Photos show the walls inside the Canfranc International Train Station crumbling, water leaking through the roof, pipes rusted out, and graffiti covering the train cars.
In the winter, snow piles up on the floors while vines and trees grow through the windows in the spring. But despite this decay of abandonment, the 790-foot-long Beaux-Arts facade of what was once the largest train station in the world is still as stunning as ever.
The train station was always something of a gamble. Starting in the late 1800s, officials had the idea to build a railroad hub, one that would eventually be dubbed the “Titanic of the Mountains,” 3,921 feet above sea level and perched somewhat precariously in the Pyrenees Mountains.
It was to be the centerpiece of an important new rail line that would link Spain and France in a route that would cut directly through the mountains.
A spectacular structure was eventually built, the departure board spun into action, and the electric engines began chugging in and out; but Canfranc’s service as a train station would be short-lived.
Forty-two years after the station opened its doors, it would close them once and for all. But before it did so, it would play an important role in one of the worst conflicts in modern history.
It took many years to get the two nations to agree to the terms of the joint project. In 1884, a report in The New York Times announced that “after long negotiations,” the Spanish and French governments had agreed to build two new lines across the Pyrenees. The line that would belong to Canfranc was eagerly anticipated as it was to be “the shortest route from Paris to Madrid.”
But despite the positive outlook of the Times, the deal was far from done. As inevitably happens with massive governmental projects and international diplomacy, delays occurred and it wasn’t until 1904 that an official agreement was finally signed. Fifteen years after that, an American Geographical Society publication announced that the plan “is gradually nearing realization.”
It would take another 10 years, but finally, in 1928, the project that the Daily Telegraph noted “proved both a difficult and costly enterprise” was finally ready for its grand opening.
To honor their great achievement, top officials from both countries gathered together in July of 1928 for not one, but two celebratory lunches.
First, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, President Gaston Doumergue of France, and a slew of their top lieutenants met in Canfranc on the Spanish side of the border, where they dined on delicacies including scrambled eggs with truffles, sirloin with buttered peas, and capons with ham.
Then, they traveled—by rail of course—across the mountains to France, where they enjoyed a second lunch whose details are now lost, but one can assume the menu was competitively delicious.
In what was perhaps a prophetic turn of events for the troubles that would soon plague the line, the inauguration ceremonies were accompanied by a warning of potential terrorist activity in Spain.
“A semi-official Note has been issued stating that certain anti-Government elements are preparing a disturbance in Madrid, taking advantage of the absence of the King and General Primo de Rivera while they are attending the inauguration of the Trans-Pyrennean railway at Canfranc,” read the Daily Telegraph on July 12, 1928.
But the crisis was averted, the station opened, and travelers began to pass between Spain and France, gazing in wonder at the beauty that was the Canfranc station along the way.
Station aside, the feat of engineering that went into constructing the rail line was pretty spectacular on its own. Tunneling through the Pyrenees was no easy task and the route featured fourteen tunnels, six river crossings via bridges and viaducts, and a long international tunnel between the two countries that reached up to 4,000 feet above sea level at one point.
The system ran on electric power that was generated with help from the waterfalls in the mountains and, because the path had several steep changes in elevation, the electrical engines were reported to be “the most powerful in the world.”
But as incredible as the railroad’s engineering may have been, the train station that was the crowning achievement of two nations was the real showstopper.
In his book The Train in Spain, Christopher Howse described it as “like a vast Noah’s Ark run aground.” Larger than two football fields, the station was designed in the Beaux-Arts style with 365 windows wrapped around the outside.
The massive train platforms were over 600 feet in length and were divided between the two countries, with France taking dominion over one side despite Canfranc’s location on Spanish soil.
The interior was like a small city, with a hospital, restaurant, and housing for the customs officials from both countries and other guests. It was probably a good thing that the Canfranc station was so well-equipped for hospitality as there was one major inefficiency overlooked—or built into—the system.
