Getting to Canfanc Estación
Flying into Paris from Tasmania leaves one slightly tired, so knowing that we booked an initial night at a local hotel airport so that we could just get in and get a good nights sleep before we head out on our European travels.
A nice French hotel dinner and early night to bed had us up early fully rested and looking forward to heading down to the Pyrenees. Knowing that we would be spending a little more then 4 months in Europe we opted to lease a car instead of renting, the long term of our stay made this a much more viable option for the duration. We booked through AutoEurope.com, and with them we were able to get a brand new Peugeot 208 (it had 2km on it when we picked it up) fully registered in our name and fully insured for the length of the lease. This is definitely the way to go, for us it worked out to just about $20 USD a day.
Once on our way we had hoped to spend the day driving almost all the way down to the Spanish border, but being a Friday trying to get through and south of Paris, the rest of the French and European holiday travelers didn't really allow that to happen. That first day we made it just under 300km (~180 miles) in about 5 hours before we decided to call it a night and we pulled into Chateauroux and proceeded to try and find a hotel. I gravitated to the first one that looked old and quaint but not too scary, we checked and it was available but with a somewhat scary for our budget price of 90 Euro's (104 USD), but it was late enough and we weren't sure what else would be around so we checked in. Being about 8pm, we still had a bit of daylight to enjoy as we walked quickly through the town and enjoyed a nice dinner before returning and heading to bed.
The next morning we awoke better rested, now 2 full days from the exhausting Hobart-Melbourne-Doha-Paris flight, and again south we went. This time we made it as far as Pau, another 600km south (370 miles) where we stopped to have a meal in the town and contemplated continuing onto Canfranc of staying for the night. We borrowed free internet by standing outside of a KFC and booked a room at a local hotel that was above and part of a restaurant. Perfect for us, and somewhat surprising to find that on a Saturday evening the city pretty much cleared out and was empty by 9pm. A quaint city, and the second to last stop on the Tour de France, we missed the riders coming in by 3 days - probably luckily since we were able to get a hotel when we were there.
We're getting there, remember our goal was to get to Canfranc Estation, a train station that we (Tina) had read about, on Atlas Obsucra, that was once a marvel the world over. We headed out again and were quickly rewarded with the steep winding roads leading into the Pyrenees. We did take time to stop and enjoy a lunch break (European style) with a small picnic with store bought snacks and enjoyed the views.
And then, after we headed around a few more sharp corners and through a tunnel into Spain, we were pulling into Canfranc. Just driving on the main road through the city you can't help but be impressed by the size of the station, looming massively in the narrow valley and surrounded by gorgeously steep mountains. This place is worth it, you know when you drive in, the street are full of people (tourists) and there are no parking spots in the center drive through town. We looped around and parked on the back side of the station and then spent about two hours wandering around the outside of the fenced off abandoned station and taking photos trying to capture its grandeur.
The station is a masterpiece, it was built as such, opening in 1928 - it has over 365 windows, one for every day of the year, and apparently was a city unto itself. Because the French and Spanish had different sized rail gauges, the French trains came into one side of the station, everyone got off cleared customs and enjoyed the splendor of the station before hopping onto a Spanish train on the other side to continue their journey. The station has restaurants, a hotel, full customs for both countries, apparently part of it was legally French territory, and it fueled the city. Then the world continued on it's way, the Spanish civil war saw it closed and tunnels blockaded, reopened and used as an escape route during the early parts of WW2 before the Germans commandeered it and apparently used it as a major point for smuggling gold out of Europe. Reopened after the war and in use until a freight train wreck on a bridge heading to the station in France in 1970 finally ended its use. We believe we saw the remains of the collapsed bridge on our drive, but the station, or route, didn't make enough money and at that time the cash-strapped French rail service decided not to rebuild the bridge. The station has been closed since then - look online and you'll find stories about its resurrection, as recently as last year (2017) about it being purchased to be turned into a resort, or reopened as a tourist station.
Sadly, at least to us, none of that seems to be happening. There are tours, you can see people entering on the last photo, where you can see the insides as they crumble, but they are only in July and August and you need to book in advance. We inquired when we arrived and they were sold out for that day and most of the next day, but we were told that along with being inside they are mostly informative history told only in Spanish. Apparently there is an audio guide option, but as we didn't do the tour we can't comment on how that is. It's unbelievable enough just standing outside the station, trying to imagine the hustle and bustle of people moving through crowds and working when the station was running on a daily basis.
From that we planned to head through the southern Spanish Pyrenees and across to Andorra. If you're this close, you've got to stop into one of this micro-countries right?
We drove through winding roads and abandoned city after abandoned city, it's amazing and surprising to see, groups of old brick buildings just covered in weeds or alone in an opening in a flat between hills. I'm sure there's a reason for them all - money, plumbing, electricity - and had we not been trying to get to our hotel before dusk we might have stopped to explore them. We should have stopped to explore them. But we drove on and eventually made our way through the border and into Andorra.
The line of cars getting out of Andorra towards Spain had to be over an hour's wait, it was massive. We drove in and finally into Andorra La Vella where we stayed for the night. Andorra is a tax free haven, basically it's a duty free shopping mall for Europe to enjoy, and you can tell that a lot of them travel to this country to shop. We just enjoyed strolling the streets and having a nice dinner outside surrounded by mountains...
It's a quaint little country, not sure it's worth the visit. Unless you need gas, then it's worth it, that gas isn't taxed like everywhere else, it's about $4.08 USD/Gal compared to $5.54 USD/Gal in France and $4.55 in Spain. We did see a huge line of cars, maybe a mile long, heading into Andorra as we left into France the following morning - that seems to me a long way to go just to save a little on gas - but if you're going, make sure your tank is nearing empty when you are entering the country.