Ted and I set off on a three day trip in March 2018 to quickly explore an area of Spain near the Portuguese border, the provinces and cities of Huelva and Badajoz. We chose the area for several reasons. Firstly, we had not been there before. Secondly, looking at a map shows mountains, high plains and national parks, suggesting that, although it is well off the main tourist track, it would be a pleasant journey. Thirdly, the railway lines wind through the heart of the area, away from the main roads, and the infrequent train service suggested that they could be at risk of closure. The overnight stops in the cities of Huelva and Badajoz were determined mainly by the train timetables, though a quick look at guides revealed that they were worth a stopover. So off we went to spend a couple of days rattling round Spain once more. Here’s where we went.
Sevilla to Huelva
From Málaga we travelled to Sevilla – a journey we’ve made many times – then we entered new territory on a regional train to Huelva. There are only three trains a day, a poor service for a link between a regional and provincial capital. The train was far from full when we set off at 1700 on a Saturday. After we made our way through the spaghetti of tracks on the outskirts of Sevilla the single track line sets off across country. I thought the journey would be an uninteresting potter through the flat countryside of the Guadalquivir valley and the Atlantic coast. In fact, while it is not one of the more spectacular railway journeys in Spain, the rolling hilly countryside is enough to keep me glued to the window as we roll by.
We are cutting across the grain of the country and after Benacazón we descend into a large valley to cross the Río Guadiamar. The weather has been wet and there is some flooding alongside. As we climb out of the valley there are four strange towers visible to the north – they turn out to be part of a solar power plant at Sanlucar la Mayor – the towers concentrate the power. At Escacena del Campo there is a factory which processes chickpeas, which might be the plants I don’t recognize growing in the nearby fields (Things you never knew No. 1 :- According to www.statista.com Andalucía produced 15,700 metric tonnes of chickpeas in 2015, about 60% of the Spanish total, which in turn is about 0.033% of the amount produced in India). We cross the Río Tinto, which is in spate, by the town of Niebla – the railway passes close to the perfectly preserved medieval walls (below). When I check it out, Niebla has been important since Roman times when the output of the silver and copper mines upriver was transhipped there to seagoing galleys. The final stretch into Huelva is heavily industrialised, then the residential areas appear and, ninety minutes after leaving Sevilla, we arrive at the terminus station. The station is an impressive nineteenth century building which needs a bit of care. There is more about the railway line in the railway buffery section at the end of this post.
A Saturday night in Huelva
Huelva is the capital of the province of the same name and has a population of about 150,000 (2012). It sits between the rivers Tinto and Odiel and has been a port since pre-Roman times. It has historic links with Christopher Columbus – his first voyage set off from here in 1492, largely crewed by sailors from Huelva. Much of its development has been related to the exploitation of the inland mines, an important source of silver and other minerals for the Roman Empire. From 1875 until 1954 the mines were further developed by the British Río Tinto Mining Company which treated the local population in true colonial fashion. Though there is little mining in the area today Río Tinto Mining remains a major multinational company, now headquartered in Australia. (Things you never knew No. 2 :- The British presence led to the formation in 1889 of Spain’s first football team, Recreativo de Huelva). Today there are major petrochemical industries in the area (and pollution remains a problem), the port remains substantial and administration, commerce and services of a provincial capital are major employers.
At the station there is a fading advertising hoarding announcing the construction of a high-speed line between Sevilla and Huelva but no sign of any work having begun. On the walk to my hotel I don’t pass a single café or bar – I guess (rightly – phew) that Huelva is not teetotal and there are options elsewhere. Anyone visiting the city should be aware that the area round the station is a desert for food and drink. When I reach the hotel Viva Espana of all things is blaring out from a christening party in one of the function rooms.
I head out in search of life. Avenida Martín Alonzo Pinzón heads past the town hall in Plaza de la Constitución to the main square, Plaza de las Monjas, where Christopher Columbus points towards the row of bars . On the way I pass a few places full of Saturday drinkers – an Irish bar is particularly heaving – it must have a good happy hour. There are fascist era buildings and arcades along the street, though most of the town centre is typically Spanish. Plaza de las Monjas is jumping and I find Espacio Rubens – I’ve tried their beer in Sevilla but it is brewed in Huelva and this is their main outlet. It is 7pm and there’s a DJ playing – I’m inside as the terrace is packed. It starts to rain, and everyone else piles in. I have a couple of pints of Trigo, their excellent German style wheat beer (see the photo) – for more about their beer see www.rubensbeer.com . After the shower I find my way to Bar Agmanir in Calle Carasa, a traditional Spanish bar selling good tapas and raciones. Back towards the hotel, Cerveceria Bonilla looks good – I don’t have the chance to visit as a thunderstorm is clearly imminent and it starts to pour as I cross the road outside the hotel for an early night.
