Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Iron King II

Ask people who have travelled in Spain what is between Madrid and Andalucía and the reaction is likely to be a stuck expression, a search for some intelligent guess, a confident ‘nothing’, or, possibly, a tentative ‘er, Toledo?’ Very few foreigners can identify Ciudad Real. We are a forgotten province. Even within Spain people’s eyes can glaze over as they try to work out where it is. If you have looked at my profile the chances are you just shrugged and said, ‘Some little village on the south coast, lucky bugger.’

Things have changed a bit in the last five years, as we now have the best handball team in the world. The name is familiar to Spaniards, and to those many countries of Europe where the game is big, but it is a cultural, rather than a geographical, reference. Don Quijote was probably from somewhere in the east of the province, but the historical name of La Mancha, rather than the modern name of the region, is the one commonly associated with the old nut.

In Britain there is no handball, so the name means nothing. Nevertheless, it’s the first stop on the high-speed train line from Madrid to Seville, built for the Expo in 1992, and many people have certainly passed through without ever noticing the name of the place. And having managed to work a train reference into the post, I can now talk about railway lines, which was the original intention.

The high-speed line is as straight and level as possible, cutting through hills and river bends and slicing corners off farms, unlike the old line which wandered unhurriedly around any kind of obstacle. Back in the 1870’s the train was so much faster than anyone could possibly need to travel that it didn’t seem to matter if there were a few extra curves. One of the first things I discovered on arriving here years ago was that the old line south, before it links up with the new one, has been preserved as a path, and trees planted along it. At the time they gave no shade, but now they do take a little of the edge off the spring sun, allowing the path to be used when it would otherwise be impossible.

It runs about three miles, crossing a volcano (not that you’d notice) and twisting up and down a hill, before it is joined by the new line, which was sent out on a flatter, much more sweeping route, to get up speed more quickly. As you walk along it you are wading through a million ghosts, who went that way before you, seeing what you see, through the windows of a hundred different wagons. The old line entered directly, touched the park on the southern edge, went high above it, headed out east, then swept back to go north, brushing past the east side of the town.

Ten years ago the old track itself was still visible in the south east corner, as it curved, and also where it went east from the same point, heading for Almagro and finally to the sea. That part has been replaced by a raised triangle (more a deltoid, but it doesn’t sound the same) of lines, which is one of my favourite features. The track has all gone now, and is partly built on, but the embankment that shored up the curve is still there, and allows you to follow the route.

The line only went around the east of the town from the 1930’s. Before that it went by along the western section of the ring road, coming in through the park, stopping at the original station which is still there, now a storeroom for the park workers, and leaving at the northern tip in front of the cemetery. About a mile north of the town it meets the present line, and there is still a path where it used to run. A path I enjoy walking when the sun is hot and bright, just because the train used to run along it. In the five miles north between the town and the river there are several places where the old line took a little wander around something. There is no track left, except on the bridge itself, but the route can easily be seen. Although not as complete as it was; it is slowly being developed in various ways.

Apart from the bridge and the original station, the only structures left standing are two small buildings that were once warehouses, one on the ring road, the other out in the country. Both are now houses, but their style gives them away. The pre-1992 station and all its associated sidings and structures were demolished, and the area has mostly been built over. If you know where it all was it is possible to follow, but there is nothing to see, no sense of what it used to be.

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