OUTSIDE the international railway station at Canfranc in Spain, deep in the high Pyrenees in Aragon, two men are on hunger strike. Their home-made banner reads: “NATIONAL SHAME”. Their campaign does not concern human rights or animal cruelty or any ideological cause. They are protesting at the plight of the railway station.
That anyone would starve themselves for a station might strike you as odd. It did me — until I saw the station and its attached hotel. It is about ten times the size of St Pancras in London. Canfranc is perhaps the most spectacular, most ignored and most bizarre white elephant in Europe. The Millennium Dome at Greenwich cannot hold a candle to this blazing example of misplaced optimism, political pomp and official misjudgment. Shelley in his imagined discovery of the ruined statue of Ozymandias would have revelled in this Pyrenean reality. As I stood gasping at this monument to broken dreams I experienced — as would any traveller in this foreign land — an Ozymandian moment.
I love it.
Whispered around the domes and state rooms of the station hotel, the rotting platforms and the marbled Customs halls, are the words: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” They come from the shades of Alfonso XIII, once King of Spain, and Gaston Doumergue, once President of France. Prime ministers, chief executives and presidents of the European Union should cock their ears and listen.
King Alfonso and the French President opened Canfranc International station in 1928, the culmination of 40 years of planning and labour. The boring of a five-mile tunnel through solid rock beneath the Pyrenean ridge which separates France and Spain, 23 further tunnels and three viaducts, and an international treaty (still in force) requiring both parties to maintain the railway, finally took shape in steel rails and wooden sleepers.
ninme checks her travel diary
Why, lookit that! I’m free all this year!
Here during the Second World War lines of anxious Jewish refugees from France would have stood, their lives in the immigration officers’ hands. There was huge traffic, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between the two countries during the war. That this was the only time when Canfranc really worked as a station adds to the melancholy now.
There are holes in the roof of the hotel, and every year the snow opens them wider. Only the beat of pigeons’ wings disturbs the silence of the Customs halls and hotel reception. You can prise your way past the security fencing and see for yourself. It is like diving the Titanic. The clock has stopped at ten past two. Plaster roses are peeling from the walls, carved stone is flaking, floors are sagging, tiles have slipped. A train of wooden carriages stands abandoned on the rails outside, columbine growing around the carriage doors and windows.
In Britain, perhaps, a lottery grant or a BBC restoration programme might save such a place. I reckon the roof could be secured for about half a million pounds, but restoring what is beneath it would run into tens of millions. Similar sums are being ploughed into new ski-stations and ghastly alpine-style condominiums in the Aragonese Pyrenees, but nobody can find the money to save Canfranc. Besides, what would you do with it? Do we really need a hotel the size of the Victoria and Albert Museum, decorated in the modernist style, deep in a valley in the central Pyrenees?
What?! Yes! Of course! Augh!
The new European nostrum, the nostrum of our age, is all about union and the dissolution of borders. Will the Berlaymont in Brussels, the European Parliament in Strasbourg and Brussels — will, indeed, the European Central Bank and its brave new currency — live up to its dreamers’ confidence? Let us not listen too hard for the beat of pigeons’ wings, or we shall achieve nothing. But if you want to stand for a moment in shuddering contemplation of the mortality of international dreams, come to Canfranc.
Oh damnit. I’m a couple dozen million short, otherwise I’d buy it. Think a tipjar would help?
Getting cheeky with Percy Bysshe Shelley over at Wheat & Weeds.