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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

In a Land Famed for its Tourism - Nobody Went to this Town - (Updated)

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Tumbledown Backyard, Dog & Train - Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 10

Nobody? Well, that's not quite true, of course: and earlier several tens of thousands were here who'd rather not have been. But in 1972, when I took this pic, pretty much nobody.

This photo almost went up last week, because I'm fairly sure it too was taken on December 22 - only it was 17 years prior to the Romanian Revolution pic which I felt took priority in view of its geopolitical importance in central-eastern Europe. (By the way, I updated that post yesterday with a summary of the back story.)

If I was allowed to keep eight photos for the wall of my desert island hut, this would be one of them. However, I accept that the neutral viewer may find my emotional attachment totally out of proportion to this scene's artistic merit. (You are welcome to comment on that - if you find it a mere jumbled mess, that's ok.)

I'll explain my reasons in an update, when I reveal where it is and how it was taken. Now here's the crunch - how can I give you some clues as to where it might be without giving it away? (Given the image, even hard-core steam enthusiasts might well struggle to identify the locomotive, which would otherwise nail the country at least.)

Needless to say, this photo is not the kind you would find in any brochure published by the nation's tourist agency, neither then nor today :) Though its post-war economic development had begun, this was still a poor country in 1972. A room in a back-street hotel probably cost me about $2 on this trip - and 1 decilitre of wine in a spit-and-sawdust bar was about 1 US cent. Of course, things were more expensive in the tourist centres.

Once a mighty power, this country's later poor economic development was in large part due to the unwillingness of its ruling classes to reform, subsequent political viciousness and lack of democracy (sound familiar?). When I was there the results of policies that focused on wasteful and inefficient state, or quasi-state industries were all too apparent.

I would guess the state security apparatus was not cheap either, and did little to help GDP expand (except, perhaps, in the millinery sector :) ). On the other hand, the country had a history of violent separatism, so the centre would argue this justified the costs involved. The people, however, were usually very friendly, especially off the beaten track.

As to the town where this was taken, it has a beautiful female name, but it remains rather modest in size, with a population today of just 40,000 according to Wikipedia. Though boasting a history going back to Roman times, it was the railways that boosted its importance. It was, and I suppose still is, a key junction where a main line from north to south crossed another running east to north-west. Wikipedia also says it is a centre for the chemicals industry.

The train in the pic is heading east, and - I hope my memory is correct - has just crossed one of the country's most important rivers. This is over 900 km from source to sea, and the longest entirely within its sovereign territory. The railway, which follows the river for some way after this, ends up in the country's second city - a fierce rival to the capital.

The river, by the way, gave its name to what was the largest and longest battle fought in the country in its last war - although the fighting was further east, not near this location.

I'm sure this tumbledown scene has long disappeared, and the town today reflects the economic development that the entire country has experienced in the last 48 years. Still, even now (and leaving aside the impact of the coronavirus) I doubt that this municipality gets many tourists, except in transit - there are just too many other attractions around.

Well, there is a veritable plethora of clues for you to chew over. I suspect the country isn't too difficult, but the town might be a problem. Heh heh heh - I'll give you a day or two to guess before I post an update with the answers.

ps I have also added an extra clue to KesterTester20 - this facade is one which is obviously causing brain cells to burst around the world, and my heart has softened yet further in sympathy :)

UPDATE: Extra Clues to help you along the way. I'll post the full story tomorrow morning

George Orwell spent time in this country, and wrote at least one book about his experiences. This book (like most of Orwell's output, I imagine), was banned in communist countries.

UPDATE2: Saturday, Jan 02.

Well, this little quiz has produced some star detective work! And uncovered some fascinating bits of history. But first, the story behind the pic. In the autumn of 1972, the world of railway intelligence brought word that the winter would see the last workings of RENFE's (Spanish State Railways) biggest passenger locomotives, the 242F class. These green monsters, originally built for the heaviest expresses on routes like Madrid to Irun, on the French border, had been displaced by electrification, and the last handful in service were stationed at the seemingly unremarkable town of Miranda d'Ebro, in northern Spain. From here, they worked occasionally on heavy freight trains on the line from Miranda to Zaragoza (and possibly beyond) towards Barcelona. I determined to go to Miranda over Christmas to see what I could capture on camera. From memory, I got into town on the morning of 22* December, a Friday, and learned there was indeed a freight scheduled to leave for Zaragoza around lunchtime – but, alas, the traction would be a more modest (and cheaper to run) 141F 'workhorse' locomotive, rather than my desired quarry.

