In the 1890’s, Gibraltar’s garrison officers wanted to enjoy the campo so a railway was built between Algeciras, Ronda and beyond.  Nowadays the train journey makes a lovely day trip through stunning scenery and historic sites, with suitable watering holes en route.


With some 250,000 expats living on the Costa del Sol, the British way of life is very much in evidence; there are fish ‘n chip takeaways, pubs, English bookshops, bridge and golf clubs, the list goes on, all of which have with varying degrees of success melded into the Andalucian culture.


But for a real import, which captures the best of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, you need to experience a trip on the train. The line was originally built between 1890-92 by the Algeciras (Gibraltar) Railway Company Ltd to enable British garrison officers and their families to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of Gibraltar and enjoy the surrounding campo.  It was a blessed relief to previous travellers, whose wheeled carriages, when they weren’t getting stuck in the potholes of the terrible roads, would have to progress at a snail’s pace to circumnavigate craters and boulders. Even intrepid horsemen and women found the journey long and hard, with refreshment at the inns either non-existent or of poor quality. An early travel guide warns them, “without fail, take salt, soap and tea, the former being coarse and bad at the inns and the latter, even where it can be obtained, undrinkable.


The mastermind behind the railway was a British engineer, John Morrison, backed by his friend and wealthy financier Sir Alexander Henderson – later, the first Lord Faringdon. The two men had already cut their teeth on ambitious railway projects in South America, compared to which the 178 km (110 miles) line was small fry. It ran from Algeciras to Bobadilla, where it met the main line to Madrid, the gateway for the rest of Europe. The first section of the railway up to Jimena was officially opened in October 1890, and the next to Ronda in November 1892, operating six passenger trains daily through 22 stations from San Roque to Ronda.

Knowing that it was necessary to provide decent food and accommodation for their passengers to encourage them to make frequent use of the line, Henderson decided to build a sumptuous hotel in Algeciras, where Gibraltarian residents would alight from the packet steamer which carried them across the Bay of Algeciras.  An oasis of baroque colonial splendour and tranquility in busy, dusty Algeciras, the Hotel Reina Cristina – named after the Spanish Queen who ruled until Alfonso III came of age – is English to its very bones. Hardly surprising, since it was the work of English architect T. E. Colcutt, a dedicated Hispanophile, whom Henderson commissioned.


A curved driveway sweeps round to present a startling vista of huge pine and palm trees, behind which rears a huge confection of pergolas and rotundas, turrets and fancy brickwork, crowned with glazed green and brown terracotta tiles.  Colcutt, incidentally, also designed Monte de la Torre in Los Barrios, a colonial mansion owned by the descendants of the landowning, gin manufacturing Larios family. It bears a striking resemblance. to the two railway station hotels, the Reina Cristina and the Reina Victoria in Ronda. Charles Quest-Ritson in his book The English Garden Abroad comments that with its extensive fiat lawns punctuated by island beds and cast iron garden furniture, it’s far more typical of England than Spain.  Once, the Reina Cristina’s 20 acres of subtropical grounds overlooked a sandy beach and sea beyond; today, that view is marred by a sports stadium and the cranes and cables of a working commercial port. But on a clear day, you can still gaze out on the Rock and Pillars of Hercules and imagine you are transported back to the first decade of 1900 when garrison officers and their wives and wealthy passengers disembarking from P&O cruise liners en route to India and the Far East would enjoy the hotel’s regular Saturday evening dances in its specially sprung ballroom.


So proud was the hotel of Algeciras’s temperate climate, that guests were promised a refund on their room rate for any days between May and September spoilt by rain. Then, they would relax in front of the tiled fireplace in the well-stocked library, its bound volumes protected by ornately carved bookcases and read from the light cast by the tentacles of huge green glass chandeliers – still all there today. A roomy lounge with magnificent carved oak doors would keep revellers at bay, so players of poker or rummy could concentrate. In World War II, it accommodated a host of international spies, who insisted on ensuite rooms with a sea view so they could observe movements round Gibraltar. Bathrooms were converted into darkrooms to process film.  Modern times dictate its use by conference delegates or members of the Algeciras Rotary Club. In the past, a frisson of delight would ripple through the guests when they spotted a famous face – actors, movie stars and even Royalty. King Alfonso of Spain and his English Queen Ena, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, were frequent visitors and it also hosted the politicians and delegates who attended the twelve nations Conference of Algeciras in 1906, called to decide on the partitioning of Morocco between France and Spain. This event, by the way, was reported on by a young English journalist called Winston Churchill.


