Canfranc is not just a train station turned hotel, but the overambitious mainline rail link between Spain and France that failed commercially. It was the scene of some of the dirtiest stories of World War II with spy games, gold smuggling and lots of tungsten. Also, the most famous war criminals have escaped to Latin America…
For several months, the Canfranc station, abandoned for decades, on the Franco-Spanish border, has been transformed into a luxury hotel with suites, swimming pools, etc. It took a lot of work and tens of millions of euros to achieve this conversion. The before and after photos below give an idea of the thoroughness and cost of this work.
But behind it all there is a story unknown to many, of the years when the station functioned as the main rail link between Spain and France. A story that is directly linked to the dark years of the Second World War and that most people want to forget. At this point, it’s definitely worth asking why…
Estación Canfranc: the forgotten jewel of the Pyrenees
It was also called the “Titanic of the Pyrenees” because of its magnificent construction and infrastructure, but it was ultimately unable to connect Spain to France by rail.
The Pyrenees mountain range, one of the most beautiful in Europe, forms the natural border between France and Spain. Centuries ago, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals passed through its mountain passes, en route to conquering the Iberian Peninsula and plundering the peoples of the Mediterranean. One of these crossings, in the center of the mountain range, gave rise in 1853 to the idea of a rail link between Madrid and Paris. The benefits for the region of Aragon would be significant in economic and infrastructural terms if it hosted the main rail link between Spain and France on its own territory. Despite the strong motivation, the work of shaping the ground and building the station began much later (King Alphonse XII laid the first stone in 1883).
The work carried out has modified the geophysical map of the area. In the most laborious of them, the 8.6 km long “Somport” tunnel was dug under the Pyrenees with the limited technical means of the time. Subsequently, the materials brought from the tunnel were used to form the plateau of the plot that would be occupied by resort facilities, at 1,045 meters above sea level. Then, to prevent avalanches and landslides in the upper course, almost three million trees were planted, while a section of the Aragon River had to be diverted from its bed. All this created the largest open space in Europe for a station at the time, 1,200 meters long and 170 meters wide.
The train station
The imposing station building, built according to the precepts of “art nouveau”, was 241 meters long. It had 365 windows and 155 doors and was the second largest railway building in Europe, after Leipzig station. It housed the police station, the medical services, the post office, the offices of the Bank of Spain, as well as the Spanish and French customs officers (the post had dual nationality). The inauguration of the Canfranc station took place in all solemnity on July 18, 1928, in the presence of the King of Spain Alfonso XIII, General Primo de Rivera and the President of the French Republic Gaston Doumerge.
The first disappointments
After the removal of officials, the first non-Orthodox made their presence felt. The main one arose from the difference in the width of the railway tracks, which in France is 1,435 mm. and in Spain 1,668 mm. This meant that upon arriving in the French sector, passengers had to change platforms, carrying their luggage, to continue their journey into the Spanish hinterland on another train. Things were more complicated for the goods, which were transferred to a new vehicle in order to reach their destination. In addition to this limitation, in the first years of its operation, the station also faced the consequences of the Great Depression, which resulted from the financial crash of 1929. At that time, it is a question of whether the station was used by 50 passengers. per day, on average. As a culmination of these misfortunes, exactly eight years after the official inauguration, the Spanish Civil War was declared. In August 1936, a month after the outbreak of hostilities, General Franco ordered the station closed. The country’s future dictator feared that if he stayed open, it would help the legitimately elected democratic government to be further reinforced from abroad with weapons, possibly even men. So, just in case, he blocked the way.
The Nazis in the foreground
When the French surrendered to the Nazis in 1940, the station was reopened, according to the wishes of the conquerors. Thus, a train loaded with men in Wehrmacht and SS uniforms arrived at Canfranc, along with an echelon of the Gestapo. All settled in the floors occupied by the staff of the losers. The French were not happy with the coexistence, but they put up with the Germans, since they could not do otherwise. With the Spaniards things were different, as the Franco regime was allied with Nazism and had received military aid from them during the three years of civil war. However, the country was neutral in the Second World War and this required other balances. Although Madrid warned their Canfranc locals ‘to be careful’, the symbiosis of the two was problematic until the end. There weren’t a few times when the guns nearly came out of their holsters, especially when the Gestapo attempted surprise checks in the Spanish sector for suspicious documents. It was a difficult situation and the worst was avoided thanks to the composure of those who knew how to manage it.
