Canfranc Estación is an abandoned railway station high up in the Pyrenees above Huesca. It was the border post between France and Spain welcoming international travellers and freight since it opened in 1928. It is a spectacular building in a spectacular location, but nowadays you can only visit on an organised tour. Why? Because it hasn’t been used since 1970 when a derailment on the French side of the 8km-long tunnel demolished a bridge which the French government were not prepared to pay to repair.
Since then it has fallen into disrepair and guided visitors must wear a hard hat to venture inside. The tour is very interesting and is conducted in fairly-easy-to-understand Spanish. If you can’t manage that, an audio guide is also available in English or French. It only costs €3 and you can now book your tour time online. The timings change according to the season so check the website carefully before going. It’s a long way out of the way unless you are crossing between France and Spain via the Somport Tunnel, so book your tour well in advance or be prepared for disappointment. Many tours are fully booked.
We met our guide at the entrance to the station. There were 20 or so people on our tour so we stood on the steps leading down to the access passageway while we were given information about the construction of the station, the tunnel and the railway line. The station may be an impressive 241 metres long, but the tour only gives access to the main concourse and out onto the tracks. Hardcore railway enthusiasts can find much more information about the Pau-Canfranc railway line on Wikipedia.
Inside the station it’s not hard to imagine its grandeur in days gone by. Restoration is under way but it looks like it will be some time before it will have been restored to its former glory. The place would have been bustling with three floors of officialdom, and a ground floor full of passengers shopping before or after their journey, changing money from Francs to Pesetas and back again. It’s quite a curiosity that the northern end of the station was considered to be part of France with customs and immigration officials fulfilling their duties as though this were actually the border itself. Photographs help you to visualise what life in the station was like. A new video (in Spanish only) relayed stories of espionage and Nazi gold from the Second World War. Surprisingly though, no mention was made of the one event which perhaps would be more familiar to an English speaking audience than anything else – the filming of Doctor Zhivago in the 1960s when Canfranc was one of several Spanish locations which stood in for off-limits Russia.
Outside the station we stood on the old railway tracks. A rusting locomotive stands tribute to the railway cars that plied those very tracks for many years. It’s too dangerous to hop on board but seeing it parked on the rails with the station looming large behind it, the heyday of the Canfranc railway station didn’t seem quite as distant as it had inside the main hall. The positioning of the old train also highlights one of the things which for years has made rail travel between France and Spain problematic – the difference in railway gauge. It seems incredible in this day of international cooperation and standardisation that Spanish railway lines are wider than the French ones, although the newer lines built for the AVE have been built to allow for this. From the tracks you can see at a glance the scale of the building with its 365 windows (one for every day of the year!) and 156 doors. It’s just a shame that the tour didn’t include a bit more of the building as the hard hats would surely protect curious onlookers from any crumbling remains.
So what do you do with an 8km tunnel when the only reason for its existence is left to rack and ruin? The Somport Railway Tunnel now houses the Canfranc Underground Laboratory . Sinister sounding dark matter is being studied here, but tourists are not allowed near the site!
We stayed in Canfranc Pueblo, just 5km downhill from the station. The recently refurbished Casa Rural La Cabaña proved to be very comfortable. We highly recommend eating there in the evening too with some hearty home cooked stew.