Last night I enjoyed an overnight stay at Canfranc, the famous railway station in the Aragonese Pyrenees close to the border with France. This grand railway station, which evokes memories of railway travel in its heyday, was built in 1928. However, in 1970 operations abruptly came to an end and Canfranc station was largely abandoned and decayed away for the next 50 years. Recently it has been granted an exciting new lease of life.
Originally built to demonstrate Spanish engineering prowess, Canfranc served as an important international crossing point between Spain and France via the Somport railway tunnel for about 40 years. The Somport road tunnel linking Spain and France remains open and is nearby.
Unfortunately, Canfranc has had a chequered history. A few years after completion the Spanish Civil War broke out, followed by a World War immediately after. During this time Canfranc station and its surrounds were an area of intrigue and espionage, with Jews fleeing Europe, resistance figures making their way into France, and Allies and Nazi spy networks operating in the vicinity.
By the 1960s a lack of investment was taking its toll and a major derailment in France in 1970 marked the end of Canfranc’s role as an international railway station. A small domestic service has continued since but the station underwent decay over the years and became an eery relic of the past frequently visited by curious sightseers and railway fanatics.
Its colossal size (slightly over 240 metres long) apparently includes 365 windows, one for each day of the year, and when it was completed Canfranc was the second largest railway station in Europe, earning it the title ‘Titanic of the Mountains’. Because of its chequered past, some have since noted the irony of that name.
However, Canfranc Station has recently undergone a major restoration and its fortunes have been completely reversed. It recently opened as a luxury hotel and the restoration process has paid careful attention to restoring its sense of class and style—both interior and exterior—from its heydays. The station is quickly becoming an important attraction in a lovely part of the Pyrenees and rail enthusiast and broadcaster Michael Portillo stopped by when filming his recent television series exploring this majestic mountain range. If passing by Jaca on the A-23 the 20-25 minute detour to Canfranc is well worth the effort.
And the overnight accommodation? Well, the title of this blog is a little misleading. I’m currently travelling about Spain by motorhome and did not stay in the actual station hotel, but rather at the new motorhome area that forms part of the Canfranc complex. It’s an ideal overnight motorhome stop right by the Somport tunnel on the Pau-Jaca route across the Pyrenees.
Actually, when fully operational (electricity and water were not yet switched on when I stopped the night) it provides motorhomers with an excellent stop at a new, safe area with the opportunity to visit the lovely station just a short walk away. The local village with its various bars and restaurants is also well worth the visit. But don’t be surprised to see lots of people, mainly railway enthusiasts, popping by to wander around and take images of the graffiti-covered abandoned engines and railway stock. It’s a fascinating place, surrounded on all sides by lofty, forest-covered Pyrenees mountains.
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