s like the good old days when everything was cheap in Spain.

I have just spent some time filming which means I have had to travel from Seville to Gibraltar, and from Antequera to Valencia, so I have covered a lot of ground. Wherever I went prices were down.

I stayed in a four star hotel with bed and breakfast for £21 a night just 5 minutes walk from Gibraltar airport. Cheap? That’s pretty hard to beat. I bought top quality white wines south of Cordoba for less than a fiver. In all the towns the old menu del dia is alive and well costing somewhere between €8.50 and €9.50. However, a sign of the times is the new crisis menu, which goes for €7. Cant be bad. Heck, there is even one restaurant in Algeciras advertising a three course meal plus drink for €4.95.

Tapas have got larger, and in the more upmarket places the ads tell us they cost no more than €2. However, it’s pretty easy to get them in town for €1.50. But the amazing news is that if you get into the valleys around Ronda you can find them for 80 cents. I kid you not. I had a particularly fine tapa last week that consisted of a salad, with the usual smattering of tuna, together with no less than four quail eggs, and yes, it cost me 80 cents. The coffee was less than a euro as well. They couldn’t manage a glass of rioja, but up the road we managed to scoff four rather fine tapas, two glasses of rioja, a fruit juice, a coffee and a pudding, and the servings were so large we were full. Price: 11 euros. And that was a weekday price at a restaurant frequented by the rich from Marbella.

With things so cheap in Spain, I think I’m going to sell up, move into that four star hotel, and have tapas for evening meal, and I reckon I can live very comfortably on €1000 a month, with no washing up, no shopping, gardening, repairs, or rates/electric bills. What a wonderful life!
john

Algeciras

The Old Algeciras

Morning came in the usual way. We were lying on a grass verge behind a clump of trees somewhere between La Linea and Algeciras. Unfortunately, altho this did not constitute the edge of a main road it obviously was in the path of a lesser road which we hadn’t noticed. In daylight I could see that what we thought was a patch of waste land was in fact a track leading from one of the villages straight onto the main road.

Already the donkey carts were creaking along the track inches from our sleeping bags. A few yards away another stream of carts was making its way along the tarmac highway to the fields. The carts that creaked, the wooden wheels that groaned, and the rhythmic clatter of donkey hooves on tarmac was our usual early morning call. We paid no attention.

Then there was a terrific scream. It was a horrible ear splitting screech. All three of us sat up in alarm. I thought a car must have run down a donkey. We stared at the road but everything was calm, and then there was an ear-splitting rattle and a sort of bang, and out of the trees on the other side of us rushed this great iron contraption. It looked like one of those engines they were supposed to have in the American west in the eighteen eighties. The engine leapt pass us with another ear splitting shriek and vanished into a clump of bushes with its three coaches on there way to Algeciras.

“Stroll on! What a way to be woken up of a morning,” said Alan, staring hard at the clump of bushes where the train had vanished.

No-one was ready to get up yet as the sun had only just risen above the horizon, so we settled down for another half hour.

Unfortunately we weren’t going to get much more sleep. There was a rhythmic squeak coming from somewhere.

“Oi, who’s got a mouse in his sleeping bag?” yelled Alan.

Just then a wheel wobbled past my head, then some legs, then the other wheel. I sat up, and there weaving down the path was a Spaniard on his bike, obviously off to work.
Alan gave up and rose from his sleeping bag and started arranging his pack of gear while singing a rude song. Michael asked for the last few lines to be sung again and burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter.

As we drove towards Algeciras we passed bulldozers flattening the hills and bulldozing out new roadways. Street lighting was being put in along empty half made-up roads that stretched away into the hills.

“La Nacion, La Nacion.”

“Dos cinquenta Señor.”

Thick little newspapers like magazines for sale, padded round the front of a small dark man.

“Por dios, Por dios señor.”

