Before I set up Toma Tours, life´s twists and turns found me living in Algeciras, a rather forgettable town on the western Costa del Sol.
It’s funny how life works out, as my landing in Algeciras all those moons ago is undoubtedly the reason why last week I found myself tuned into the BBC, watching as I appeared on screen travelling by train through Andalusia.
As a tour guide I had been more than dismayed when I arrived in Algeciras to find that the local tourist office had just closed. One local told me, “Algeciras is so ugly that no one visits, but that´s good as we are allowed to live our own lives.”
The main road that cuts above Algeciras to take the hoards of Tarifa sun seekers to the glorious Cadiz coastline takes you through the industrial outskirts, so most passersby comment on the town without ever venturing into its heart.
I began walking around the old town of Algeciras and I was hit by how beautiful it must have been back in the late 1800´s. Remnants of its glory days squat between office blocks and apartments that literally cut the sea off from the seaside town.
It turned its back on the sea and it’s the worst thing a town can ever do. Rivers should never be covered to create urban space (Plaza Nueva- Granada) and towns should never turn their back on water (Seville before 1992, Algeciras present day).
It saddens me to imagine Algeciras before it was butchered by development and bad taste, and when I see a model in the Municipal Museum of Algeciras in Arabic times my heart moans. There were 2 Medinas, separated by a river that ran into a horse-shoe bay with white sands, surrounded by verdant hills and with Gibraltar as a backdrop. It was probably more beautiful than San Sebastian (How dare I!?).
As I pondered the scale model I spotted a very handsome building perched on a crest of land down by the Port. I asked the museum attendant if that building remained and he replied,
“Claro. Eso es el Hotel Reina Cristina. Un sitio muy bonito!” – “Of course, that’s the hotel Reina Cristina. A lovely place!”
The Hotel Reina Cristina; named after a queen and built by British architects. I started googling and a world opened before me. I was in the process of launching Toma Tours from a town with no tourist office but I had just ventured across a true gem that led me (and continues to lead me) along a route of discovery and adventure.
The hotel led me to the railway and the rest is history. The Route of Mr Henderson´s Railway was born. It encompasses all that I love about Spain and travel generally; history, cultural links, trains, architecture, natural beauty, wildlife, hiking, food, wine and people.
The route that cuts up through stunning terrain to Ronda is the major life blood to several wonderful restaurants, boutique hotels, cafés and guest houses that I have delighted in coming across and more importantly getting to know their patrons, a whole host of wonderful people who are holding the route together with their dedicated passion and specific fields of expertise. Those “patrons” have become friends and they are all a vital part of this entire project. Without them, the appeal of the train route would have been lost, years ago.
The sister hotel Reina Victoria in Ronda was in a throws of a major renovation when I first stepped over its threshold. It is rented by the Catalonia Hotel Chain and they decided to “renovate” it and bring it up to par with a modern 4 star hotel. I take people there who knew the “Old” Queen Victoria and they sigh. But as I didn´t see it before, I can only imagine and as I stroll its plentiful gardens and soak up its astonishing vistas I surmise that the bones of this lady are so beautiful, she was so exquisitely created, that try as they might, they can´t undermine her eternal appeal. Like a woman who has had “work” done, beneath her face life, she is, and will remain always, beautiful.
So there we have it; a unique train journey that links two Centenary hotels (and there aren’t many in Andalusia), home to gourmet food, and a romantic appeal that goes beyond the project itself. A Tour Guide´s dream, right?
I began to investigate and contact key figures in the railway´s history and invited the descendants of Mr Henderson himself, the first Lord Faringdon. 27 members of the family came to visit the legacy of their Great Grandfather and were thrilled by the trip.
I also wrote to Michael Portillo twice; I knew he simply must cover this spectacular railway line for his BBC2 series. Eventually the research team contacted me to gain insight into the route. They were preparing to cover Andalusia in the series of Great Continental Railway Journeys.
I met the director on a recce for filming locations and later the team asked me to accompany Michael on the train down from Ronda. Within the minute by minute structured filming regime there was little time for idle banter. I met him at the station, shook his hand and he thanked me for my contribution then he was gone. He walked to the far end of the platform to gather himself in the middle of a manic day of filming and presenting.
If something doesn’t work it will get cut. “There is no second take”, explained the producer as I was shown to my seat. As the train pulled out of Ronda station, Michael approached me and a very natural chat developed about the history of the railway and the route it takes.
I had managed to persuade the production team that we needed to get “off” the train to really appreciate the landscape and by-gone-years atmosphere of the villages that wrap the old stations. I took him to one of my favourite restaurants in all of Spain, the Caserio Ananda, where we and enjoyed local wines and tapas.
Unfortunately, this segment didn´t make the final cut. The owners Pedro and Angeles are dear friends of mine and initially I was disappointed but as the morning after the night before develops, I accept once more that everything happens for a reason and that we needn’t worry. Caserio Ananda remains a diamond in the rough and on hindsight I feel that BBC exposure might just have ruined its unique atmosphere. Only people that really seek it out are deserved of a meal there.
As I finally watched the programme on air I was filled with admiration for Michael Portillo and the entire production team for crafting a culturally sensitive insight into the fascinating fabric of all the places they visited. Mr Henderson’s Railway got a huge thumbs up from everyone involved and I remember Michael’s delight as he journeyed along the single track through its deep ravines and stunning valleys.
Mr Henderson’s Railway 1892-2013 and still going strong.