Huelva to Badajoz
Back at the station in the morning, after a coffee in the main square, there’s little sign of life. I work out that none of the three (electric) trains parked there (including one on the advertised platform for my train) is ours as my route to Mérida is unelectrified. I eventually find someone to ask as none of the other waiting passengers know. Ten minutes after it is due to leave the train saunters into the station from the depot and we set off fifteen minutes late – eleven of us (plus a bear) on a three-coach 186-seat train. The train to Merida runs three times a week, taking over four hours to cover the 251 kilometres. The train is eventually due to arrive in Madrid nine hours after leaving Huelva. For more about the Huelva – Mérida railway see the railway buffery section.
The first part of the journey is slow and I can feel the train bounce over every sleeper as we rumble across the marshes. After the first stop, Gibraleón we begin to climb, past a few halts in the middle of nowhere. After crossing the Río Odiel on a high viaduct we are in remote hill country with few signs of life. There are stretches with 20 km/hr speed limits. The next station, Calañas serves a large village, a couple of people get off and we speed up as the track has been improved (or not deteriorated so badly). The hamlet of Valdelamusa is almost deserted – it is the only sign I see of the former mining industry in the area – the buildings here are rotting away. The countryside becomes more mountainous as we enter the Sierra de Aracena national park. Most of the land is forested or grassland speckled with oak trees. Almonaster-Cortegana station is near neither of the villages, but a couple alight. I spot some black pigs like those in the photo snuffling for acorns beneath the oaks, shortly before we reach Jabugo-Galaroza station. The area is famous for the quality of its hams and I spot a couple of slaughterhouses and jamon factories. I had thought that the train on a Sunday might be picking up students returning to university after the weekend – instead we are dropping off people who’ve been sampling the delights of Huelva. By Cumbres Mayores, high in the mountains and the final station in Huelva province (and in Andalucía), I’m the only person in coaches 2 or 3 – it is only when I recognise two people leaving in Zafra that I realise I have not been the only passenger on the train for the last seventy kilometres.
We cross into the region of Extremadura and the province of Badajoz for the remainder of the journey. The countryside opens out into plains and we pass herds of cows and sheep and olive groves. We call at Fregenal de la Sierra where no-one gets on or off but there is a stationmaster / signalman to look after the six trains a week that call. From before Zafra all the way to Mérida there is mile upon mile of olive nurseries with newly planted trees – the area must supply the whole of Spain. Zafra is the biggest town en route. A line from Sevilla joins us here, there are new rails and ballast waiting beside the track and there are even a few people waiting to board. On the edge of town we call at Zafra Feria station, by the grounds of the feria internacional de ganadera (international farming and livestock fair). Each year in early October the fair attracts more than 1.5 million visitors to the town (according to the local tourist authority www.turismoextremadura.com ). At Villafranca de las Barros there are several derelict industrial buildings by the trackside – there must be a reason why such old buildings are just left to rot rather than be demolished. This is common in Spain and, since such industries were concentrated near railway lines, the impression of these towns given to passers-by is poor. Almost every station has its tall disused granary, from when grain was transported by rail. The picture is from Campillos (Málaga) but identical ones were everywhere.The train is now on time but at Calamonte something happens – the conductor and driver wipe something off the rear of the train at each stop and it can only crawl to Mérida, just managing to climb slight inclines – perhaps it’s a fuel leak.
We cross the wide Río Guadiana, pass the Roman aqueduct with storks nesting on top of each pillar and pull into Mérida twenty minutes late. Our train is being taken out of service and a replacement is waiting. I change here for Badajoz, my connection is also late but would have been held. A couple of times a day trains arrive and depart Mérida from four different directions and many passengers change – if one train arrives late, they wait and all depart late. Ted and I visited Mérida in 2016 and you can find the write-up of that trip here- Journeys Spain – Extremadura
We leave Mérida along the Guadiana valley and arrive in Badajoz forty-five minutes later. A high-speed line under construction joins and follows us for most of the time. Though the track bed is constructed for two tracks only one is laid, unlike the AVE lines it is broad Spanish gauge and there is no sign of electrification. Some distance from Badajoz it suddenly stops and there is no sign of further progress – this year’s crops are growing in the fields along the line of route. There is more about the Mérida – Badajoz line in railway buffery.
