When taking the elevated motorway viaduct that sweeps down into the vast port of Algeciras, it is at first hard to imagine just how stunningly beautiful this bay was in the 19th century. Although a strategic port for thousands of years, with a history that embraces the Phoenicians and the Romans, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that things really changed. When Franco closed the frontier with Gibraltar and began the major industrialisation of the bay to help compensate for the loss of jobs maintained by Gibraltar, the landscape began to alter radically.
Now it is one of the most important ports in Europe, right at the mouth of the Mediterranean. So although modern Algeciras is very much a commercial port town, there are still a few clues to the popularity of Algeciras as an upscale holiday destination in the past.
Take the colonial Hotel Reina Cristina. This period property is the oldest hotel on the Costa del Sol. It dates back to the 1890s, when by Mr Alexander Henderson; (Lord Farringdon) was commissioned by the Spanish government to build the railway from Bobadilla down to Algeciras. Affectionately known as ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’, our host, Toma Tours has researched and explored this vintage route that runs through some of Andalucia’s most beautiful valleys.
This tailored tour is part of a on-going revival of this historic railway corridor that Manni Coe, founder of Toma Tours has spear-headed. He has not only re-introduced Mr Henderson’s ancestors with this glorious scenic route, but he has also been part of a forthcoming TV programme on the magical railway.
Opened in 1902, the hotel has hosted elite travellers from across Europe; stars such as Ava Gardner and Cole Porter; Royalty including King Alfonso XIII; as well as eminent politicians, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and a young Winston Churchill.
Today the hotel retains some its British flavour with colonial architectural details, whilst the established gardens give little indication of what lies beyond, except for the occasional view of the modern port tower, that rises up beyond the mature palm trees.
Before the huge port was built on reclaimed land, the hotel’s garden steps led down to the beach and the Atlantic shore.
This historic hotel, at Europe’s most southerly point, is our home for the night and the starting point of Toma Tour’s unique itinerary, ‘Hiking Mr Henderson’s Railway’.
Over a welcome drink in the hotel’s vintage library, Manni Coe starts to tell the story of Mr Henderson’s railway through artefacts, clippings, books and pictures he has collected during his research.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into another time, and tomorrow I’ll have the chance to experience the highlights of the route first hand as part of this ‘taster’ tour. With the railway valley as our guide, we will be travelling up to Ronda, discovering the natural landscape, wholesome food and plenty of history on the way – I can’t wait!