Did you realise that Europe’s only desert is in Andalucía? Clint Eastwood, Peter O’Toole and Harrison Ford certainly know this.
Spaghetti westerns were so called because director Sergio Leone was Italian, but perhaps they should have been named paella westerns because several were filmed in Almería – in the Desert of Tabernas, to be precise.
The “badlands” of Spain proved an ideal body-double for America’s Wild West in such movies as For A Few Dollars More, which starred a young Mr Eastwood.
Leone, though, had been beaten to Almería by David Lean, who filmed parts of Lawrence of Arabia,with O’Toole, in the province – though it was some time before Steven Spielberg brought Harrison Ford to Tabernas to film chunks of the adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Among the crumbly, crumpled landscape of the desert, where trumpeter finches and lizards flit among the otherworldly ravines and cliffs, the legacy is there in several old western film sets, carefully recreated or restored and with re-enactments of street shoot-outs held daily.
Even if you’re not a big fan of westerns, a visit is great family fun and the gunfight re-enactments are admirably convincing.
Heading east from the “West”, the wildness continued as I took a small side-road across the Karst en Yesos de Sorbas natural area – a cave-riddled gypsum landscape of tiny table mountains and more ravines quite unlike anything I’d seen before in Spain; as was Sorbas, an age-worn town huddled along the top of a cliff above another strange split in the earth.
I followed the trail of Lean, Leone and Spielberg down to the far south-east corner of Iberia, where brown, misshapen mountains slope steeply into the sea in the Cabo de Gata-Nijar natural park. The rugged valleys and fabulous soft-sand beaches that are the park’s hallmarks were also used as backdrops to the directors’ films.
Few roads penetrate a wilderness that is arid yet home to several rare plant species. On the western side of the peninsula, I spotted distant pink blobs – flamingoes – on the vast salt lakes.
Looping round to the east, I called at the appealing seaside village of San José. This is the place to stay if you want to attempt the gratifying walk to the lonely lighthouse at “land’s end”, although the allure of Los Genoveses beach a short distance along the path may well curtail your hike.
A string of tiny villages spot this coast, with Agua Amargo perhaps the prettiest. I popped into a few of them before seeing a sign indicating a beach. A short hop over a ridge was rewarded with a panorama of a marvellous golden strand, the Playa de los Muertos – half a mile long and backed by cliffs. Completely undeveloped, there was barely a soul in sight out of season.
Heading north, the road turned inland and upwards as some formidable coastal mountains blocked its path. The next few miles proved a rollercoaster drive to cut across this lonely corner of Spain before civilisation returned, rather suddenly, in the shape of Mojàcar Playa, an easy-going resort that is pasted along several miles of excellent sandy beach.
It was the old village of Mojacar behind the resort that captured my attention. Viewed from the beach, it appears like a dollop of cream on a hill, its white-cube buildings spilling down the sides. Up in one of its old squares, the vistas stretched along the coast and far to the north.
The provincial capital of Almería is one of the least-visited of Spain’s coastal cities – a powerful reason for me to take a look. The city is overwhelmed by its gigantic, 1,000-year-old Moorish castle, the Alcazaba – second in size in Andalucía after Granada’s mighty Alhambra.
At dusk, I wandered behind its well-preserved walls to inspect the three distinct enclosures – two of Muslim design and one of Christian origin, added later – and gaze out from the battlements across the lights of what is still a key port for Spain. Another great wall.
Descending from the castle past the huge and rather stern-looking medieval cathedral, I found myself among the bright lights I had viewed from above, in the modern shopping boulevard of Paseo de Almería, a sharp contrast to the tranquillity of the castle’s courtyards.
Dipping down an alley, I was quickly back in old Almería, an experience made all the more authentic by Bodega Las Botas, a gloriously atmospheric place with hanging hams and sherry-barrel tables.
It would make a great movie set, I thought.
(via The Telegraph)