Arriving at the old station of La Fregeneda, already in disuse, the noise of the crowd begins to be heard. The view also receives stimuli: a lot of people, mostly in mountain clothes, swirl around an old train carriage that now serves as a reception center of the Iron Path. Everything about the atmosphere reminds the visitor of what this was, a railroad path. But nowadays it is not trains that circulate here, but tourists who hope to find in the route a different activity, a peculiar path and a landscape away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
The Iron Path is a famous 17-kilometer route that runs between the La Fregeneda station and the Vega Terrón river dock, the only one in all of Castile and León. It is part of what is known as the Duero Line, an itinerary that connected, over 77 kilometers, the municipality of La Fuente de San Esteban, in Salamanca, with the Portuguese village of Barca d’Alva. The main intention of that line was to connect Porto with Salamanca. However, in 1985 the route was closed to traffic due to the very low number of passengers and the great economic losses it caused.
Of these 77 kilometers, the last 17 are those that make up the aforementioned Iron Road, splashed with no less than 20 tunnels and 10 bridges that give the trail its special touch. According to the route’s information point, it was one of the most important engineering works of the 19th century, which led to its declaration as an Asset of Cultural Interest in 2000. A true alpine itinerary that needed these constructions to descend from the 527 meters of altitude of La Fregeneda to the 133 of Barca d’Alva. Part of the route is therefore downhill, which makes it easier.
The route of the Iron Path runs through the heart of the Arribes del Duero Natural Park, along the course of the Águeda river, which joins the Duero in its final stretch. The first of the tunnels, 500 meters from the beginning of the route, is also the longest one. 1,500 meters of darkness, always with the light on the other side in sight. So on this occasion it is best to follow the light at the end of the tunnel. When leaving this long corridor, the light returns to wrap the walker and the passage through tunnels, some of just 20 meters and others of hundreds, is alternating with the march on the bridges that, suspended in the void and not suitable for people with vertigo, make excellent viewpoints of the landscape.
If 17 kilometers is too long, the traveler will also have the option of shortening the route. In this case the route would be the same, but, after crossing bridge number three, the visitor would turn around and return to the starting point. In this case the route is eight kilometers round trip, the only viable option, by the way, for those under eight years of age, as they are not allowed to continue from here.
At the entrance of tunnel number three the hiker is greeted by a curious smell. A smell that is frankly not pleasant. On the ground some small black spots announce the source of the fragrance. This is, of all, the darkest, as its hundreds of meters run in curves. In this case, the light at the end of the tunnel can only be seen at the end of the corridor. The rest of the time the route runs in complete darkness, only mitigated by the lights of the lanterns that, undoubtedly, are essential for this trip. Before entering, an employee of the route also waits to warn that no noise should be made and that the roof should not be lit. Why all these precautions? Where does the smell come from?
It is none other than bats. A large flock of bats. Specifically, about 12,000 that make up one of the largest colonies of the peninsula. This is the reason why, in early summer, the passage to this tunnel remains closed for a few weeks. This is the nursing period. During these days it is possible, however, to take an alternative route that does not pass through here. Although tunnel three is preferred by mammals, a large number of them are also found in the first tunnel and some more in the fourth tunnel.
Passing in silence will not only be beneficial for these nocturnal creatures, but will also allow the hiker to hear them and, if he is lucky, he may even see one of them fly. But lighting the roof is not allowed! Thus, the traveler will never walk alone. In the tunnels, it will be the bats. Outside, birds such as golden eagles and griffon vultures watch from above.
The Iron Path is, as you can see, a route of great interest and with unusual attractions. Of course, you have to book in advance, as it has limited capacity and its doors are only open between 9 and 10 am on days ranging from October 15 to March 31. In the summer months, from April 1 to October 14, the entrance is allowed between 07:30 and 08:30. The time to finish the route must also be 16:30 in the winter timetable and 15:00 in the summer timetable. Something to take into account before doing the route, which lasts about six hours.
The Iron Path, by the way, is not free, but costs five euros. As compensation, there are some well-kept baths at kilometer 11, the signage is excellent and upon arrival there is a bus waiting to take hikers to the starting point.
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