Sunday afternoon in Badajoz
The NH hotel in Badajoz is five star – It costs about the same as a two star in the UK. They decide to upgrade me to a small suite – a free chocolate cake on a slate is delivered to the room as a bonus. Remembering the lengthy route to the toilet in the middle of the night is tricky. I get the impression the hotel is quiet – I hardly saw a soul in the hotel or coming and going from the ground floor casino.
Badajoz is a provincial capital with a population of over 150,000 (2011). It sits on a main road into Portugal but not many tourists seem to stop on their way. It first became significant in Moorish times and its’ strategic position on the river and by the border means that the city has changed hands several times, usually involving a siege or a battle. When I go out for a wander I can’t remember a Spanish city being so quiet on a Sunday afternoon, even allowing for the regular heavy showers. There is hardly anyone around and very few places are open. Presumably it will get busy after eightish once bars and restaurants reopen, but I have an early start and want an early night.
The station and hotel are on the north bank of the Río Guadiana, the city centre is on the south, so I walk across the long bridge, the Puente de Palmas, designed to impress any passing invaders with their first sight of Spain, past the Puerta de Palmas gate and make my way through the deserted streets to the central Plaza de España and the cathedral and town hall. From there I make my way up to the Plaza Alta (pictured), beneath the entrance to what is left of the Moorish alcázar (fortress). The square has been prettified and there is some gentrification taking place, but there are a fair amount of derelict buildings and some of the streets off the Plaza Alta are basically slums. I take refuge from a shower in La Casona Alta, a decent bar on Plaza Alta, then make my way back to Plaza de Espaňa and visit another bar there. The choices are so limited that I even have a beer in 100 Montaditos, the equivalent of going into a Wetherspoons because there’s nowt else in the town. Finally it’s back to the hotel before the next shower, just before the town wakes up and life returns for the evening (I hope).
Badajoz to Ciudad Real and Málaga
We’re back at the station at 0630, having a quick café solo in the café before taking the 0652 to Ciudad Real – it’s either catch this one or wait till 1430 for the next in that direction. It is a journey of 337 kilometres, timed to take five hours. The first hour, back to Mérida, is in darkness but dawn has broken by the time we leave there. There were a few commuters on board to Mérida though only a handful of passengers as we head eastwards. We gradually pick up more people until there is a decent number of travellers – most will be heading to Puertollano or Ciudad Real for fast connections to Madrid.
I chose this route because it wanders through the middle of nowhere so is bound to be interesting and I spend the time watching the world go by. It turns out to be a varied journey. Initially the line follows the Guadiana valley with its mixture of olive nurseries, arable and livestock farming. An area round the towns of Don Benito and Villanueva de la Serena is dotted with houses sitting on small plots of land, little bigger than allotments. Then, we leave the river valley and head overland. There are stretches of grassland grazed by Merino sheep and areas of poor land where there are more boulders than anything else. The plain of La Serena is large and empty, stretching into the distance with no roads or signs of habitation. At some stage quite recently the railway has been improved and the train is able to travel fast, as all the level crossings have been replaced by concrete bridges where the metalled road across the line becomes a muddy track on either side after a few metres.
The line becomes more sinuous as we reach and travel through the foothills on the north side of the Sierra Morena. After the small town of Castuela the train climbs and we encounter a stretch of appalling track and bounce along slowly until Almorchón station (pictured). Almorchón is a small, largely derelict railway village at the junction of a former line to Córdoba, still open in part to take coal to a power station. From there on the track improves again though speed is not great. The main settlement in this area, in the midst of some reasonable farmland, is Cabeza del Buey. The name translates as ox’s head, and sure enough there is one on the town coat of arms. There then follows a long stretch of hilly countryside – the hills are forested to their peaks, and the only sign of life is the occasional flock of sheep. We cross from Extremadura into Castilla-La Mancha, the region at the centre of Spain and the valleys of a couple of small tributaries of the Guadiana. We pass a halt where no trains stop, but there is a stationmaster/signalman standing with his flag on the platform. There is more about the history of the line in the railway buffery section.
