The Soller Train, Mallorca, 100 years on the tracks

Frank was a Daily Mirror reporter for 37 years, starting at a time when the Beatles were just emerging, and finishing with many months spent researching the background to the Harold Shipman case. He later worked as a freelance, and at the Liverpool Daily Post before launching into travel writing.

Soller Train, Mallorca, SpainIt’s definitely not hi-tech, the comfort value isn’t much to write home about, and don’t expect to be served eats or drinks. Yet, its popularity never fades among holidaymakers around the world.

Welcome to the Soller train, officially titled the Tren de Soller, a magical  holiday experience which – despite all the other delights on offer in Mallorca – is still pulling in a million passengers a year.

Opened in 1912, on the same day as the sinking of the Titanic, the train has come through thick and thin to chalk up the 100-year landmark. Teams of workmen battled through mountains, constructing 13 tunnels, to build what was then a vital connection for inhabitants and cargoes, mainly oranges, to be carried from Soller, in the north of the island, to the capital city, Palma.

It was a massive success story, and it worked brilliantly until improved road links in later years cast a shadow over the long term future of the narrow gauge railway. Thank goodness the 1950s tourism boom emerged and proved a life-saver.

It helped to give the little train – fondly nicknamed the ‘Orange Express’ – a huge boost, and it has never looked back. On most days, especially in high season, it’s a scramble as passengers climb aboard wooden Wild West-style carriages, polished until they gleam.

A €28 return ticket takes sightseers from the heart of Palma on a memorable 27.6-kilometre journey. It embraces spectacular landscapes, the tunnels, several bridges, and a five-arched viaduct, before the train trundles into Soller, a picturesque town fringed by the spectacular Tramuntana mountain range.
Puerto Soller, Mallorca, SpainTravellers then have an option to catch a tram to nearby Puerto Soller, with its crescent shaped bay, soft, sandy beaches, bustling promenade, and a magnificent marina. I arrived in a heat wave, and did a quick tour, before opting to take welcome sustenance in a shaded, side street café. What a joy!

I have to confess, I first lost my heart to the train years ago. Devoid of electrical gadgetry, and trashy promotional stunts, it provides an experience that takes you back in time to another era, a time when things seemed to be on a smoother track.

And it’s not just paying customers who enjoy the trip. Pep Lorente,57, has spent a total of 33 years as a driver, first on the Puerto Soller trams, and then with the Tren de Soller trains, and he is still enthusiastic about his job.

“For me, it is the best,” he said as he prepared to take a train on yet another crowded trip. “Every day is different, and I like that.

“I know I have seen the same places for many years, but I always enjoy the environment, seeing the changes in the seasons. It is very special to me, and it is wonderful for the railway to celebrate 100 years of service. It’s hard to believe.”

Pep, one of 10 drivers employed on the line, also enjoys meeting passengers. “Some come to see me to thank me when the journey is over, and that’s nice. It’s like being part of a big family,” he said.

Soller Train, Mallorca, SpainThe train isn’t the only anniversary celebrant.  Holiday hotels, apartments, and a vast range of tourist-linked holiday businesses are marking the time in the 50s when Mallorca took off.

Sixty years later, and despite a worldwide recession, the island is more than holding its own. There is a buzz in the air, and there are statistics to prove it. Palma airport recently beat passenger records for the fourth month running.

By the end of the year, tourist spend is expected to hit 55,800 million euros reflecting a 6.3 per cent increase on the same period last year. Isn’t that remarkable?

All of this is music to the ears of people such as husband and wife team Martin and Lorraine Xamena, and their son Alejandro, who run the wonderful, four star – it really should be seven star – BonSol hotel which spills down a hillside at Illetas, overlooking the Bay of Palma.

The hotel, which is planning special events to mark its 60th birthday, started life as a large, old villa.  It grew and grew and eventually led to an expansion project that was totally stunning.
Driver Pep and his Soller trainIt required three tunnels to be built under two roads, and the installation of lifts, so that the hotel and its magnificent facilities could spread down the hill to a small, but beautiful, sandy cove.

Apart from being able to get to the beach more easily, guests can opt to eat their meals at a delightful sea shore restaurant, backing on to exotic gardens and swimming pools.

An equally pleasant dining experience can be enjoyed in a magnificent ground floor a la carte restaurant which adjoins public rooms adorned with curios, paintings and even suits of armour.

The BonSol’s success story is remarkable, and most of the credit is due to a painstaking attention to detail, the warmth of its welcome, and service that always comes with a smile.  Small wonder that one grateful, and delighted, visitor returned 98 times before he saw his last sunset.

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Frank Corless

Travel writer

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