By Lynne Booker
British officers garrisoned at Gibraltar in the 19th century were unable to enjoy touring and sightseeing in Andalusia because of its narrow, pot holed and boulder strewn roads. To facilitate the tourist exploration of Andalucia, a British engineer, John Morrison, proposed that a rail link be built between Algeciras and Bobadilla, the major rail junction in Andalusia, where it would meet the main line to Madrid.
He and his friend, Sir Alexander Henderson, the railway magnate, established the Algeciras (Gibraltar) Railway Company Ltd to build and operate the line.Permission was granted by the Spanish government in 1888, construction began in 1890, and by November 1892, the complete line from Bobadilla via Ronda and Jimena to Algeciras was open.
To cater for the gentlemen and their ladies, Henderson also built at Algeciras the Hotel Cristina, which opened in 1902 and is the oldest on the Costa del Sol.
The architect T E Colcutt produced a typical colonial-style building surrounded, of course, by magnificent gardens and this hotel enjoyed magnificent views over the Bay of Algeciras towards Gibraltar and across the strait of Gibraltar towards Ceuta and Africa. Its colonial style and standard was very attractive to military and naval officers of the Gibraltar garrison.
While the hotel was patronised by railway passengers and garrison officers, it was also popular with those travelling on the P&O ships to India and the Far East. They could disembark to take advantage of the hotel’s Saturday evening dances.
Since its opening the hotel has received members of the aristocracy and international personalities, amongst whom are King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the Sultan of Johore, Franklin D Roosevelt, Marshall Petain, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, King Umberto of Italy, Rock Hudson, Cole Porter, Orson Welles and Edward Heath.Their signatures have been etched onto two brass plaques, on either side of the reception desk.
The hotel was originally named the Hotel Cristina, and in 1932 its owners were given permission to name it after the Spain’s recently deceased Queen Mother.Queen Maria Cristina had acted as regent for her son Afonso XIII from the day of his birth in 1886 until he reached adulthood in 1902.
The Hotel Cristina was host to members of the Algeciras Conference from January to April 1906. Representatives from France, Germany, USA, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, Spain and Morocco met in Algeciras to negotiate the division of Morocco into Spanish and French protectorates. This conference was covered by the young journalist Winston Spencer Churchill.
In 1928, the Hotel Cristina was almost entirely burnt down and reopened two years later with more rooms and an interior patio enclosed with glass. Four luxurious suites are named after the important visitors who stayed in them: Reina Maria Cristina, Alfonso XIII, HM Juan Carlos and Reina Sofia.
The hotel remained open during the Spanish Civil War, and in the Second World War the hotel was host to German and Italian spies who monitored the movement of British ships in the Straits of Gibraltar.At that time, some of the hotel’s bathrooms were converted into photographic dark rooms. It was the scene of the arrest by Spanish authorities of Argentine agents who planned an attack on Gibraltar during the Falklands War of 1982.
The style of the hotel is pre-war, and the present hotel makes the most of its period attractions. Investments to upgrade the hotel are apparent – there is double glazing and a wide range of leisure facilities: mini golf, indoor and outdoor pools, solarium, mini-gym, sauna, petanque, billiards, TV lounge and library.
The dress code in the dining rooms is a standard which may have been inherited from the days of Sir Alexander Henderson.
The original fine view of the Rock of Gibraltar is now spoilt by the cranes, huge fuel tanks and concrete blocks which line the waterfront of this important ferry port.
Once in the grounds of this historic hotel, however, it needs little imagination to slip back in time to how it once must have been.
On the line between Algeciras and Ronda built in the 1890s, there are 11 stations all originally built to the same pattern, with an English station clock hanging beneath a fringed wooden canopy.
At Ronda, a sister hotel, the Reina Victoria, was built in 1906. British officers and their ladies from Gibraltar there patronised a hotel in the Spanish hinterland where they could enjoy English service and atmosphere.
The Hotel Reina Victoria was totally refurbished in 2012 and renamed the Catalonia Reina Victoria.
I wonder whether its dining room still maintains its old dress code?
Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association.