Head for southern Spain to discover how one small, dusty corner of Andalucía has played a large part in Hollywood history
Almeria in southern Spain... Sea, mountains, perpetual sunshine, endless sandy beaches, folklore, fruit growing and seafood all come together to form the magic and allure of this region. From the Arabic, "mirror of the sea," Almeria has for the most part fought against the mass tourism and property development of other costas and continued to reflect the charm, charisma and atmosphere of traditional Spain.
Chances are, even if you’ve never stepped on Almerian soil, you will at least have sipped or eaten some of the famous fruits and vegetables ripened under the highest number of annual sunshine hours in Europe. But what many visitors or consumers of its produce don’t know is that since the 1950s, Almeria's vines and citrus trees have also rustled to the shouts of “action... cut... aaannnddd print!”
The first creators of cinematic magic were drawn by the potent light and arid landscapes of giant sandstone columns and cacti of Tabernas to make the iconic Spaghetti Western. Most famously, Sergio Leone made his new revolutionary Westerns here, taking on and succeeding in developing a traditional genre that you messed with at your professional peril. During the 1960s, Leone’s tour de force, his “Dollars” trilogy - A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - not only challenged film-making techniques but also introduced the world to both a young Clint Eastwood and Leones’ long time music collaborator, Ennio Morricone, whose unique sparse arrangements and whistling soundtracks contributed to instant box office sensations around the world.
Also part of Leone’s multi-talented team was set designer Carlo Simi, whose sets still in part stand today as random scatterings of cinematic archaeology and Western-based theme parks. ‘Texas Hollywood’ is the most gratifying. It has a slightly neglected air, with the side by side Mexican and American town recreations of the 1960s faded and peeling but generally looking all the more authentic for it.
Amongst the dusty streets and squares, the facades of homes, banks, shops and barbers can be explored - but most are empty except for the easily startled scampering critters of the desert and dusty maintenance equipment. Towards the stockade and the neglected piled-high remnants of fake coffins, the stillness of the desert is punctuated by the weary bellowing of bison, donkeys and horses, accompanied by the bleating goats and chatter of herdsmen in the surrounding dead-still landscape. This, combined with a scarcity of visitors and visions of Yul Brynner, Henry Fonda, Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson once moseying around these parts, only adds to a spooky and slightly surreal atmosphere.
A short journey west along the N-340, past a remote and bizarre smaller collection of Western town facades, is ‘Mini Hollywood’. Though perhaps a little more theme park than its neighbour, this is also more complete and a popular destination for families who don’t necessarily share the movie enthusiasm, with a zoo to distract kids bored with six-shooters, stetsons and the whole Wild West thing in general.
Like all good actors, location Almeria was adaptable, and took on many different parts. Following its run of Western roles, the region began to expand its repertoire, stretching beyond Europe’s only desert to include the coastline and regional capital. Almeria became a stage for war, biblical and adventure movies, and was varyingly transformed into Arabia, Russia, Mexico and northern Africa. David Lean transposed the seaside town of Carboneras into the Jordanian port of Aqaba to memorable effect in Lawrence of Arabia; to the north, the classic love story Dr Zhivago was in part captured in Guadix. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton arrived to film Cleopatra, while in 1970, Sherman tanks rolled into the handsome Plaza de Catedral of Almeria City during the filming of Patton. Some time later, Spielberg picked the beautiful coastal park of Cabo de Gata-Nijar for parts of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
Indeed, during Almeria’s movie-making peak it seemed you couldn’t move two yards without falling over a member of Hollywood’s A list. Local doctor to the stars Antonio Moreno wrote in his diary, ''I saw Anthony Quinn and Stewart Granger at a kiosk bar in the street, Faye Dunaway and a friend walking down the Paseo in Almeria City, and Ursula Andress at a pool in Aguadulce. No one ever went up to them then... Actors liked filming here because they felt very comfortable.” A particular bonus for Moreno’s drinking buddy, Peter O'Toole, whose off-stage leisure time exploits remain legendary.
From the sierras of Almeria’s interior, it’s rarely more than a 30-minute drive to the miles upon miles of sandy beaches, 10 of which received the coveted Blue Flag award in 2008. If flags were given for tranquillity and beauty too, this stretch of Andalucía would likely score highly. Unlike other European coastal authorities, the Almerians keep a tight leash on development, and restrictions afforded by Natural Park status at Cabaneros, Nijar and Cabo de Gato have kept large areas of beachfront untouched since their movie heyday.
Picture the scene... Act 1: you amble through the fresh lemon- and orange-infused air at sunrise in Almeria’s varied and splendid rural interior. Act 2: you follow a trail in the footsteps of screen legends and the heritage of the more than 150 movies made here. Act 3: you dine on fresh local produce before heading off into the sunset along one of the pristine Mediterranean beaches...
- The El Dorado Hotel: built by Eddie Fowlie, the props master of Lawrence of Arabia, and now full of movie memorabilia.
- Airlines: Monarch Airlines, easyJet and Ryanair all fly from the UK to Almeria.