Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Almería, Spain: family holiday to the home of cowboys and spaghetti westerns
Clover Stroud reporst from Almería, Spain, the spitting image of Texas and the location for dozens of spaghetti westerns.
By Clover Stroud
5:58PM BST 10 May 2011
I love Texas with a passion, having spent two years working on a ranch in west Texas as a cowgirl. A decade later, and with half-term approaching, I had a strong urge for my children, Jimmy Joe and Dolly (no guessing what inspired their names), to feel the wide open spaces and huge skies of that haunting Texan landscape.
But I could only dream of a Texan road-trip because I knew those thieves of fun – time and money, or rather a lack of both – meant that it wouldn't be happening any time soon.
Instead, I turned my gaze to another big, empty landscape, one much closer to home and kinder on the pocket, where I could construct a good imitation of Wild West romance. Long before southern Spain evolved into the tower-block hell of the Costa del Sol, film-makers stumbled on the Tabernas Desert in Almería province, the arid coastal region between Granada and Murcia, which is the spitting image of west Texas.
Having spent the best part of two years riding through Texas, I know the landscape well, but if you'd blindfolded me in the Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, and magically transported me to Almería, and removed the blindfold, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.
Huge and empty, snaked by winding dirt roads cutting through red rock dotted with classic silhouettes of spiky cactus, both landscapes hold a sense that a thundering band of banditos might appear on the horizon any minute. If Almería could pass as the Wild West for me, then I was certain I could convince the children this was cowboy and Indian land, too.
The Tabernas Desert borders Cabo de Gata Níjar Natural Park, and the mountains of the Sierra de Cabo de Gata and the Sierra de Los Filabres. Arriving in Almería in the early morning, we drove east along the coast, winding past dramatic cliffs of whipped sandstone which Jimmy Joe said looked like space-age meringue.
As both children pressed their faces to the car windows, looking for cowboys, we navigated the twisting roads of the coastline that rose and fell like a Wurlitzer ride. Then we drove over a blind summit above Rodalquilar, holding a collective breath as the landscape suddenly spread before us, as exciting as the Wild West.
We spent five nights in the fishing village of Las Negras, long enough to explore the necklace of coves and beaches studding the coastline. The emptiness of the landscape is partly what makes it so compelling, while a dense sense of the history of this strange, forgotten pocket of Spain hangs in the air, too.
At San José we ate gambas al ajilo – fat prawns fried in a garlicky, buttery sauce, then drove south along the coast to Genoveses Beach, once a port on the trade route to Africa, where the silk industry flourished, as silk was traded across the Mediterranean for saffron and ivory.
We'd come looking for cowboys, but hadn't expected to find the sense of piratical history associated with this stretch of coast. It was fortified with massive watchtowers and forts, a physical reminder of the Moorish grip that held the coast until the Moors were expelled at the end of the 15th century.
With the open countryside and rugged coastline, this is wonderful country for walking, as long as you don't visit during high summer. We walked from Las Negras to swim in a glittering blue cove at El Playazo beneath the shadow of the Castillo de San Ramón. Later, we discovered another pirate tower above a tiny cove, which we could only access on foot, at Cala de San Pedro.
We might have stumbled on pirates, but we'd actually come for cowboys, so drove inland, where the landscape is even emptier, to the film sets at Fort Bravo, known as Texas Hollywood. A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly were both shot here but Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood weren't the only ones to spot the potential for imitation. Numerous westerns were shot in the mountains and desert.
If we really had been in America, the film sets would have been Disnified beyond recognition, but here it was as if we'd stumbled upon a deserted town, complete with saloon bar, a gallows and wedding chapel. On a distant plain we could see a circle of tepees, and there was an empty coral and fort, as well as a corner of the set made up like Mexico. Jimmy Joe re-enacted a shoot-out as Dolly and I wandered through saloons. The set was almost deserted, apart from a good-looking caballero from Madrid, who took us for a ride in his mule cart.
Because the sensation of existing in our own movie had made us feel adventurous, we turned off the road near Sorbas.
The dusty track led through olive and almond groves dotted with goats to deserted villages, abandoned during the Fifties following economic and political migration under Franco. Stranger than anything I'd ever seen, it was a fascinating, if slightly spooky sight, with tumbledown houses spilling onto long-forgotten tracks that led nowhere.
But by now the last of the evening sun had dropped below the horizon, so we left the villages, returning to the coast, whistling Ennio Morricone tunes to ourselves as we went.