Known as the ‘Titanic of the Mountains’, a grandiose railway station which is reputed to have served both as an escape route for thousands of war time Jews and the key junction for an illicit trade in tonnes of Nazi gold, is to be the site of a five-star hotel.

It is part of a make-over of the village of Canfranc in the Pyrenees on the border between Spain and France, which has also seen houses in the town given a bright paint job to liven up the town, ahead of the expected arrival of tourists.

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Buildings in the town have been spruced up as part of the revamp. Credit: Ramon J Campo

The station, which was originally built in the style of a French chateau, was reopened to local travellers last year, fifty years after it fell into disrepair and closed.

But an ambitious restoration programme is afoot, one designed to symbolise the original spirit which led to its creation: unity between Spain and France.

The station, which is ten times the size of London’s St Pancras station, has a high slate roof crowned by domes and balustrades and will become a 104-bedroom hotel.

Can Franc station photo by Masia Vilalta / Flickr
Can Franc station photo by Masia Vilalta / Flickr

Spain is working on restoring the line to France. At present there is only a service between Canfranc and Huesca, the capital of Aragon.

It had stood abandoned for half century ago after an incident that saw the brakes fail on a French freight train climbing through the Pyrenees. It careered back down the mountain at about 100km/h and crashed into a bridge, causing it to collapse.

Although nobody was hurt, the accident led to the closure of the Pyrenean rail line between France and Spain.

However all that is about to change and plans for the new hotel were unveiled last week. It is expected to be open next year when work is finished.

The idea of a cross-border Pyrenean line was first suggested in 1865, but work did not start until 1928.

Situated in a valley in the Aragon region in eastern Spain, the original station and adjoining hotel at the border in Canfranc were known originally as the Titantic of the Mountains for its sheer size.

Since 1970, the French section of track has been closed, with freight carried over the border by hundreds of lorries a day.

During the Second World War, it became a vital point of escape for thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Europe.

Jewish refugees would travel to Canfranc and change for trains onwards to other parts of Spain and eventually freedom in Britain and the United States.

The painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst and the singer Josephine Baker, whose husband was Jewish, were among those who travelled through the ornate station.

“We know that between 1940 and 1942, about 15,000 Jewish and other refugees managed to travel through Canfranc and made it to safety,” said Ramon J. Campo, a journalist who has written books about the history of Canfranc.

The trade in Nazi gold was uncovered years after the war by chance.

In 2000, Jonathan Díaz, who drove a bus between Canfranc and the French town of Oloron-Saint Maire, was waiting to leave on a grey November morning.

Amongst broken rail lines, he found a pile of fading war time customs documents.

When he looked at them more closely his eyes lit up when he saw the words ‘Three Tons of Gold Bars’.

“The papers revealed that 86.6 tonnes of plundered Nazi gold was heading from Germany into Spain and Portugal to pay for vital wolfram which Hitler needed to make tanks and other weapons, ” said Campo.

Spain and Portugal were officially neutral. However, General Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain after winning a bitterly divisive civil war, and Antonio Oliveira Salazar, had worked illicitly to help the Germans.

Apart from this clandestine trade in gold, Canfranc was a nest for spies.

Albert Le Lay, the head of customs on the French side, has been described as the Schindler of Canfranc because of the way he helped people to escape across the border into Spain and passed information to the British consulate in San Sebastian in Spain.

When he believed the Gestapo was about to arrest him, he walked across the border into Spain with his family and eventually made it to Gibraltar.

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