A little white-haired crone sitting in the sunny corner of the pavement cafe. The gentle pull on the sleeve, smooth stroking of shirt sleeves, and a rich brown loving face pleading with the depth of dark brown eyes. “Una peseta señor, una peseta.” Followed by the brush off, full of shame. “Oh señor,”  And you try to avoid the face full of deep expression and those heart-stabbing eyes.

“La nueva lotteria.” Not another one. Or is it the same one as last time. Every day it seems to be a new lottery. There are little collapsible stalls along the pavements with blind sellers huddling in their seats behind big sun-shades. “Dos, dos-cinquenta, tres…”
There was a sudden loud belch as a steamer boomed its rude call across the water littered with small craft. Lonely policemen strolled aimlessly about the traffic-empty streets, now and then directing heedless pedestrians swarming up the hill and spilling into the side streets.

One almost trips over the crouching boot-blacks perched along the edge of the pavement filing away at newspaper-reading customers’ shoes. The market place was swarming with piles of fruit and vegetables, with lemons, bananas, both green and yellow, and dates like globes of gum, chillies like corkscrew carrots, smooth mounds of paprika, speckled mounds of rice, dried blood-red powders, whites, greys, browns. Fat fish swelled their fat bellies across the wet slabs, dangling their flimsy tails into the crowd. Chickens, turkeys, and doves sitting patiently on their pavement lot, waiting to be chosen for the pot. Chickens in cages, chickens being carried off upside down, dangling by their feet, heads still upright, gazing abstractedly about them.

The narrow streets almost like large gutters; cobbled deep ruts between high pavements. Ladies calling raucously across the street; old women dressed in shrivelled black, wizen-skinned like the gobbled chops of turkeys. Young women in gaily coloured scarves briskly smiling at the shop-keepers with their rich red lips; little girls with skirts that almost refused to cover their bottoms, sucking dirty fingers, staring at the food and lovely clothes. Men standing, leaning, always watching, waiting, almost asleep under the ragged trousers and tangled coats.

Down the side streets were the dark cool bodegas: Vino Jose, Bodega Callejo.
Across the street the water was white in the sun, and strewn with craft, their masts spiking into the skyline. Ropes sagged from massive stone capstans, slowly dipping into the water, then turning and rising high as the boats rocked on the gentle swell.

Thick Atlantic clouds were sweeping in, dulling the sea with a spatter of rain. The wind whipped the waves into life. Within minutes the bay of Algeciras was changed to a dull grey.

Michael and I drove the van into the belly of the ferry to take us across to Ceuta. We left Alan on the station platform waiting for the train to take him up to Granada, and then Madrid and back to the UK.

Slowly the land slipped away; cranes, derricks, masts, rigging, people standing watching vacantly the passing of the ship, and then they squatted down by the white wall close to the quayside waiting for the next event to take place.

From over the northern hills the red light of a plane winked as it circled in to land along the wide runway of Gibraltar airport that stretches out on both sides of the promontory, and we left Europe.

john

Mr Henderson’s Railway -1

Travel in Spain

So here I am again travelling in Spain. I’m back in the province of Cadiz, and this time I have an unusual project ahead of me. Last time I was visiting Gibraltar I decided to take a different route home, and turned left at San Roque, drove to the bottom of the hill where I turned sharp right and headed for Jimena de la Frontera. I am in search of Mr Henderson’s Railway.

“But it closed years ago,” said my new friend as we sat and chatted on the roof balcony of our hotel, overlooking Algeciras Bay on one side, and the massive Rock of Gibraltar looming over us to the south.

This is an unusual piece of the culture of Spain. Once again the British are in on the act, forging tunnels in the history of Spain.

The line was originally built between 1890-92 to enable British garrison officers and their families to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of Gibraltar and enjoy the surrounding countryside. Travel in Spain was difficult in the nineteenth century. You could not tour Spain by road without great difficulty.

