Canfranc: Modernism and the Middle Ages in a train station

A medieval town and a modernist station

Canfranc’s famous medieval quarter took a backseat after the construction of the spectacular international station, one of the greatest 20th-century architectural landmarks in Aragon.

Plan your visit to Canfranc

Besides the spectacular International Station, one of the main things to see in Canfranc is the medieval quarter. Other popular attractions include hiking, skiing, and other forms of active tourism—during winter and summer alike—which are available in the Natural Park of the Valles Occidentales. Nearby are the winter destinations of Astún and Candanchú, where those who stay in the area go to ski. To complement your trip to Canfranc, visiting the important cultural city of Jaca is a must and can take an entire day. Before you leave, be sure to visit the incredible Monastery of San Juan de la Peña, half an hour to the south by highway A-1205. To learn about the gastronomy of La Jacetania, we recommend our pages about sleeping and eating in Canfranc; if you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can also make reservations in nearby Jaca.

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The history of Canfranc is linked to its status as the closest town to the Summus portus (“highest port”) in this part of the Pyrenees, later known as Port Somport, on the border between Spain and France. Due to its location, in the 11th century a customs office was established in Canfranc to collect taxes and tolls from merchants and travelers passing through the Pyrenees on their way to Jaca. Somport is a relatively less steep pass, so it was the most accessible at that time for those traveling by foot or on horseback. As a result, Canfranc became an important center of cross-border trade between Aragon and the French province of Béarn, which came to be its defining characteristic and its main source of revenue for centuries.

For the same reasons, Canfranc was chosen by pilgrims on the Camino Jacobeo passing through the Pyrenees on their way to Santiago de Compostela. By 1095 there was a private inn in the town, although it would not become better known until the 11th century. A group of French pilgrims once dared to cross in the middle of a snowstorm and were saved by divine intervention, which inspired them to found the Hospital de Santa Cristina for pilgrims. In the late 11th century, the famous French pilgrim Aymeric Picaud passed through the town, the author of book five of the Codex Calixtinus (Liber Peregrinationis) which he delivered to Santiago in 1140 to redeem his soul alongside his companion Girberga of Flanders.

The heart of the town sat at the bottom of the valley, which is so narrow that it hindered the plowing of land for farming, incentivizing the business-minded attitude of the townspeople. In the 11th century, Canfranc got a mill, an inn, and a bakery.

On October 26, 1288, the Treaty of Canfranc was signed in which Alfonso III of Aragon secured the exchange of Carlos of Anjou for his sons Roberto and Luis. Carlos of Anjou vowed to get Pope Nicholas IV to recall Carlos of Valois as king of Aragon and ensure that the Olorón Pact (a truce agreement between Aragon and Sicily) would be carried out, but he did not fulfill his promise.

Canfranc International Station in 1940

Despite the revenue collected from the pilgrims, the living conditions in Canfranc in the Middle Ages were very difficult, so in the 14th century Peter IV of Aragon granted the townspeople the so-called “privilegio del vino” (“wine privilege”) which allowed them to import French wine without paying the tariff.

As Canfranc was primarily a transportation hub, its medieval military infrastructure was outdated, requiring new facilities such as Coll de Ladrones Fort (17th-19th centuries) and the riflemen’s tower (19th century).

In 1928, Canfranc International Station was opened, which connected both sides of the Pyrenees by railroad. The station’s location, four kilometers from Canfranc, motivated the urbanization and creation of services in the surrounding area. During World War II, the so-called “Canfranc Gold” episode took place, when tons of German gold coming from Switzerland were brought to Spain through the station. Iron and wolfram were shipped in the other direction for use on Nazi tanks.

In 1944, a devastating fire occurred in the original town. It was decided that the administrative buildings would be moved and the city would be rebuilt next to the international station. As a result, the medieval town was gradually depopulated. This explains the existence of two neighborhoods built in very distinct time periods.

In March of 1970, a French train derailed on the other side of the mountains, interrupting railroad traffic. Ever since then, the third railroad track between France and Spain has remained defunct. Today, the station is one of the main tourist attractions in the western part of the Aragonese Pyrenees.

The main attraction to see in Canfranc is the International Station, which was conceived to showcase Spain to foreign tourists. It is an enormous building in a transitional style—a mix between modernism and art deco—topped by a slate-colored curved roof with four pyramid-shaped pinnacles at each end.

The companies Midi Francés and Norte de España presented the project for the station in 1910 and construction began in 1915 following the blueprints of the engineer from Alicante, Ramírez de Dampierre. After his death, the station was finished in 1925 by the Biscayan Domingo Hormaeche, whose company built the first section of the Madrid Metro and introduced reinforced concrete. The station consists of a main building for passengers. The vestibule with ticket offices is located in the central body of the station. The stained glass windows, pilasters, and woodwork contain traces of the art deco style. There are also several loading docks for the transport of goods as well as a machinery warehouse. The station was declared a Bien de Interés Cultural (Asset of Cultural Interest) in 2002.

Although Canfranc is a small, picturesque town with just three streets, it has been declared a Conjunto Histórico-Artístico (Historical-Artistic Complex). Among the town’s most notable assets is the Parish Church of La Asunción, with three Baroque altarpieces, and the remains of the old Aznar Palacín Tower, dating from the 12th century. In the surrounding area, over the Aragon River, is Pilgrims’ Bridge (Puente de los Peregrinos), in the Romanesque style. Canfranc’s status as a border town is evidenced by the remains of old military structures located at its entrances, such as Coll de los Ladrones Fort, from the 17th century, and Riflemen’s Tower, from the 19th century.

Parish Church of La Asunción in Canfranc

On the way towards Somport, to the right of a bend nearby the port, is the archaeological site of Santa Cristina Hospital (11th-14th centuries), which once received the pilgrims who had successfully crossed Somport. In the 12th century, Aymeric Picaud declared it one of the three great hospitals of Christianity, along with the hospitals of Jerusalem and the Great St. Bernard Pass; its slogan was “Unum Tribus Mundi.” At that time the site comprised the prior’s mansion; the Shrine of Santa Bárbara; the Romanesque church, flanked by a sacristy, chapterhouse, and cemetery; the monastery with its conventual rooms (dormitory, refectory, and kitchens); and the building dedicated to the pilgrims’ hospital with eight rooms or dormitories run by a layperson. Today, all that remains is the inn built in modern times between the church and the hospital.

Upon leaving the town, you’ll come upon the ruins of the Church of the Trinity, founded in the 16th century by Blasco de Les. The walls around the perimeter, the chapel’s Renaissance façade, and the bell tower, which has an austere appearance, have all been preserved.

In the winter, Canfranc becomes a popular destination for ski enthusiasts due to its proximity to Candanchú and Astún.


International Train Station in Canfranc

Basic Facts


42° 42′ 36″ N, 0° 31′ 12″ W


Huesca 87 km, Zaragoza 158 km, Barcelona 460 km, Madrid 474 km


the entrance to the town and next to the Station.


1040 m


572 (2013)

Canfranc Station Festival (July 13-18), Our Lady of the Assumption in Canfranc (August 14-18)

Canfranc Station Festival (July 13-18), Our Lady of the Assumption in Canfranc (August 14-18)

Pyrenees Classics Festival (July), Canfranc Race (September), Antique Festival (December)

Nearby destinations

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