“We apologize for the delay,” I heard, over the loudspeaker in perfect Oxford accent. But this was not England. I was at the Ronda train station in Andalusia, Spain, about to embark on a one-and a half hour trip to Algeciras, the port city just across from the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar.
Focused on a writing project, I was hiding this summer in one of the stunning whitewashed villages that seem to hang along the mountains of the region, between Malaga and Sevilla. I’d recently heard about a local railway affectionately known as Mr. Henderson’s line. Intrigued, I called Manni Coe, an author, guide, and founder of the boutique tour consultancy Toma & Coe. Born in Yorkshire, Mr. Coe has lived in Andalusia for the last 22 years.
“In the late 19th century,” he explained, “the railway network was expanding throughout the country, but the magnificent town of Ronda was still completely isolated from the rest of Spain and Europe.”
Aware of the impact the train network could have on the town’s economy, the people of Ronda fought to get their town connected, hoping to get wealthy visitors from Gibraltar. They knew that the British garrisoned there would enjoy its beauty and spread the word amongst the European elite.
“By connecting Gibraltar to the railway network,” said Mr. Coe, “the Rock would be linked by land to the rest of Europe.” So not only did the British build the line—a feast of engineering for a steam train to head from sea level up to 24,000 feet through towering mountains and cliffs—but they also paid for it.
Turns out Sir Alexander Henderson was the CEO of the company that built the railway. In 1892, thanks to engineer John Morrison, the line to Ronda was opened with six trains a day through 22 stations. The railway started in the now industrial port of Algeciras rather than nearby Gibraltar for political reasons, and after Ronda, it extended to Bobadilla where it met the line to Madrid. Suddenly, the Romantic travelers of the Victorian and then Edwardian era started arriving in Ronda. To complete the project, Mr. Henderson built two British-style hotels at either end, naming them after Spanish royalty.
“The hotels added a new home away from home,” said Mr. Coe, “where travelers could come on the weekends.”
Even though the interior of the Hotel Reina Victoria Eugenia in Ronda is perfectly elegant, it was impossible to resist the draw of its Mediterranean garden built at the edge of the dramatic El Tajo gorge over the Guadalevin River around which the town is built. At the core of the busy center but completely fenced off, the hotel exudes calm and beauty, one of the reasons why the poet Rainer Maria Rilke occupied room 208 between December 1912 and February 1913 where, enthralled by the wonder of the natural site, he overcame his bout of writer’s block.
Unfortunately, there’s only one train up and one down per day now, through 16 tunnels and 20 bridges so best not to miss it! With a station dating from 1892, I was half-expecting an old steam engine to puff up, but the train looked more like a high-speed specimen. Thankfully it meandered amongst dramatic ochre-tinted mountains and cliffs, then cork-oak and eucalyptus forests, and later, scorched golden wheat fields where the busiest beings around were the dozens of storks tending to their full nests. Here and there along the tracks, we glimpsed the Guadiaro River, a small torrent known for historic floods in winter passed.
The perfect time capsule, every tiny train station we stopped at still features original fringed wooden canopies, bench seats and antique clocks, and I made a note to come back and stop at the various restaurants along the way. As we inched towards the Mediterranean, olive and orange groves and rows of cypresses appeared reminiscent of Tuscany, but the clusters of whitewashed houses covered with bougainvillea shrubs corrected my wandering mind. I was in Andalusia all right.
It took a while to find the Hotel Reina Cristina and longer to imagine what its surroundings looked like at the beginning of the 20th century when Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cole Porter and Ava Gardner were among its celebrated guests. At the time, the hotel sat on a natural horseshoe bay with fine sandy beach, in full view of the north coast of Africa. The end of the journey would happen via a steamship that brought the travelers back to the monumental Rock.
Today, a landfill has taken the place of the beach and cargo ships line the Strait. It’s unclear how long Mr. Henderson’s line will continue to operate, but for now, there’s no better way to explore this piece of bygone Andalusia.