I love to travel around Andalucia, and try to explore more of this hugely varied region whenever possible, usually in day trips. After 10 years of living here, there are still legions of parks, mountains, lakes and towns that I haven’t visited yet.
So when Manni of Toma Tours invited me to come along on his special preview of Mr Henderson’s Railway – three days of slow food and easy hikes, based around a historic train line between Algeciras and Ronda – I didn’t jump at the chance, I positively leaped. A trip without having to do any internet research, plan the trip, make bookings, read maps, or mediate between squabbling children. For I am, like most Mums, my own family’s tour planner/manager/guide/arbitrator.
Manni’s company, Toma, takes small groups of visitors around Andalucia (and beyond, to Morocco) – hiking hidden trails (he’s super-fit), eating the finest seasonal produce and drinking local wines at out-of-the-way restaurants, and experiencing all the wonderful cultural and natural attractions the region has to offer, in both major cities and smaller towns, as on this trip. Manni has lived in Andalucia for over 10 years, as well as studying Spanish at University, and has an impressive knowledge of the region’s history and culture.
The trip took place during the first week of the school term, finishing on my son’s birthday, so the timing wasn’t ideal – my son’s face when I told him I wouldn’t be there on the morning of his big day was heart-breaking. I had to leave the trip early to get home in time that day, missing the last visit – to a bull farm, with an iberico (prime Spanish pork)-fest lunch. No great loss for me, since I’m a non-meat-eater and not a bullfighting fan, either.
In terms of the hiking aspect, I’m no fitness freak (read: lazybones), so the thought of the hikes filled me with trepidation. All resolutions to get (even slightly) fit and take some proper exercise prior to the trip went out of the window, with dog-walking being my sole aerobic preparation. Not many hills where I live, except the one that goes down to Seville, and that’s a bit hardcore for me. How did I fare? You’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out.
As I set off for Algeciras, the starting point for the trip, I felt naked without my family, and realised this was going to be the longest I’d ever been away from my children – three nights (in seven years). Then it dawned on me this that was also going to be three days with NO COOKING, CLEANING, WASHING, TIDYING UP, NAGGING, OR CHIVYING, and I suddenly felt light-headed with excitement. As much as I insisted on taking reams of notes (to the amusement of fellow travellers in the group), and snapping endless photos (ditto), I could devote 100% of my attention to take in my surroundings, which is very rare.
To return to the trip – Manni has been closely involved in the restoration of Mr Henderson’s Railway, a line which was built in the 1890s by the eponymous gentleman (he was later made a Lord) to take officers from Gibraltar up to Ronda. They had to take a boat from the Rock to Algeciras, but then they could sink back into the luxury of the venerable Edwardian-era Reina Cristina Hotel – the first hotel on Spain’s southern coast; sadly, its once-magnificent views of the bay are marred these days by the industrial machinery of the port – before hopping onto the train at the nearby railway station. Manni has in-depth knowledge of the construction and history of the railway and its two hotels (there’s one in Ronda too).
The train stopped at various small stations along the way to Ronda, many built below the mountain-top villages they served, such as Gaucin – in some cases they were several kilometres away. Today, a few of these stations and their accompanying storehouses have been turned into restaurants, which form an integral part of the tour we were doing, next to the railway which has three trains per day from Algeciras to Granada. Often in tiny, way-off-the-beaten-track places, they’re the sort of restaurants you’d be unlikely to stumble across on your own – this is where local knowledge is key. So Manni can guide you to the most best and most fascinating of everything: train lines, hiking trails, gastronomic secrets, hidden boltholes…
In later posts I will write in more detail about each section of the trip, but the main impression I took away with me was that the heart and soul of a company like Toma Tours is Manni – his charm, dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism, and sense of fun. He’s one of those people who carries you along with him on a wave of goodwill.
He has supported the restoration of the railway, got to know the restaurant owners (who clearly adore him; he is a rather good-looking chap, which helps), and loves to share his new discoveries with people – to introduce them to the wonders of the Guadiaro valley which runs north from Algeciras towards Ronda, through spectacular wooded mountains and limestone cliffs. These people include a certain TV presenter who was investigating railways for a BBC programme.
If you have an interest in railways (or even if you don’t), and you like to combine hiking – the full trip is five days, with 3-5 hours of walking per day – with some astonishingly good food in wonderful surroundings, off the tourist beaten track in Andalucia, then you can’t do better than the Mr Henderson’s Railway Gourmet Walking Tour. And I even got home in time to bake my son’s birthday cake. Nothing fancy, just a Victoria sponge, but he was delighted. And we all survived fine without each other for three days. Now, when’s my next trip?