Still any steam-hauled train was welcome in my books, and I set off to find what I thought would be an interesting location for a pic. I settled for a spot maybe 800m from the station, where I could get a side shot of the train from the end of a nondescript street that degenerated into a track. I forget, but the track may have led down to the river Ebro. It was probably near 2.00 in the afternoon when I could hear the train coming. I was prepared, of course, although unusually I had my premier camera – at the time an East German Exakta VX 1000 – loaded with colour slide film and set on a tripod, with black and white in my mum's borrowed, and rather limited, fixed-lens Kodak Retinette. (My normal routine was the other way round – I counted black and white as the more important medium. However, this swap was to have important consequences in terms of what happened.) Train came, shots snapped, I gathered my things and took a few steps back towards town when a dog in the nearby yard began barking at me. Looking up, I realised the railway was visible through a whole in the ramshackle fence – and my freight train would be passing in a second or two. With no time to think, I dropped the tripod, aimed the Retinette at the scene and pressed the shutter. Not only was this in the days before automatic exposures, neither camera even boasted a light meter. It mattered little. I don't think I had time to set the aperture – or even the focus. But ironically, the Retinette, which had a slightly wide angle, 45mm lens, helped to compensate for that. So, though the negative is not the sharpest, for me, the pic works. I love the way the dog takes the eye, and the train is only barely visible through the rickety fence. Even more against the grain, in railway photography it is a fundamental no-no to have a telegraph pole in front of the locomotive – yet here the pole only helps to emphasise the obscurity of the train disappearing in the distance. It's an obscurity not only for the dog, but for most of the public, of course. A steam train – so what? The fact that this was with a fairly basic camera just adds to my personal satisfaction – but then, of course, this is all very subjective, and the neutral viewer cannot know all this backstory. I spent a few more days in the region, and got another (for me) spectacular shot of a 141F a few kilometers towards Zaragoza – a print I can't find today. I even managed a 242F on colour slide crossing the Ebro at a place called Haro, but it's not a particularly emotional scene. * Thinking back, I must be out on my dates, and I must have hit Miranda on more like December 19 or 20. I spent a few days in the area, including a trip to Zaragoza. But with trains few and far between in the cold, foggy winter – I quit on December 23, catching an overnight to Paris to get home on Christmas Eve – they still ran trains late in those days. As to the puzzle – this initially proved very difficult. Not a few contributors, possibly thinking of earlier photos and the need for a 'big' country, thought Turkey. One plonked for Pakistan, a couple for Romania and cousin Patricia pondered Poland - you see, no favours to family! I have to say hats off to both Tom Chilton who, having decided it was Spain, was the first to deduce via a map that the location was Miranda De Ebro – and to Terry Mann, who managed the hard bit by identifying the class of engine, then, without reading the clues suggested Salamanca. (Terry quickly reversed that decision on checking the text.) John Cantwell, having initially thought about Turkey, then opted for Spain, and googled city populations with female names and longest river to also sleuth Miranda. Bill of the Flourmill went through a somewhat similar process. After the Orwell clue was added, Owen Brison (a rail and steam enthusiast) felt the locomotive tender was familiar, but checked out Orwell's writings to confirm Spain. A bit more google mapping, and Owen reckons that one piece of Miranda's less-than illustrious past – its concentration camp for Republican prisoners in and long after the Spanish Civil War – was on the opposite side of the line to the locomotive depot. It might be, I'm not sure, Owen – because I got this from (Spanish friend) Luis de Colmenares to whom I sent this photo before the days of this blog series. It further reveals that Miranda De Ebro, far from being an unremarkable railway junction town, has a history that is a kind of microcosm of Franco's enigmatic 'fascist' regime. He writes:

“Fascinating shot of a Spain long gone. I don't know whether you know this but there was a 'processing/concentration camp' in Miranda de Ebro during WWII. Political and Jewish refugees, resistance members, spies, etc that crossed the Pyrenees were sent there. There's a fascinating story of an 'underground train' - as with blacks from Southern States fleeing North pre-1861- with the involvement of British Embassy diplomats and employees to get some of these people under their wing before scuttling them to Lisbon via Embassy, Madrid's most famous upper class tea-shop next to both the German and British Embassies. “The Ambo then was Sir Samuel Hoare, a rather dour and sour figure demoted to Madrid by Churchill, who made no bones about how much he hated his bones for having been a committed appeaser. “Franco, naturally, looked the other way pretending not to know. A true Galician.”

(I wonder if the two groups of detainees were kept in adjacent camps? Maybe I'll write to Miranda municipality and ask.)

Alex Faludy, Ian Krause and Derek and Lynn Hoagland also nailed Miranda in the competition – although all after the Orwell clue had been published.

Just to 'complete the picture' here is a more coventional shot so those who don't know can see what a 141F looks like. This IS at Salamanca, in the summer of 1973, heading west towards the Portuguese frontier.

And finally - here is a shot of two of the formidable 242Fs, on shed at Miranda De Ebro in the wintry morning fog. Wow, this looks a far better pic in this electronic version than the small print I made in the dark room - I almost threw it away!

I should have spent more time here trying to get shots, it would have been more productive. Must mention that that's the front of a 141F on the far left, so you can see the difference between the everyday workhorse and the haughty, brooding giants.

And, by the way, the planned shot of the train down the street, just before the doggie photo proved dull and uninteresting.

Whatever, in the end, this little quizz produced far greater interest (and news to me) than first appeared likely. I'd never have thought, 48 years ago, I'd be sitting in front of a computer telling this little tale to the world.

Well done everyone involved - and I wish you a safe, healthy and successful 2021.

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