The railway was the work of a British engineer, John Morrison, backed by his friend and railway enthusiast Sir Alexander Henderson (1st Baron Faringdon, CH, 1850-1934). Henderson was fascinated by the railways, and was heavily involved in many rail projects in the UK and in South America.

This new line ran from Algeciras to Bobadilla, just outside Ronda, where it met the main line to Madrid. According to the records, when it opened it operated no less than six passenger trains a day through 22 stations at the grand cost of 11 pesetas and 65 cents for a first class seat from San Roque to Ronda.

To make the travel easier Henderson arranged for a first class hotel, the Reina Cristina, to be built in Algeciras within walking distance of the station, and overlooking the bay where the packet steamer would bring travellers across from Gibraltar. Apparently the grounds overlooked a sandy beach. Not so today as the port has grown substantially. In fact, the railway line which originally ended right next to the quay when I first visited Algeciras seems to have been moved back somewhat.

Another line has disappeared altogether. When I first came to Algeciras and Gibraltar in the sixties we camped on waste land where there is now a massive oil terminal, and one morning we were woken by the terrifying screech of a locomotive that rattled past us at the crack of dawn.

For those of you who want to enjoy a bit of Spanish history here is Chapter 36 of my book on Spain. Algeciras in the mid sixties was a tiny town, and the road to La Linea, then an even smaller dump between the hills and the sea, was a twisting track.

But let’s get back to that hotel in Algeciras. So proud was the hotel of Algeciras’s sub tropical climate that guests were promised a refund on their room rate for any days between May and September spoilt by rain. We could do with a few more enterprising deals like that.

King Alfonso XIII of Spain and his English Queen Ena, who was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, were frequent visitors, as were a host of famous people since.

The train itself was not renowned for its speed, and was dubbed The Smugglers’ Express, because it travelled so slowly up some of the steep inclines that people could sell contraband booze, coffee, and sugar from the train windows. These days the train has a mechanism for overcoming this problem. When the wheels begin to slip sand is released onto the rails to help the wheels grip.

The train still runs on a single track for most of the way. “In the old days before electronic signalling systems were operational, the stationmaster would give the engine driver a cane hoop, which he in turn would hand to the next stationmaster. This procedure would be repeated for trains waiting to travel in the opposite direction, and acted as a fail-safe back-up to the morse code telegraphing system to signal that the line was clear.”

And so we set off in search of Mr Henderson’s railway. We drove down the nice relatively new and well surfaced highway towards Jimena de la Frontera. As you all probably know, town after town in this region has a name that almost always seems to require the description de la frontera (often abbreviated to fra). The trouble is that back in the middle ages the frontier between Moors and Christians changed so many times that virtually everywhere was on the frontier at some time or another. One of the towns changed masters about ten times over the course of 150 years. Life must have been a real pain.

Now all is peaceful as we drove over a bridge, and into the valley, and there immediately below us was Mr Henderson’s railway, with a freight train approaching a large reclamation depot with trucks filled with crushed metal.

Train on Mr Henderson's Railway

I didn’t really want to tramp around an industrial site, so we moved on up the valley. At the village of Almoraima I stopped to photograph the station, and then went on a trip around the nearby new town of Castellar de la Frontera.

Okay, hands up those who think that last sentence doesn’t make sense? Well, in a sense you may be right, but….. (and isn’t there always a ‘but’?) let me explain.

The original village dates back to prehistoric times (round about 25,000 BC), and that is quite some heritage. The village is perched on top of a hill, and contains the usual castle. It is quite some castle, and the views are terrific. Unfortunately, on the day I turned up with my camera the weather was dull and cloudy, with rain threatening.

View of the castle

In 1983 the Spanish government expropriated the whole village, declaring it to be a historical and artistic monument. In order to put the place on the map and renovate the almost ruinous buildings the government decided to build a new village down in the valley next to Mr Henderson’s railway. This is, of course, Castellar New Town. And they got a new station as well.

In the next instalment I’ll visit both the old and the new.

John