The Pyrenees, deep valleys and the abandoned station
I heard about the Canfranc Railway Station from a friend more or less two years ago. Absolutely captivated by the story behind this mysterious station I decided that I have to venture out to Canfranc, a small village in the Pyrenees as a part of my trip to Zaragoza.
Prior to my visit I called a local tourist office to make sure that I can join a guided tour of this abandoned station. Currently it is the only way to enter the Canfranc Railway Station as outside of these organised tours it is not open to the public.
Catching a train at 6 o’clock in a morning from Zaragoza to Canfranc was relatively easy. With only two connections per day available I checked if my alarm is on twice before going to bed and gave myself plenty of time to find my way to the station. It made me laugh that I was occasionally bumping into people who were still out drinking and eating. For some of them the night was young and a lively crowd at Bar El Chipirón could be a proof of it.
Once I was on a small train attached to a single and loud locomotive, Zaragoza was left behind within several minutes and the sight of its monumental cathedral was replaced by epic views of deep valleys and stone-built villages.
Art Nouveau elegance, Nazi gold and inevitable decline
Looking at a three-storey central building of the Canfranc Railway Station hidden between the mountains left me speechless. Although derelict these days it is still very grand, 241 metres long with 75 doors and more windows than days per year.
The International Railway Station was built from 1921 to 1925 as a result of a special agreement between Spain and France experiencing a strong economic growth. The route from Zaragoza via Canfranc to Pau was the shortest possible one connecting the North of Spain with France. A tunnel was plowed through the mountains following a careful examination of the Pyrenees and a rail track developed to link the Iberian Peninsula with the rest of Europe.
The Canfranc Railway Station represented two countries just like its architect, Fernando Ramírez de Dampierre, held dual nationality. Situated on a border, a building consisted of Spanish and French half with a post office and custom office for each country, a hotel and accommodation for staff. Ramírez de Dampierre studied in Paris, which could explain why the style and the structure of the station resembles the Musée d’Orsay, the former Gare d’Orsay.
At the time of its opening in 1928, the Canfranc Station was the biggest in Europe. That impressive fact was not enough though to spare it some problems. The standard-gauge railways used across Europe were not compatible with Spanish broad-gauge ones therefore each train had to stop in Canfranc and all people as well as goods had to change trains. This transfer plus additional custom control created a logistic nightmare with unavoidable delays leading to financial losses.
During the Spanish Civil War the station was taken over by the army and the tunnel was closed. Once the Second World War broke the route through the Pyrenees acted as the escape route for many Jewish people. Max Ernst and Marc Chagall were among other artists and intellectuals smuggled out of Europe to the US.
In November 1942 Nazis began to occupy Canfranc, using its logistical importance to their advantage. The tones of gold were exported via Canfranc and wolfram ore, needed for the production of arms, transported back to the German Reich.
Since then the station has not recovered and never been running at full capacity. At some point it was even used as a backdrop for the film Doctor Zhivago with Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin. I am guessing that it appeared in the scenes portraying vast Siberian scenery but maybe I should watch this cinema classic again to be sure of it.
In 1970 a train derailed and collapsed of a bridge on a French side of a railway route. The damage caused by this accident was the final nail in the coffin as it brought an abrupt end to already struggling international railway connection. Neither French or Spanish government was prepared to rescue it so over the years the Canfranc Railway Station has been abandoned and devastated.
Only in recent years tourists started visiting the station. Although there have been some restoration works taking place inside the building, it is not the safest place that can be explored independently. I hope that one day this will change and visitors will be allowed to walk around this monumental station at their own pace, getting closer to the story of decadence and its heart of darkness.
How to get there by train
There is a regional connection from Zaragoza via Huesca. For more details visit RENFE.com.