Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Great Southern of Spain Railway

Sculpture Trail

Just down the road from our villa in Spain we always had to pass under a bridge of a disused railway. Never one to let something like that go unnoticed I was curious about where the line had once connected and set about investigating.  Apparently the line was originally built by a consortium of British developers as a route from Lorca to Granada.  Sadly the line was not a success from the beginning, passenger numbers in the lightly populated Almanzora valley were very sparse and the line relied heavily on freight traffic.  Not only that but the line didn’t make it to Granada until a lot later when it was absorbed into the national network of railways.

In the early years the freight was largely poor quality iron ore and agricultural produce but marble was transported later on.  The line finally succumbed to closure in 1985 and some of the line has been turned into a greenway (quite common in Spain), while much of the rest has just been left to its own devices.  A surprising amount is still left.
Dry River Bed

When we had driven through the small town of Fines a few days earlier I had caught sight of a derelict station, complete with much of the old infrastructure including a rusty old crane, station buildings and even the water tank.  I thought that would probably make for a good place to start exploring although I had also seen other sections of greenway further on.

End of the Improved Section

We drove the short distance from Albox but when we got to Fines we discovered that the railway line was actually the wrong side of a very busy road from where we could park and so we headed over to a nearby built up area about a mile or so further along the line.  Here the line itself had been converted into a greenway for cyclists and was complete with a range of sculptures.  These were all a similar style but represented countries from all around the world and other regions of Spain.  It was all rather curious as clearly there had been a significant amount of money spent on it.  All around was the affliction of neglected and half finished buildings, which seems so prevalent in these parts.

Fines-Olula Water Tower

Our walk over to the former station was more of a stroll than a hike and along the way we were able to admire some of the spring plants including rosemary, almond blossom and orange groves.  It was all very pleasant and the walk was going very well until we reached the bridge just before Fines-Olula Station, where the engineered greenway suddenly stopped and our onward route was just a rough track.  We were able to access the old station though and it was in a sorry state.  Nearly 30 years of neglect had set in, although its very existence was a miracle as a nearby road scheme had threatened to engulf it completely.  Yet here it stood as a curiosity for passing motorists on the (inevitably) half finished Almanzora motorway.  A lot of relics had survived although they are quite badly vandalised.  These included a passenger station building, goods shed, water tower and crane and a shattered looking toilet block.

Fines-Olula Station

Apparently one of the main exports from this station was marble sinks and headstones from the nearby marble quarries.  There was enough traffic along the line for there to be a passing loop at the station but there are no remains of the passenger platforms left.
Zurgena Station

Beyond the station the former level crossing had disappeared under the improved road scheme and the cycle path continued out towards Baza, the ultimate westerly destination of the railway.  I enjoyed looking around Fines-Olula station although it did feel like I was trespassing.  Yet there were no fences keeping us out and it was only the lack of surfacing to the path that made me feel we shouldn’t be there.

Play Area Water Crane

Once we returned to the car we returned towards the nearby town of La Alfoquia.  This small town grew up around the station of Zurgena, a village a couple of kilometres away.  The station was adopted by the local community after closure and fully renovated and is now used as a community facility including picnic areas, play areas and buildings used for education and gatherings.  The renovation is superb and shows what can be done with these old spaces.

Cucador Viaduct

The space afforded for the station was quite surprising considering that the station saw only a few trains per day for most of its existence.  These were largely for freight, although there was a daily mail train and at least one of the freight trains doubled as a passenger train.  The freight that ran from here was mostly iron ore and agricultural produce.  The style of the architecture was broadly similar to the station at Fines-Olula but there was none of the destruction and desolation of that station, only love and attention.  The contrast could not have been more stark.
Almanzora Track Bed

I was keen to see more so once back at the villa I headed down the dry river bed to the viaduct at the bottom of the valley and walked some more of the trackbed.  The engineering challenges of the builders of the line were immediately apparent when I saw the thick rock that they had had to blast through in order to keep a level route.
Andalucian Flowers

The viaduct was worth a mention.  This beautiful and graceful structure fits its surroundings so well and the golden stone looked particularly good in the late afternoon sunshine.  I took a good look around it before heading eastwards where I had heard there was a tunnel to look at.  I walked along the rather difficult surface of ballast through the rather parched landscape of the Almanzora river.  However, any sense of this being a desert is a bit misleading as the valley is very productive with orange and lemon groves, almond trees, pomegranates and olives.  All along the side of the trackbed I could see little splashes of colour provided by the early spring flowers.  I wasn’t sure that it was an official path, but soon realised that it was used locally when a couple of quad bikes roared past me.

