Just on the edge of the Costa del Sol is a pioneering railway line that once opened new frontiers and recently drew the makers of Michael Portillo’s BBC series “Great Continental Railway Journeys” to our part of the world.
Living on the Costa del Sol you could be in a state of perfect ignorance of what lies behind that curtain of mountains separating the coastal strip from the Andalucian hinterland. Set before them, fronting the Mediterranean, is a lively, cosmopolitan world of hedonism and earthly delights, yet to many the mountains and valleys on the other side remain somewhat of a mystery.
The same can be said of the port city of Algeciras, which lies opposite Gibraltar at the point where the Atlantic and Mediterranean meet, so it was with a real sense of anticipation that I first visited the classic Hotel Reina Cristina.
This colonial style hotel set within an oasis of greenery on the bay overlooking Gibraltar is the starting point of a tour of discovery organised by Manni Coe of Toma Tours, whose enthusiasm and many years of exploration make him a real authority on Andalucía.
From here we were going to follow a railway line into the mountains that was built under the auspices of Victorian entrepreneur Mr. Henderson and still bears his name today. Of vital importance to the region, this line connected the coast and hinterland for the first time, and it was thanks to the vision of a Gibraltarian ship owner named Captain Louis Lombard, the investments made by Mr. Henderson and the technical genius of engineer Charles Lamiable that the many obstacles of the Serranía de Ronda were overcome and an impressive line was created that snakes through fantastic scenery.
Having stayed at the first hotel built on the Costa del Sol, whose guests have included royalty and the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, we travelled to the mountain top village of Castellar, from where we hiked down to the railway line in the valley. I can’t claim to be a fantastic rambler, but the genius of Manni’s itinerary is that it allows you to enjoy a trip full of culture, nature, history and discovery with great food, socialising and exercise thrown in. It’s arranged in such a way that everything fits seamlessly and you as a visitor need only focus on enjoying yourself.
And so he led us deeper into this beautiful region on the doorstep of Marbella yet to all intents and purposes light years removed from it. Here we saw gorgeous scenery dotted with pretty little mountain villages I had never even heard of, much less visited before.
We ate like kings at charming old train stations converted into wonderful trackside eateries and wondered aloud about discovering such gastronomic refinement in the midst of a “remote” country area. Such feasts were preceded by light hikes through stunning natural scenery, as we saw the railway line featured in Michael Portillo’s BBC series weave its way through spectacular river canyons.
Having stayed at stylish country hotels we followed Mr. Portillo’s example and boarded the train for the last stage of the voyage to Ronda, where a sojourn at the Hotel Reina Victoria – counterpart of the Reina Cristina – completed a route of discovery that had started within sight of the African continent.
Manni Coe proves that sometimes you don’t have to travel far to make new discoveries and experience something fresh and exciting. Quite often, as here, a whole new world is right on your doorstep – even if you thought you knew it pretty well – so for those who enjoy fun, fine food, good company, a little exercise and, above all, a sense of adventure, I can heartily recommend this voyage of discovery into the hidden wonders of our immediate hinterland.
For more information about these personalised tours through Andalucía and Morocco, contact Manni or Lindsay at www.tomatours.com.
By Michel Cruz