His signature can be seen reproduces on large brass plaques adorning the reception area, along with those of Franklin D.  Roosevelt (1937), Edward Heath (1976), Lord and Lady Mountbatten (1956) and the present King and Queen of Spain, Juan Carlos and Sofia (1968). Film stars who have stayed there include Joseph Cotton (1933), Orson Welles (1937), Deborah Kerr (1945) and Rock Hudson (1977), not to mention countless others.  In 1928, a fire almost totally destroyed the hotel, but Lord Faringdon came to the rescue and it was re-opened two years later.


The new design wisely retained many of the original Edwardian features, but added an interior glazed courtyard and more bedrooms.


Francisco Rios, who has been deputy manager of the Reina Cristina since 1963, was born near Algeciras’s original railway station, a few minutes walk away from the modem RENFE. From his house to the railway at the bottom of the garden was a mere 30 metres. He can still recall as a boy, his vivid impressions: “When the train from Madrid carne in, the house literally shook. We would set our clocks by that train. Of course, in those days we had the old steam trains. They would make a lot of noise and weren’t very comfortable to travel on. You sat on slatted wooden benches and if the journey was a long one, you felt quite sore afterwards.” The present day trains – introduced in 1976 – may be less romantic but are considerably more comfortable and a great deal faster. In the past, wet weather would make the rails extremely slippery and the train would be unable to cope with the steep gradients. A man with a bucket would chuck grave] onto the track. It took hours.  Nowadays, this is done automatically. As soon as the wheels start to slip, sand is released.


There’s no more appropriate place to start your journey than the historically rich San Roque, where the Spaniards settled after fleeing Gibraltar from the conquering British forces in 1704.  It’s less than quarter of an hour’s drive from Gib, but note that the Estacion de San Roque is situated six kms below the ancient hilltop town itself. This is usual practice in Spain, to facilities the laying of the track and construction of the stations, since the fortress towns necessarily occupied a high vantage point from where they could spot and defend themselves against potential enemies.


The original old station lies just a few yards away from the new one, its decaying dog-toothed fringe of wooden slats a nostalgic reminder of a past era. Jefe de Estacion Juan Antonio Ortiz explained that it was now divided into three parts. One end was the home of a former stationmaster’s elderly widow, the former control room in the middle was now closed but in future would be turned into a cultural centre, while the rest was the headquarters of the Club Ciclista or cycling club.


He then proudly took me to into his office and showed me the original caja fuerte, on which was inscribes: ‘MILNER’S patent fire resisting safe.’ Where else should it be made but in Liverpool or London, of course? Another brass badge read, ‘Improved for the Government Registry and Courts, 1857. Powder Proof. Solid Lock.’ I was later to discover that all the stations on this line boasted similar sales and assorted antique equipment – manually operated levers to change-the points, an English station dock and glass-sided lamps, maybe a heavy metal bell, or simply a solid board with hooks to hang great hoops of keys.  I admired his smart navy blue uniform jacket, red and navy soldier-style peaked cap and matching wooden baton, casually draped over the top of the safe. He said that although the uniforms had been redesigned in 1991, the style was virtually identical to those of a century ago, only the livery had been changed.


The train tooted its arrival, I clambered aboard, Señor Ortiz hurriedly donned his uniform and as the doors closed, blew hard on his whistle and waved his baton for the driver to proceed.  The train still runs en a single track. “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,” explains expat antiques expert Hon. Malcolm Davidson, who always treats holiday visitors to a train ride.


Within a few minutes of leaving San Roque, the train arrives at Almoraima, named after the former 17th century convent now a hunting lodge, ascending gradually through cork woods and cypresses, the silvery green feathery foliage of the former striking against the rich green of the latter. Look out for neat rings on the top of the trunks, where once every seven or nine years during the summer, sharp knives pare away the cork.  The historical annual travel guide and events chronicler, the Gibraltar Directory of 1897, waxes understandably lyrical:


“Nothing can exceed the beauty of these woods … a favourite resort of picnic parties from the Rock. Open spaces covered with the most springy turf, deep ravines thickly wooded, dusty groves, a pleasant retreat from the summer sun, hundreds of sorts of wild flowers and ferns, magnificent old cork trees, very much like the oak in appearance, a resemblance which is further heightened by their bearing acorns, and a broad river at the bottom, all make up a scene which requires to be visited only to be appreciated; and which is quite certain to leave a pleasing recollection for years in the mind of the traveller.”


From Jimena station you can see the pueblo blanco of Jimena de la Frontera with its Moorish tower, rising out of carpets of buff wheat. Once out of San Pablo with its groves of orange and almond trees, it climbs swiftly and the terrain changes dramatically into great hills and valleys, so densely wooded as to seem impenetrable.


