Last week I finally managed to get away from the desk and go out on a special Toma Tour. To say I fell in love with Andalusia all over again is an understatement, because being able to see my adopted home through someone else´s expert eyes brought a whole new sense of wonder and excitement, the kind of feeling you slowly forget after you have been in a place for so long.
It had been several months in the making, a special Press Trip with 8 friends and colleagues from the world of journalism and food writing, who all came to experience a little of Toma´s Spain – a place of stunning scenery, fascinating stories, and excellent food.
The star of the show of course, was Mr Henderson´s Railway, and the hidden gems that Manni has come to know and love along the tracks.
You may be surprised to hear that we kicked off in Algeciras at the southern most point of Spain. Not really the kind of place to bring a group of journalists you are trying to impress! But the industrial skyline of oil-refinery chimneys and tankers only serve to hide the town´s true charm from anyone but those who know it well.
Algeciras is a place that enchanted Laurie Lee enough to visit twice and the town that gave birth to one of the greatest Flamenco guitarists of our time, Paco de Lucia. There is a fascinating past, but more surprising is what´s hidden just meters from one of the busiest container ports in Europe; At the heart of this urban seafront is the Hotel Reina Cristina, an English colonial oasis that once had the Atlantic seashore rolling right up to the front gates.
The passage of time may have left her irreparable mark beyond the hotel grounds, but inside the gates time appears to have stood still, frozen like an old black and white photo in homage to the wonderful life of the hotel´s wealthy founders and subsequent guests.
The guest books reveal a list of famous visitors from the young Winston Churchill, Eva Gardener and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, while cabinets proudly display original silverware and old relics of the era.
The Reina Cristina hotel was built following the completion of Mr Henderson´s Railway as a place for the family to enjoy some R & R, soon becoming a destination for rich travelers on their Grand Tour.
Being in Cadiz province it would be very poor of us not to try the local delicacy; Red Tuna of the Almadraba. So after a quick gathering in the hotel library to learn more from Manni about the railway, we headed straight to Cepas restaurant overlooking in the dusty little bay of Getares.
Here we enjoyed a menu inspired by the sea; Blue Fin Tuna from the Almadraba of Cadiz, wakame sea greens, roast octopus, and all finished off with a Cava especially developed for, and dedicated to the fishing scene of Cadiz – perfect with tuna of course!
Back at the hotel and feeling mellow, we look forward to day one of our journey along Mr Henderson´s Railway.
The first walk began at the strategically built hilltop town of Castellar de la Frontera, reached by a scenic drive through the campo de Gibraltar.
It was as if someone had ordered a moody grey sky just for us, set against the imposing castle as reminder of how hard it was for the Christians to “crack” this heavily guarded hilltop fortress. The walk, thankfully was much easier.
A downhill route to kick off the week, arriving at the quirky station restaurant, “La Estacion” in time for lunch.
Manni has been telling me for months how Mr Henderson´s Railway is dotted with surprisingly good gourmet pit-stops, restaurants built into the old loading bays and cargo houses that have long since been leased off by Renfe to make a bit of extra cash. Finally, I was able to meet some of the people who run these amazing little gems tucked away in the Andalusian countryside.
La Estacion is the only one that is actually located in the station building itself. But before seeing life as a restaurant, the present owners converted it into a family home – you can still sit in the original kitchen of the house, dressed up as a cosy little restaurant booth.
If you happen to be a train spotter who loves food, then La Estacion has to be on your bucket list. And if you just love food, then La Estacion still has to be on your bucket list!
Packed full of artefacts, old photos, railway collector’s items and of course the train itself, screaming past every couple of hours. It´s a real treat!
Waving goodbye to our friend Samuel at the restaurant, we headed for our evening retreat. The welcome we receive from Sally makes us feel like a big American family coming home for Christmas, so warm is her hospitality.
Sally is quite famous around these parts. She knows many people “in our circle” and it´s easy to see why; El Nobo is a credit to her, a calming oasis nestled beneath Gaucin, one of the most picturesque villages in Andalusia.
Sally first built a house, and over the years she added an extra room here, a cottage there, and another villa with infinity pool next door just for good measure. The menagerie of cats and dogs choose to stay; they know, as we did, how privileged they are.
After taking a quick dip and absorbing the serenity, off we went to our venue for dinner in nearby Estacion de Gaucin in the scenic Los Alcornocales natural park.
Angeles and Pedro at Caserio Ananda had a real treat laid on for us, inviting the local Mayor and two bodegas to present their “natural” wines during dinner.
When Manni talks about Angeles and her food, he tells us that she sprinkles it with something special – like some kind of fairy dust that makes magic of the freshest fruits and vegetables from the garden, cooked in the most simple and traditional way, but with mouth-watering results.
Is it possible to enjoy a tomato so much? Or that such a delicious sauce accompanying the piquillo peppers be made from nothing but olive oil, a little salt and the natural red juices from the peppers, sweetened by the sunshine?
I knew that Manni had a deep connection with Caserio Ananda, and it left a long-lasting impression on me and our friends too, all the more special for seeing it through Toma eyes.
Back at El Nobo after a good night’s sleep, Sally bade us farewell with a hearty breakfast of hand-squeezed juice, toasted breads, local honey, poached figs and a huge earthenware dish of morcilla, sausage, eggs and bacon… just in case. Already well-versed in seeing off walkers from Gaucin, Sally knows the score. “Oh and do take some figs from the tree with you!”
The scenic hike on day 2 took our group alongside the river that flows down past the railway and into a natural gorge where the water is crystal clear and inviting for a quick dip.
A highlight of this route is that you can walk straight into the next village for lunch, greeted by the gentle sound of flowing water that would power the mill in days gone by.
El Molino de Santo in Benaojan has an excellent reputation and didn´t disappoint. We were treated to lunch on the flower-filled terrace; a menu full of local flavour and refreshingly cool salads, vichyssoise, and mouth watering ice creams (the Thyme with crushed pistachio is seriously good!).
Happy and full once more, we headed to our final resting place in Ronda, the iconic Reina Victoria hotel, built by Mr Henderson´s company a few years after the Reina Christina and just as special. Time for a quick photo-shoot around town before dressing for our finale dinner.
After such amazing food so far during the tour, it was hard to know what could possibly top it off, but Frank´s tiny team at El Muelle did us proud.
Frank shares the Toma passion for excellent local food and good wine, proudly presenting us with such dishes as the local Ronda goats cheese that he finally discovered would go well with smoked salmon and tomato from the garden. Add to this a melt in the mouth selection of Ibérico pork and some of the most delicious desserts around, and you have some very happy campers at the end of an invigorating week!
Although this was a short whistle-stop version of our new 5 day walking tour, I can´t help but feel like we did do the whole thing, and the memories will certainly last a long time to come.
New friends, new experiences, and new excitement as we continue to help spread the word about the special venues and communities along this historical railway.
I hope you enjoyed sharing a little of this ride with us, the main event is taking place with our first full 5 day tour on October 15th. Find out more here including the full itinerary and details of how to book.
And if you would like to continue the journey from afar, then do sign up to become Friend of Toma – we have lots more news coming soon!