The train in front of the Boquete de Ventas de Zafarraya pass which borders Malaga and Granada provinces. :: J.P.
Don Francisco Moreno López is an old man now but he remembers the original train well. “I wasn’t born when it began. But then I went on it every day to Malaga to do my military service. It left Ventas de Zafarraya at six in the morning and arrived in Malaga at 11am. It set off from the city at 4pm and we got home here at 10 at night”.
Now two of Francisco’s ten children, Paco and José Antonio, are the drivers on a recreated tourist version of the romantically named ‘Tren del Llano’ (train of the plain) which rose up 900 metres from the coast at Vélez-Málaga to Ventas de Zafarraya, a mountain village tucked in behind the dramatic Boquete pass on the border between the northern fringes of the Axarquía and Granada province.
The little train, a scale replica with three open carriages and a small steam engine (fired not by coal but by diesel these days), takes visitors on a short trek to the Boquete, setting off from the back streets of a suburb of Ventas de Zafarraya, fittingly known as La Estación. Here is the former station house and a line of workers’ cottages. Here is the bizarre Alpine-style hotel which had a clanking central heating system and hot water – a rare thing in its time - and offered hospitality to travellers in a remote stark area, freezing in winter and bleak at the best of times. Now it is owned by Don Francisco and while the hotel no longer functions its restaurant does and still has the once innovative heating system in its dining room and other original features. Old photographs of the train and its passengers and crew line the walls.
In 1905 the ‘Ferrocarriles Suburbanos de Malaga’ train company was established with one main mission - to connect Malaga city to Granada. In 1922 the final 31 kilometre stage, from Vélez-Málaga to Ventas de Zafarraya, which had taken 12 years to complete due to the impossibly steep terrain (a funicular system from Switzerland was needed as far as Periana and the rock was hewn, says Paco, with nothing more than ‘pica y pala’ – pickaxes and shovels) was completed.
But by 1959 with stiff competition from new roads and efficient bus services it had already ceased to operate.
The reborn Tren del Llano came about as the result of a chance conversation in 2008 between the then mayor of Ventas de Zafarraya, Francisco Cazorla and José Luis Pinilla, an engineer who runs a company, MARE, which is dedicated to recreating moribund but scenic train routes as tourist attractions. On July 9th 2014 the miniature Tren del Llano was officially inaugurated.
If José Luis Pinilla is the brains behind the train ride it is Don Francisco Moreno and his family who are now its soul. Not just because they have the concession to run it, not just because Paco and José Antonio greet passengers, hand out tickets and drive the engine – but because Bar Gloria – the old hotel - is a veritable homage to La Estación’s former days as a rare and strange railway stop. Perhaps most charming of all is the museum under the building where Francisco has gathered together a wonderfully eclectic collection of memorabilia. The original wrought iron ticket punching machine, timetables and plans of trains but also farming tools, old radios and records, furniture from the original hotel, including beds, sinks and brass light fixtures.
The Tren del Llano no longer sets out from La Estación at 6am every day, taking rural folk to the big city. In fact the tourist version has no regular hours and interested travellers need to book the entire train through Francisco Moreno as a group outing.
The easiest way to experience the train is through SOHA (Save Our Homes Axarquía), the homeowners’ campaigning organisation which run regular events on the train through its social wing, Sohapi. John Munns, who is on the fundraising committee, tells the story of how he stumbled across the bar and with it the train and the museum and the family.
“Phil (Smalley, founder of SOHA) and I had cycled up the pass to Ventas de Zafarraya and called in at the Bar Gloria for a coffee and a ‘pitufo’. It is a charming railway themed bar with old train boilers converted into central heating and railway pictures on the walls. We asked Dani, the owner, about the train and he called his brother Paco to talk to us. Paco helps to run the train and the museum of agricultural and railway artifacts and he gave us a tour of the museum then and there.
“We negotiated the prices with Dani and Paco and that was the start of our happy co-operation. All the people running the train and the bar have been so helpful, friendly and understanding”.
Today when the miniature train’s whistle blows and everyone climbs aboard and it chugs away from La Estación the locals emerge from their houses to line the streets and wave at their past steaming by.
It’s clear that the Tren del Llano has a place once again in the hearts of people from Zafarraya. Not least Francisco Moreno López.