Level Crossing

Eventually after a mile or so I gave up on the prospect of finding the tunnel as I couldn’t see it and time was pressing.  That was a pity because I later found out that if I had been a bit more patient I would have found it as it lay only half a mile or so further on.  Given the success of the overall trip I have a feeling this might not be the last time we come here so maybe next time?  I also understand that there are other stretches that are worth exploring including Albox station and some more reconstructed sections of greenway further west.  I hope that one day I might get another opportunity to take a look.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Finding a Ghost Village

Las Negras Beach
One of the best decisions we have made in years was the one where we made up our minds to go to Andalucia in Spain for a winter holiday.  After all the incredibly wet weather we have had this winter it was such a relief to see some dry and sunny weather!  It was our first family holiday to Spain although us parents had been for short trips before as an add on to other holidays to Portugal and France.  Although we weren't focused on doing any walking on our trip, it is in our blood so when we heard about a coastal walk to a 'ghost village' we were definitely up for it!

Beach Mural
The day we picked was rather overcast although the forecast suggested that we might get some sun down by the coast.  Our walk started at the small pueblo of Las Negras in the Cabo de Gata Park, a protected part of the Andalucian coast that is largely free from development.  Looking at the rugged coastline when we got there it was easy to see why it had not been prime development land, but having it protected is surely a good thing for years to come.

Las Negras
In truth the weather was no better when we got to the coast and when we looked at the rugged coastline we had our doubts as to whether the walk was viable or not.  However, having made the hour long journey to get there we decided to persevere and after some time on the beach and eating our lunch we headed off to where we thought the village would be.
Unfinished Road

At the end of the village of Las Negras was a rather rough looking road that headed up into the hills.  We had no map but I did know that the lost village was about an hour's walk along the coast and that was the only likely route so we set off on our exploration.  Our destination, the lost village of San Pedro was left deserted a few years ago after the few remaining elderly residents decided to move to Las Negras after the latter had a road built to it.  The rough road we were following looked like it might be an extension of that road but had not been completed.  It snaked up around the hillside and soon the children were getting left behind.  We paired up with a child each and that definitely got them going as each daughter got the full and undivided attention they needed with each parent.
Red Squill

Eventually the road ran out of puff.  The amount of engineering that had gone into this redundant piece of infrastructure was surprising but given the onward terrain I'm not quite sure how it could have been finished off.  All along the verge side were clumps of pretty flowers - many fragrant and most quite colourful.  Some were familiar such as prickly pear cacti and wild thyme while others were new to me.  Despite the splashes of colour provided by each flowering plant the overall colour of the landscape though was beige and this wasn't helped by the stubbornly overcast conditions.

Approaching San Pedro
The path narrowed considerably after the end of the road and headed back towards the coast.  I tried to picture which way the road would have gone had it been completed.  I can only think significant additional engineering and probably blasting away more of the cliff to accommodate it would have been necessary.  Surely this would have been a step too far and I imagine that the environmental damage that it would have caused coupled with the cost probably killed it off once and for all.  
San Pedro Castle

As we moved on from the road the path got steadily narrower and more unsteady.  Eventually as we rounded the corner we could see our final destination , the small village and ruined castle of San Pedro down in the cove ahead.  The path down to the bottom was a little scary in places and on one occasion I lost my footing entirely (thankfully without any consequences other than hurting my pride a little).

Spanish Country Garden
Eventually we found our way down to the village and its ruined castle.  The castle was a shell - a ruin of a fortification that had been built to protect the coastline from attack by Barbary Pirates in the 17th Century, it was also bombarded by French and British forces during its time.  The village wasn't quite as billed - some of the abandoned houses have been reclaimed by a hippie community although it was largely deserted.  One or two hardy souls were camping but I understand that in the summer the place is heaving with campers.  With very rudimentary facilities I reckon it must be far more pleasant to camp in February than the heat of the summer.

San Pedro Beach
We headed down to the lonely beach and enjoyed the view while we had some refreshments at the end of our walk.  I understand that it is possible to continue on to Agua Amarca, another 7km or so further along the coast.  Sadly that would have to wait for another trip, for although very tempting there was no transport to get us back to the beginning.  We contented ourselves therefore with lingering on the beach for some time watching the birds and playing in the sand before heading back up the rocky track back to the car, feeling very satisfied with our afternoon of fresh air!