1940-1944: the dark period
Canfanc proved to be very useful to the Nazis, because thanks to the mountain station in the Pyrenees, they could obtain tungsten from neutral Portugal. This mineral was necessary for them, because mixing it with steel improved the penetration of their projectiles, penetrating the armor of their opponents. Initially, they paid their collaborators in hard currency, but in 1941 the Central Bank of Portugal discovered an abundance of counterfeit notes, and then fellow dictator António de Oliveira Salazar demanded all other payments in gold. The German arms industry depended almost entirely on supply via Portugal, so the Nazis obeyed. There is no full estimate of how many tons of sawdust-covered gold reached the station, only partial data. For example, in 1943, 4 tons of silver and 74 tons of gold arrived at the docks, of which 20 remained on the Spanish side, to be remitted in payment to the Portuguese. As for the bars, they came from the plunder of the property of the Jews, as well as the theft of the stocks of the conquered countries. Portugal, as a neutral country, was also the “gateway” for the entry of goods and other items from countries outside Europe, bypassing the German trade blockade through Latin American ports . In 1943, 1,200 tons of goods were transferred daily from the Spanish platform to the French platform. No one can say for sure who the suppliers really were, or what exactly they sold to the Nazis, other than food and small luxury furniture.
The human factor
The first to appear in the “neutral” Canfranc were of course the spies of the two belligerent camps. The Allies succeeded in setting up a large network on the station and in cooperation with the French Resistance to cause sabotage in the occupied country, but to extract valuable information from it. They also offered their help to thousands of Jews to flee to America (among them the painters Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, as well as the famous dancer Josephine Baker, who accompanied her French Jewish husband to salvation). A leading figure in this chapter was French customs chief Albert Le Lay, who was a prominent member of the Resistance and helped hundreds of refugees. The Gestapo eventually find him, but he manages to escape to Madrid. People with more humble motivations, such as smugglers and forgers of particularly useful travel documents at the time, also took advantage of the situation in Canfranc. From the station, they secretly traveled with fake passports to Latin American countries and several Nazi war criminals, escaping punishment for what they did.
From mediocrity to dismantling
In 1948, Cafranc resumed operating as an international railway station, failing to attract sufficient numbers of passengers and freight to generate profits. This situation continued in the following years, when everyone would have even forgotten about its existence, if in 1965 it had not become the setting for the famous film “Doctor Zhivago” with Omar Sharif. Over the next few years, the station fell into mediocrity, still lagging behind the ever-increasing road transport between the two countries, mainly transiting fruit and vegetables. According to the data, in 1960, the goods imported into the country from the Canfranc station were 20,000 tons. This figure increased to 158,000 in 1967, falling to 109,573 tons in 1969. On the other hand, exports by the station have always been insignificant: nearly 5,500 tons in 1960, 2,691 tons in 1969. But with passengers also, that was not the case. better. Only 38,370 people crossed the Franco-Spanish rail border in 1965 and even fewer (21,026) in 1969. With an average of 60 passengers per day, it was understandable that both sides were unhappy, with the French making it clear that the expense from the station were nine times higher than turnover. And as if all that wasn’t enough, in the late 1960s, passengers got off the French train, waiting until six o’clock at the station for the Spanish train to pick them up. It all came to a halt on March 27, 1970, when two 1922 locomotives pulling nine corn wagons together lost their brakes and derailed on the French side, causing the Estanguet bridge to collapse. There were no casualties, but that was the end. The French withdrew from maintaining and operating the station, as did the Spanish. Fifteen years later, the local Pau-Canfranc line also ceased to operate, taking with it the last French customs officer.
Fifty years have passed since then, without the fate of the once international station changing in any way. Its facade is now protected by railings, the damage to the roof has been repaired, but the halls and the rolling stock left to their fate present an image of abandonment. The same goes for the image of the tunnels and support bridges, which have become grassy and flooded. The Government of Aragon and the City Council of Canfranc have tried four times (1995, 1998, 2001 and 2008) to rebuild the station and bring it back to life, without achieving any results. Four years ago, another attempt was made, which resulted in promises of favorable developments. Eventually, as you already know, the main station building was transformed into a luxury hotel.
From the dark period of the Nazi presence in Canfranc, there is no visual material, not even the swastika which then floated on the mast of the roof of the station. But neither on the side of the winners nor of the Spaniards, photos of the time have leaked. It seems reasonable, judging by its controversial character: who would want to be unexpectedly recognized in one of them and find out their true role?;