One of the distinctive aromas of early autumn in Andalucía is the fresh, sweet, tantalising smell of ripening figs. It was this fragrance that greeted us as we came to the end of our morning hike, just before enjoying lunch in the village of Benaoján, near Ronda. The ancient twisted fruit trees, with their broad characteristic leaves, lined the edge of the riverside path, plump fruit scattered and squashed on the ground below, perfuming the air.
A morning spent walking in the peaceful Guadiaro valley certainly awakens the senses. It also builds a healthy appetite too, which is just as well, as this was the halfway point of a ‘foodie’ tour that was taking us along the scenic route known affectionately as ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’. This turn of the century track transformed the communities in this isolated mountainous area, once a popular hiding place for bandits in the 18th and 19th centuries.
During the walking tour, as well as stopping off at interesting hotels and secluded cortijos for overnight accommodation, there are lazy breaks for hearty lunches, before ending each day with a generous dinner.
Only the night before our small group had dined at ‘Caserío Ananda’, in the valley near Gaucín. Our hosts were Ángeles and her husband Pedro, who served delectable home-cooked food.
‘Angeles is an alchemist’ suggested Manni Coe, the founder and guide director of Toma Tours who had researched and designed this gourmet walking route. No sooner had the meal started with simple, yet distinctively and deliciously flavoured dishes of roast ‘piquillo’ peppers from Navarra; home-made ‘croquetas’; and organic tomatoes with Cantabrian anchovies, that I began to believe that maybe Ángeles did have some special culinary powers. As the meal continued she modestly displayed the ability to transform simple, wholesome local ingredients into memorable dishes; alchemy indeed.
The main course was suckling pig, roasted in their wood oven, accompanied with baked slices of orange, together with raisins and honey. As the dish was placed on the long wooden table, Ángeles grated over cocoa beans, brought back by her husband from Latin America. The alchemy was complete and we tucked into the feast, a fine example of Andalucía’s contemporary ‘slow-food’ gastronomy.
The historic converted railway building which houses Ángeles’ welcoming and homey restaurant is a real contrast to where we spent the first night of the tour, at the Hotel Reina Cristina in Algeciras. Built at the time of the railway and opened in 1902, this period property is the oldest hotel on the Costa del Sol. It has played host to elite travellers from across Europe; stars such as Ava Gardner and Cole Porter; royalty including King Alfonso XIII; as well as eminent politicians, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and a young Winston Churchill. This was when Algeciras was a modest port, on one of the most beautiful, unspoilt bays in Europe.
Despite the changes to the bay, today the hotel still retains some its British flavour with colonial architectural details; whilst the established gardens give little indication of the vast industrial port that lies beyond.
What’s more, it is the perfect place to start a tour that celebrates ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’. Over a welcome drink in the hotel’s vintage library, Manni Coe started to tell the story of this special railway, through artefacts, clippings, books and pictures he had collected during his research, whetting our appetite for the days ahead.
Each day’s hike, shadowing the tracks of ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’, whilst fairly leisurely, is an essential part of the trip, balancing the indulgent and social meals with a chance to enjoy some exercise, solitude and remarkable views.
This morning, with occasional vultures soaring overhead, the valley was silent. Although the railway remains in service, freight and passenger services are infrequent, so the tranquillity embraces you.
As we arrived in the village of Benaoján, yet more epicurean treats awaited us, including funnily enough, a tasty appetiser salad with some succulent Andalusian figs.
The history of the railway
The railway that runs from the port city of Algeciras in Cadiz, to Bobadilla in the province of Granada is affectionately known as ‘Mr Henderson’s Railway’. It takes its name from Mr Alexander Henderson, a wealthy financier of railways in the UK and internationally.
He was a titled member of the British elite known as Sir Alexander Henderson, 1st Baron Faringdon of Oxfordshire, as well as a 1st Baronet.
In the late 19th century with the help of local communities, and the British establishment, Mr Henderson was integral in establishing this new railway link with the intention of connecting Gibraltar with the rest of Spain.
The ‘Algeciras Gibraltar Railway Company’ began construction in 1887, and is said to have been completed in 1891.
The railway, with its remarkable engineering, allowed travel through the once almost impenetrable mountainous region from the coast up to Ronda and beyond, an area known for its bandits.
The route gave British garrison officers and civil workers based in Gibraltar the opportunity of travel and the chance to escape the rock, and experience Spain. Although Spanish opposition prevented the line going all the way to Gibraltar, Mr Henderson provided a boat service to Algeciras with two steamer vessels named after his daughter and niece, Margarita and Aline.
In addition, the railway brought new prosperity to the villages and towns along its route, driving both commerce and tourism. Mr Henderson´s ‘Iberia and Mediterranean Hotels Company’ established luxury Victorian and Edwardian hotels along the route including ‘Reina Cristina’ in Algeciras and the ‘Reina Victoria’ in Ronda, both of which remain open today.
The railway has been recently upgraded and remains an important freight route as well as providing passenger services for residents and visitors.