It’s a story as old as storytelling: A rare beauty with a tragic past gets an unexpected shot at redemption.
Last month, this exact plot echoed through a long-forgotten train station sitting beneath the snowy Spanish Pyrenees.
I documented my first encounter with this rare beauty, Canfranc International Railway Station, in my travel memoir Europe by Milk Run.
And, reader, this Beaux-Arts masterpiece floored me. The depot’s graceful design and formidable location tucked between a river and soaring granite cliffs left me in awe.
Spain designed Canfranc to impress Parisians and engineered it to wow the Swiss. Its planners hoped this new French-Spanish link would not only ease overtaxed border crossings, but also spur regional economic development and reinvigorate Spain’s standing in Western Europe. So, yeah, slightly lofty expectations…
And, thus, it failed spectacularly.
Except at the being beautiful part. No one could deny its utter architectural perfection.
By my 2016 visit, Canfranc had sat abandoned for over 50 years. The interior was completely locked off save for a handful of seasonal tours, and it had no operational ticket windows or machines. A lonely, half-empty daily commuter train was all that remained of a timetable that once included international crossings and onward connections to Barcelona. Rows of dormant tracks lay barely visible under a carpet of weeds.
Last month, after a four-year renovation that spared no expense, Canfranc reopened as a luxury hotel. Gone is the rusty temporary fencing, broken and plywood-covered windows, graffiti, debris piles, crumbling sidewalks and peeling paint.
The result, after a painstaking restoration, is nothing less than spectacular, as shown by these before and after photos:
Part of me, of course, already misses the old girl. The dusty charm aside, the thought of it being an exclusive luxury hotel instead of a public space anyone can experience certainly gives me pause.
On the other hand, at least the hotel breathes new life into a downtrodden gem. The hotel appears to be a stunning design triumph, and I look forward to stepping inside the polished lobby. Maybe just for a scandalously expensive drink. Who knows?
It won’t be the same, of course. No longer will entering the old lobby require a hard hat and disinterested tour guide. But it seems like a worthwhile diversion. After all, few settings can match the romance and intrigue of old train stations.
Plus, who doesn’t love a redemption story?