Picture postcard bridges and viaducts criss-cross the dry river bed of the Rio Guadiaro, reduced to piles of pebbles and boulders in some places and a mere trickle in others – the outcome of tour years’ drought in Andalucia. Through 14 tunnels, the train plunges its passengers at turn into darkness and dazzling light and beneath a viaduct several kilometres long – an incredible feat of engineering. Past Cortes de la Frontera, huge sweeping mountain ranges with rocky crags drop down to sheer ravines.  After alighting at Benaojan, you have two options. Having brought a packed lunch, call in at the nature study information centre behind the station, where Señor Jacinto Arcas will happily direct you to the Cueva del Gato or Cat Cave, only a 2km/half hour hike away, leaving time to catch the 16.36 train back.  Alternatively, a few minutes stroll will bring you to the picturesque Molino del Santo, a converted mill run by an English couple, Andy and Pauline Chappell. There, you can eat a delicious meal on the terrace overlooking the rushing mill stream, and hear the tinkling of grazing goats on the hillside opposite. Or else, you can have a refreshing drink at the bar while studying the free route map and 8km/one and a half hour away hiking instructions to the famous Cueva de la Pileta or Pileta Caves, available from the reception desk. This would entail either catching the last train back at 20.59 or staying overnight at either the Molino or a local hostel.


The Pileta Caves boast some fabulous examples of stalactites and stalagmites, as well as Palaeolithic etchings and paintings of animals – mainly bison and fish – dating from about 25,OOOBC to the end of the Bronze Age. Guided torchlit tours in the afternoon start at 4,5,6 and 7pm and cost 500 pesetas (£2.50). The view from the cave entrance across rolling valleys and fertile countryside is superb and a chance to catch your breath back. Once inside, lighting the kerosene lanterns is quite a performance but adds to the mystery and excitement as hundreds of bats, drawn by the glow, rustle and swoop above your head.


The path to the Cat Cave, so named because it looks just like the head of a cat, takes you through fields of waving poppies, groves of olive trees and countryside vistas of startling beauty. A subterranean ‘wet’ cave, only professional potholers can explore it. But its site is stupendous, with two waterfalls below and the towering peaks of the Sierra de Grazalema above.  lf you are journeying onto Ronda, look out for it on your left as you leave Benaojan – the railway track runs right by it.  A century ago, the journey on horseback from Gibraltar to Ronda measured 12 leagues and took a day to get there. The Gibraltar Directory puts it into context: “The Spanish league is a very variable measure of distance and entirely dependent en the state of the road. As a rough measure, a league an hour with ordinary roads, or an hour and a quarter under worse than ordinary conditions will be about the rate of progress. This is a good thing to remember and will save some disappointment, especially if ladies are of the party.”


Today, in under two hours, and with contented womenfolk, you can find yourself spellbound in Ronda by the view across The view from the train takes in orange groves 1000ft deep tajo or gorge, spanned by its three ancient bridges, to the majestic sweep of the mountainscapes beyond. One of the best ways to enjoy this stunning panorama is from the terraced bar of the Reina Victoria, the Reina Cristina’s sister station hotel. It was built in 1906, tour years after the Cristina, by the same architect.  Here, in its country house atmosphere, passengers could make a pleasant round trip, holidaying at both hotels. Other guests would come to recuperate after illness or relieve their asthma in the crisp, clear sierra air. Here also, in 1913, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke stayed, at a cost of 7.50 pesetas a day for full board. The bills in his room, now preserved as a small museum, reveal that he drank plenty of tea and coffee but no alcohol.


Why not lunch in the new Parador, which offers equally magnificent views from the restaurant and bar? The tourist menu del dia costs a reasonable €10 for three courses. There may be just time to visit Ronda’s ancient bullring, the oldest and one of the finest in Spain, before catching the 16.14 train back.


Drive from the Estacion de San Roque to the town itself. You will be charmed by the old, whitewashed houses with their glazed balconies and delicate ironwork, and stepped cobbled streets. What better way to end a perfect day than to go on a tapas crawl. In calle General Lacy, La Barraca de Mohamed, alias Pedro, specialises in te moruno and pinchitos ‘arabes’ de cordero y de cerdo (Moroccan tea and lamb or pork kebabs). Further along, at the Taberna de la Chica, Señor Macias, whose son is a professional flamenco guitarist, also serves a memorable pinchito. Finally, in a sidestreet called calle Almoraima, at bar El Varal, a smiling ‘Barty’ offers montaditos, small buns covered with little mountains of delicious savoury toppings. If you Spanish-speaking gourmet Brian Ramagge is not busy, he’ll happily take you on a free guided tapas tour.


Susan Wolk

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