Inside the abandoned train station Canfranc Station that’s been transformed into a spectacular hotel
Against the backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains, deep in the Aragon valley, lies an imposing, beautiful building.
Welcome to Canfranc Station, once an abandoned railway station, now a luxurious hotel.
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Canfranc Station opened as an opulent rail hub in 1928, its inauguration ceremony attended by both the King of Spain and the President of the French Republic; the hotel is in Spain, but not far from the French border.
During World War II, Canfranc witnessed arrests, espionage and gold trafficking.
By 1970, the station had closed its doors.
The station lay dormant for decades until work began to transform the still beautiful, but long neglected, building into a hotel operated by the Barcelo Hotel Group.
After years of regeneration, Canfranc Station welcomed its first guests in January 2023.
Railway and history buffs officially have a new destination on their bucket list, while Mayor of Canfranc, Fernando Sánchez Morales, says locals have greeted the opening “with enthusiasm”.
“We are very satisfied to have the station alive and bright again,” Sánchez Morales said.
Those who find beauty in abandoned buildings might suggest the hotel was more appealing in its eerie, dilapidated state.
But Canfranc Station also looks pretty spectacular post-revitalisation, and is already attracting guests.
Architect Thomas O’Hare first stumbled across Canfranc Station by accident a couple of years ago.
When he discovered the abandoned rail hub was set to become a hotel, he vowed to return upon completion.
Today, O’Hare, who lives in Belfast in Northern Ireland, is on holiday at the hotel with his family.
“The exterior is very grand and certainly gives the impression of travel from a different time,” he said.
Due to its border position, ownership of Canfranc Station was originally shared between France and Spain.
It is now owned by the local Aragon government in Spain, which worked on the regeneration process with the Barcelo Hotel Group.
Canfranc Station played an active role during World War II, bearing witness to moments of both hope and despair.
Prior to the Nazi takeover of the Canfranc municipality, the station acted as the gateway to liberty for some European Jews persecuted by the German regime.
Author Ramón Javier Campo Fraile, who won an award for writing about Canfranc’s history, spoke to CNN Travel in 2017 about the area.
“In the first years of the world war, from 1940 to 1942, thousands of Jews fled by train from Canfranc to Lisbon and the United States,” he said.
Among those who fled by train out of Canfranc, according to Campo Fraile, were the painters Max Ernst, who was not Jewish, and Marc Chagall. American entertainer Josephine Baker also transited through the station.
Spies traveled by train from Canfranc en route to join the anti-Nazi French Resistance and to pass messages to Allied countries.
“It was also used by the Allies, who passed information to France and Spain through a spy network,” said Mayor Sánchez Morales in 2017.
However, the Nazis took the municipality of Canfranc in November 1942 and maintained control until June 1944.
Escape through Canfranc became harder and the station became the site of many arrests.
Canfranc was the only Spanish municipality occupied by the Nazis – and the regime made its presence felt.
Campo Fraile said more than 300 people were arrested fleeing towards Lisbon in Portugal and sent to jails across Spain.
“The Germans controlled the traffic of gold (and tungsten) and they also lowered the French flag,” he said.
Rumors of Nazi gold trafficking through Canfranc station have proliferated for years, but were confirmed only in 2000.
Campo Fraile said a local bus driver found evidence revealing that “86 tons of Nazi gold passed through the station between 1942 and 1943”.
“We have found more documents in European and American archives that prove that more than 100 tons of gold passed through the area,” he said.
María Bellosta, hotel manager at Canfranc, said “special attention had been paid to every detail” of the regeneration project.
It was important, Bellosta added, to avoid “losing an iota of its personality and enormous legacy”.
With this “enormous legacy” comes “an enormous challenge”, as Bellosta puts it.
The 1928 building had to be adapted to fit the standards and luxuries of a modern hotel, without losing its historical character.
“We wanted to maintain its DNA, its international railway spirit,” says Bellosta.
The interior design, the product of Madrid-based studio ILMIODESIGN, aims to evoke the 1920s through its fabric, decor and staff uniforms.
The design also includes specific nods to what Bellosta calls “the historical, cultural and social heritage of Canfranc, and the role it developed during the 20th century”.
Colours and tones evoke the natural, mountainous landscape surrounding the hotel.
There are 104 rooms in the hotel, including four suites.
There’s a wellness area, including a pool and three restaurants.
What was once the station concourse is now the hotel reception.
Hotel guest Thomas O’Hare praises the “tasteful” transformation of the station concourse into the hotel reception.
“The rooms and bar and restaurant follow this nice feel of modern interior with a heavy gesture towards its history of rail travel,” he says.
O’Hare’s main quibble is the extra €15 ($A24) cost per guest for using the hotel pool.
Plus, Canfranc’s stunning mountainside location means it doesn’t have much in the way of grounds.
For his part, mayor Sánchez Morales says he’s very happy with how “the history of the station and the railway environment” are evoked throughout the hotel.
“We hope it will be the consolidation of Canfranc as a tourist destination,” he says.
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