Eventually we reach the Madrid – Sevilla AVE line and it runs parallel to us as we race across the high plain into Puertollano. The town and surroundings always come as a shock, with opencast and abandoned deep mines, a refinery and chemical industries – there is a shepherd and his flock grazing in the colliery waste. I’ve opted to continue to Ciudad Real for a break before catching the AVE high speed train to Málaga, rather than spend three hours in Puertollano. I have a sandwich and coffee at Ciudad Real station on the edge of town, before walking the 20 minutes or so into the city centre. I’m not convinced I made the right decision. There seems to be very little of interest even in the main squares, Plaza Pilar and Plaza Cervantes and many of the café-bars are not yet open – it is about 1230 on a Monday. I find a basic taperia, have a beer and tapa then trudge back to the station. It is a pity as I’ve enjoyed the rest of the journey. I cheer up once I settle into my AVE seat – it is by far the busiest train of this journey – read my book and count the olive trees as we head for Málaga and home.
Hotels. I stayed in the NH Luz de Huelva, Alameda Sondheim 26, 21003 Huelva and NH Gran Hotel Casino Extremadura, Adolfo Diaz Ambrona 11, 06006 Badajoz, both bookable at www.nh-hotels.com .
Getting around. All of the train journeys were by Renfe (Spanish National Railways) and bookable online at www.renfe.com . The only journey that needs to be booked in advance is the AVE journey from Ciudad Real to Málaga. Tickets on the other trains will allocate a seat but if it is not suitable then the trains should be quiet enough to move elsewhere. Apart from the AVE do not expect any buffet or trolley on board, though there may be a drinks machine.
Options. An alternative option to Badajoz would be to stay in Mérida, which has extensive Roman remains and plenty of eating and drinking options. Note that the journey between Huelva and Mérida is only possible on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The railway lines follow routes well away from the main roads and are recommended rather than travelling by car or coach. However, Damas operate an hourly express coach service between Sevilla (Plaza de Armas bus station) and Huelva taking 75 minutes, which may be more suitable than the limited train service. For anyone wishing to see the countryside or travel obscure railways and not bothered about visiting the cities it is possible to make a circular rail journey Sevilla – Huelva – Mérida – Puertollano – Sevilla in one day on Saturday or Sunday.
The Río Guadiana in spate, at Badajoz
1 Sevilla – Huelva
The original railways in the area were built to transport minerals from the inland mines to the coast. The Sevilla – Huelva line opened to passengers in 1888 and was electrified by 1978. Today there are three stopping trains daily between Huelva and Sevilla taking 1hr 30 minutes for the 115km journey. There is also a daily fast Alvia train to Madrid which takes 3hrs 40 minutes, changing gauge on the outskirts of Sevilla and continuing via the AVE high speed line to Córdoba and Madrid.
Construction of an AVE high speed line from Sevilla to Huelva has been planned for a number of years but the line has been dropped from the latest Wikipedia map (January 2018) of proposed AVE lines. However, work has begun on the new AVE station in Huelva, planned to open during 2018 to serving the existing trains. Source: ‘La nueva estación del AVE de Huelva abrirá en 2018……sin AVE’, El Diario, 16/11/17. www.eldiario.es accessed 15/03/18.
2 Huelva – Zafra – Mérida
The railway line from Huelva was opened to passengers as far as Valdelamusa in 1886, and to Zafra in 1889, where it joined the line from Sevilla to Mérida. It was envisaged as part of a line stretching from Huelva to the north coast of Spain, but has spent most of its existence as a quiet backwater. There were a series of freight branches leading to the mines in the area, all of which have closed. Today there is a commuter train six days a week between Huelva and Jabugo. From there to Zafra the only passenger service is the thrice-weekly Huelva – Mérida – Caceres – Madrid train (on other days the train starts its journey to Madrid at Zafra).
Not surprisingly, there have several threats of closure since 1994, though the provincial council believes that the line is a key link to remote communities with poor road access, and they would like to see investment in the route, and possibly the reopening of some of the mineral lines to keep lorry traffic off the roads. The undated photo shows the socialist part in Zafra protesting against possible closure of the line. There is not much sign of anything happening, though the worst of the track is being renewed. Source: ‘Analisis de las infraestructuras ferrovias de la provincial de Huelva 2014’, www.diphuelva.es
3 Mérida – Badajoz
The Mérida – Badajoz line opened in 1864 and extended across the border into Portugal (Badajoz is only 5 km from the border). Today there is a reasonable service of up to seven trains a day, two of which continue to Madrid. The photo shows the morning train to Madrid at Badajoz station – upgraded from a diesel unit to a Talgo from 1 March 2018.