The engines that ran on the French side of the line were incompatible with the mechanisms on the Spanish side. So every time a train passed through from one country to the other—which was, after all, the whole point—the passengers had to disembark and the cargo had to be ferried from a French train to a Spanish or vice versa. The process could take hours… and, in the meantime, the Canfranc tourism industry was happy to oblige the put-upon passengers.
For the first several years, Canfranc thrived. The city grew from a population of 500 to nearly 2,000 even though the line was never really in heavy use.
But whatever steam Canfranc was picking up was quickly stalled eight years after it opened when the Spanish Civil War broke out. The government decided to shut the station down for the duration to prevent it being used for any nefarious activity. While the route was reopened after the war ended in 1939, business as usual didn’t last for long.
When World War II broke out, even a small town high up into the Pyrenees Mountains wasn’t immune.
At the beginning of the war, traffic increased through the Canfranc station as refugees fled from Germany and France into Spain and Portugal. They were closely followed by the Nazis themselves, who hoisted their flag over the gorgeous station and set about turning it into their own special hub.
With the Nazis at the helm, materials needed for the German war effort were transported over the rail line into France, while gold and other contraband goods stolen from their Jewish victims were sent the opposite direction for safe keeping.
The Nazis ran the station like a well-oiled war machine and were aided in their efforts by the man serving as the French customs officer. Installed at the Canfranc station when the war broke out, Le Lay quickly set about charming the Nazi occupiers and helping facilitate the movement of their goods.
But what his new overlords didn’t realize is that their compliant French officer had become a leader in the French Resistance and that his secret activities would eventually earn him comparisons to Schindler.
Because the Canfranc station was a hub connecting France and Spain, it became increasingly important to the Allied war effort. It may have been occupied by the Nazis, but Allied spies were installed to spy on the their enemies and to pass intelligence back and forth along the line.
Le Lay was one of those spies, but he also took his position one step farther. “Aware when Jewish travellers [sic] were in danger, [Le Lay] regularly saved them from arrest by hiding them in secure places in the huge station, in the village, and often in his own apartment,” wrote Eve Kugler, one of the Jewish refugees who passed through Canfranc (PDF).
Le Lay helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews who passed through the station, including those of artists Max Ernst Marc Chagall.
Despite his heroic actions, he rejected all recognition when the war came to an end. Like so many brave men who came before, he believed he only did what was right, nothing more.
“Le Lay is fascinating because of the multiple networks he wove, his ability to get in touch with any kind of person… he outwitted the Gestapo time and time again. [He] ended up getting away by the skin of his teeth,” José Antonio Blanco, a director of the 2013 documentary The King of Canfranc told El Pais. “After receiving all sorts of honors—he retired to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. He asked his family to stay as silent as tombs about his exploits.”
Back to Life
After the war ended, the station slowly resumed its normal activities. But business never really boomed.
In 1970, a cargo train went off the tracks on the French side of the border, and they decided they were done—this particular railroad venture was more trouble than it was worth. After the French pulled out, the Spanish were forced to shutter the Canfranc station.
While the trains had ground to a halt, that wasn’t the final stop for the station. In 1985, a group of enterprising Spanish physicists were looking for a site to conduct some research and realized that the Canfranc station had everything they could dream of: It was a large, empty building in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking, and it had plenty underground space.
The Canfranc Underground Astroparticle Laboratory was soon opened.
The needs of science didn’t stave off the inevitable decay for long. As the grand building slowly began to fold under the effects of time and abandonment, it developed a melancholic grandeur that only those empty spaces that were once so painstakingly constructed and so filled with life achieve.
But things may be looking up. As the interest in urban exploration—primarily among abandoned sites—has become a raging trend, Canfranc has been the subject of renewed interest. Then, several years ago, the government of Aragon decided to buy the building.
As we’ve learned from Canfranc’s history, the process of government projects can be slow and tedious.
But the new owner has a big plan, one that, again, may be something of a gamble. They want to open a hotel in the abandoned building and to revive its service as a fully operational train station. Canfranc station may live again.