Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

High plains drifters

To recap

I had set myself the goal of driving in a single day from Marbella to the province of Almería and back, hopefully in the process seeing Spain’s famous Tabernas desert, site of location filming of hundreds of films, ranging from low-brow European westerns to major international epics. From the beginning I had a bad feeling, based on experience with our family’s often overly casual way of traveling by car.

The first sign of trouble showed up about 18 miles down the road. Before we even got to Málaga, we came to Fuengirola. The Missus spotted something beside the expressway that riveted her attention. It was, improbably enough, a Dunnes Stores. For those who haven’t lived in Ireland, Dunnes is roughly equivalent to a Target, except that it doesn’t have much of electronics department, meaning it is of no interest to guys. We weren’t aware that it even existed outside of Ireland. We had never seen one in Britain or France or Italy. Why was there one in Spain? It was a mystery. And still is. The Missus had a theory that maybe it was for the convenience of Dunne family scion Ben Dunne, who might, like many Brits and Irish, have property in the area. Mr. Dunne, as an aside, was a central figure a few years back in an embarrassing investigation of Ireland’s major political party, Fianna Fáil. It’s no coincidence that his name sounds like “been done.” Anyway, we had to stop and check out this Spanish Dunnes. In the end, it was just like a Dunnes in Ireland, except that it had an extremely well-stocked and lively bar. And all the signage was in Spanish as well as English, making it feel even more like a Target in southern California.

We continued on. We wended our way along the coast. When we came to the large town of Motril, we decided to placate the Munchkin, who had been a fairly good sport about spending the day in the car instead of in her beloved hotel swimming pool, and find the McDonald’s that we had seen signposted on the main road. But, in one of those “you can’t get there from here” kind of traffic conundrums, we could find no way to get the Motril McDonald’s, which was surrounded by layers of construction paraphernalia and wire fencing. (And, no, it wasn’t a case that it was still under construction. There were actually people inside munching down their Mac Grandes.) We finally gave up and continued down the road to the city of Almería, trying to figure out what was going on under the expansive plastic covers that enveloped acres and acres of fields along the seaside.

We decided to get a meal in Almería, although things did not look promising in the neighborhood we wound up in after emerging from the first underground parking garage we had found. We wandered around quite a bit, admiring the Alcazaba high above on a hill, until we wandered into a hotel. We were directed through several doors until we came to a dining room full of business people having their midday dinner. We had an absolutely lovely meal there, if a bit leisurely for my comfort, as I kept a desperate eye on my watch. Afterwards, we headed back to the car park, where the narrow winding neighborhood streets gave way to the huge, wide Avenida Federico García Lorca, rivaling Paris’s Champs Elysées in its spaciousness. The median was given over to a series of small parks and playgrounds, and there I saw my most serious problem. The Munchkin has never met a playground she didn’t love, and here we had found the mother of all children’s recreational areas. I helplessly glanced at the sun lowering in the sky, as my daughter eagerly ran toward the slides and jungle gym. Tabernas was so close and yet so far.

I bit my lip and let her have some time for fun, while I passed the time reading the various graffiti (mostly of a leftwing flavor; very different from my previous visit to Spain, during the Franco years) on practically every wall and structure. Finally, we convinced the Munchkin that it was time to go, and we got back in the car and headed north up the motorway. Daylight was growing scarce, but we still had an hour or two. As we climbed into the high desert, the sensation was eerie. I could easily have believed that we were on Interstate 15, driving through the Mojave Desert. Except that the traffic was much, much lighter than the route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Fort Bravo
Fort Bravo at Mini-Hollywood

There are three pueblos del Oeste in the area, which provide the opportunity for tourists to visit filming locations. One is called Western Leone and, as the name implies, it was used by Sergio Leone for filming his westerns. I had no idea for sure where to find it, and at this point I wasn’t going to waste time going out of my way to find it. We followed whatever signs we could see and exited on Highway 340. The Missus noted that it was strangely like taking the turnoff, from I-15 east of Barstow that brings one to Calico Ghost Town. We came upon Mini-Hollywood, but not much seemed to be happening there, so we continued on. Shortly thereafter, we were directed to a dirt road that brought us to Texas Hollywood. The sight of a fort, looking like a proper home to the U.S. cavalry, informed us that we had hit pay dirt.

Teepees on the Tabernas desert

The tickets for entrance were not cheap, although the gatekeeper did let the Munchkin in for free. The bad news was that the place would close in 40 minutes. The good news was that there would be an espectáculo in the saloon in ten minutes. We parked the car and walked into movieland. In addition to Fort Bravo (complete with U.S. flag), there was an entire western town and also a Mexican village (complete with Mexican flag). Across the way was a village of teepees. I walked up and down the town’s streets, trying to remember if and in what movie(s) I had seen any the buildings and the streets. We went into the saloon, ordered our drinks and sat at a table, waiting for the show to begin.

Old West street
Old west town, spaghetti/paella version

As it turned out, we got our money’s worth. Two bad hombres walk into the saloon and have a discussion about leaving their firearms with the barkeep. They are waiting for a third man, with whom they had some disagreement about money. The third man, Frank, shows up. They decide to settle their issues with a poker game. Cheating is alleged. Things deteriorate. A law officer, wearing a wide-brimmed black hat and serape, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood in the Leone westerns, arrives and informs everybody that it’s a quiet town and that he wants to keep it that why. But no good, things go to hell anyway. Frank insists the he is in the right and even points his gun in my direction to say that I will back him up. (Yeah, right.) He asks another bystander to count so that he and another fellow can settle things with a fast-draw shootout. As events reach their climax, Ennio Morricone’s stirring theme for Henry Fonda’s character in Once Upon a Time in the West reverberates from loudspeakers. By the end, no one is left alive except the barkeep and a few shaken observers.

Mexican village
A bit of old Mexico in Spain

It was well worth the drive. I only regretted that there wasn’t time to seek out Western Leone. But our day’s adventure wasn’t over yet. We continued north on the motorway, taking a better if longer road back to Málaga. It took us through Granada (the Missus, a sometimes ITV viewer, actually asked if we were going to see the Granada studios, and she wasn’t joking), and my wife had it in her head that we had to see the Alhambra (probably because I had mentioned it during our overly optimistic planning phase). So, even though it was nine o’clock at night, we got off the motorway and went looking for the Alhambra, the 13th-century fortress palace of the Moorish kings. We followed the signs and wound up in a deserted parking lot high on a hill. We wandered into a nearby hotel for a bocadillo and a café con leche and asked if it was possible to see the Alhambra at this time of night. Happily, the man in the bar told us that we could indeed stroll inside its walls and around its buildings. So, we did and experienced the strange sensation of having one of the country’s major landmarks all to ourselves. After that, we had one tired Munchkin, who slept all the way back to Marbella. As I drove through the night, my own mind was filled with gunfighters, outlaws and shootouts on the high plains.

Old West street
Yours truly and the Munchkin head to the saloon

It was definitely something to be thankful for. Speaking of which, let me wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving!

-S.L., 24 November 2005

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