The High Speed infrastructure was intended to be part of the Madrid – Lisbon high speed line, which would link the two capitals in 2 hours 45 minutes. Construction of the Mérida – Badajoz section began in 2008, with a proposed completion date of 2013. The Portuguese government cancelled their input to the project in 2013. Current Spanish plans are to complete the line from Badajoz to Plasencia by 2020, reaching Madrid by 2023 (it is not clear whether the final high-speed stretch into Badajoz will be built).
After several years when there were no rail services between Madrid and Lisbon, on August 29 2017 Comboios de Portugal (Portuguese Railways) introduced a daily single coach railcar between Badajoz and Elvas and Entroncamento in Portugal, pictured on arrival in Badajoz on its first day of operation. (www.hoy.es 30/08/17, accessed 16/03/18). As a result it is possible to travel between the two capitals in 10.5 hours, with 3 changes. Virtually everyone flies.
4 Mérida – Ciudad Real
The Mérida – Ciudad Real line was opened in 1866 and was a main line connecting this area of Spain with Madrid. Today there are three trains daily along the line from Badajoz and Mérida, one via Ciudad Real to Alcazar de San Juan on the old Sevilla – Madrid line, one as far as Puertollano and the third as far as Cabeza del Buey. The line has deteriorated over the years, speeds are slower than 30 years ago, and some of the rails date from 1925 . There are plans to modernise and electrify the line as part of a freight corridor linking Portuguese ports with the rest of Europe, though this will also benefit passenger traffic. The first section to be upgraded will be the worst section of track between Castuera and Cabeza del Buey. Sources: newspaper articles – www.hoy.es 18/09/17 and www.eldiario.es 9/12/17, accessed 16/03/18, and ‘Puertollano – Mérida to be upgraded and electrified’, Mike Bent in Today’s Railways Europe No. 268, April 2018.
Almorchón junction and village was created by the railway company when the line to Bémez (later extended to Córdoba) opened in 1868 to export coal from the seams in that area. The village was exclusively populated by railway workers. With the end of steam traction in 1974 many jobs were lost and the village is now largely derelict. The photo is of Almorchón station in the early twentieth century. The Córdoba section was closed in 1991 but the line remains open for 85km, as far as the coal-powered central térmica (power station) de Puente Nueve, which now imports coal as the surrounding mines have closed.
Map of Spanish and Portuguese railways in 1948.
The main sources are Wikipedia in English en.wikipedia.org and Spanish es.wikipedia.org . Any mistakes in translation are my own. For the railway buffery www.ferropedia.es and http://www.spanishrailway.com (a Spanish language site by Juan Peris Torner) were the main sources. Before the trip I used The Rough Guides to Andalucía (for Huelva province) and Spain (for the remainder) – new editions are due in 2018. Trains were researched via the current European Rail Timetable, (available from www.europeanrailtimetable.eu) and www.renfe.com . Other sources are mentioned in the text. The trip took place from 10 to 12 March 2018.
The photos are by Steve Gillon except for the following, which were sourced via Google Images:
The base map of the trip is from the Rough Guide to Spain, 13th edn, 2009. Sanlucar la Mayor solar power station is from http://www.pinterest.com. The walls of Niebla picture is from http://www.imgur.com. The black pigs are from http://www.antena3.com. The countryside view from the Badajoz – Ciudar Real train is from http://www.viajesferroviarios.blogspot.com. The picture of the Cabeza del Buey coat of arms is by Abraham Vázquez. The recent view of Almorchón station is from http://www.ferropedia.es. The Renfe logo is by http://www.oganro.com. The protesters at Zafra station is from http://www.teinteresa.es. The Portuguese Railways railcar is from http://www.elperiodicoextremadura.com. The historic view of Almorchón station station is from the Archivo Histórico Ferroviario of revista Via Libre, posted on http://www.forotrenes.com by pachecho. The 1948 map of Spanish Railways is by Alfredo Forcano Catalan at http://www.spanishrailway.com, The map is on the Mapas page and can be zoomed to explore it in detail.
The text and photographs (except those mentioned above) are © Copyright Steve Gillon, 2018.