Cerbère and Portbou border Crossings

The eastern most border crossing between France and Spain is at the Coll dels Belitres (165 m) a mountain pass close to the coast. The coll dels Belitres means the pass through which the thieves and smugglers fled.

The crossing is a cross-border road pass between the province of Girona ( autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain ) and the department of Pyrénées-Orientales ( Occitanie region in France ). It connects the French commune of Cerbère to the Spanish village of Portbou by the departmental road D 914 (France) and the national road N-260 (Spain).

This is a fascinating place both historically and geographically. The pass was one of the main places of the exodus of the Spanish Republicans after the victory of the Franco troops in 1939 . Nearly 100,000 people have crossed this pass to take refuge in France and in Latin American countries and a memorial is close to the road. Historically there are also echos of WW2 with a Gestapo site located on the border. Geographically there are 2 border markers and a Spanish triangulation point as well as disused border control facilities from both countries. In addition to the road crossing there is also an international rail crossing through the Balitres railway tunnel which passes under the pass.

Source: French Geoportal
Source: Spanish Geoportal

The Border Crossing (Road)

Border with old Spanish Customs building to the right.
Both buildings are within France
Disused French Passport Control Booth
Old Spanish Customs House
Disused Spanish Passport Control Booth
Disused French Passport Control Booth

The disused buildings had been transformed into a canvas for local grafitti artists. I travelled through this border twice and on the second occasion French police were doing ad hoc checks. These buildings are directly above the railway tunnel (discussed below).

Border Crossing (Rail)

Portbou Railway Station

Portbou is a railway station serving Portbou in Catalonia, Spain. It is on the Barcelona–Cerbère railway and the Narbonne–Portbou railway. The station is a border railway station where all trains have to stop, as those freight trains coming from/going into France have to change gauge from 1,668 mm (5 ft 5 21⁄32 in) Iberian gauge to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge. Between Portbou railway station and Cerbère railway station in France, both track gauges run through the Balitres tunnel (1064 m long) allowing passenger trains from SCNF and RENFE to cross the border. Until relatively recently passengers were not allowed to use the “foreign” train service to cross the border with for example Spanish trains returning empty from Cerbère to Portbou. This changed in February 2020 with normal cross border services with both companies being provided. More details here.

The station is a grand building, a long steel arched construction similar to Estacio França in Barcelona, or closer to home for me Paddington or Saint Pancras in London. The track layout is complex for a small station as freight trains need to tranship their contents onto French wagons. Bogie changes occur across the border at Cerbère. The twin tunnels contain one of each gauge.

Spanish Police Cars
Arrivals and Departures
Old customs and passport control
Looking north
Looking north to the tunnel portals (and France).

Cerbère Railway Station

Gare de Cerbère is the railway station serving the border town Cerbère, Pyrénées-Orientales department, southern France. As described above it is connected to the Portbou railway station in Spain by the Balitres tunnel, which uses standard gauge track for trains continuing in France and Iberian gauge track for trains continuing in Spain; both stations provide an opportunity to change between French and Spanish services. The tunnel provided a walking escape route for defeated Spanish republicans in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Cerbère currently specialises, with Transfesa, in replacing the axles of freight wagons while Port Bou deals with the job of tranfering freight between broad-gauge and standard-gauge wagons. Cross border passenger services are from Barcelona. This was my first of two visits to border railway stations on this 2020 visit. My report on Latour de Carol in the Pyrennes is here.

Arrivals and departures
Arriving from Spain
Looking north towards the station
Just arrived through the tunnel.
Note the old customs buildings above the tunnel portals
The twin portals much more visible from the French side.

Border markers #600 -602

This section is work in progress for 2 reasons, firstly I did not recognise the closeness of border marker # 600 and forgot to visit it whilst I was in the area. My excuse is I was focused on trying to bag #602 that #600 fell off my radar. In the end I “only” managed to visit #601 and its twin #601 bis. These 2 were a short walk away from the old border crossing buildings.

Looking down towards #601 bis

Border marker #602 remained out of reach this trip. It is the last in the series of markers and is situated in a sea cave. It is possible to visit this marker but only with some organisation. Unfortunately during my visit the winds were too high for a boat trip which I tried to arrange whilst in Portbou. Other options included absailing, swimming and kayaking. None of which I felt confident about doing alone. Details of Eef Burns successful trip and others too are available here and here.

Historical Monuments and remnants

Close to the crossing there are several contrasting monuments. Perhaps the most evocative is the memorial dedicated to those who between January and February 1939 crossed the border into France fleeing the terror of Francoism. Monoliths and stands installed at this point give information and show images of the exiled population. Made up of four panels standing over a platform built above a small hill, the monument shows a series of pictures by French-Colombian painter Manuel Moros illustrating informative texts. Images were taken precisely at the same border post during the key days of the Republican exile and perfectly show the scale of that humanitarian catastrophe.

monolith pays tribute to the troops that bravely occupied the last French border posts on February 10th, 1939. The monument was built by Francoist authorities a few months after the final victory against the Republican army. A reconfiguration of a monument I have not seen elsewhere.

The final historical artifact I found by chance whilst bagging the 2 border markers. This nondescript building was used by the Gestapo and Franco’s secret police during WW2 to control the border.

Date of Visit: 03.08.2020

References:

  1. The bordermarkers of the Pyrenees : all markers ( Eef Berns) Website here and here
  2. Markers of the Spanish-French border in Girona “Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659-1868)” Website here

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