The Wild West in Europe’s only desert
In Tabernas, Europe’s only desert, visitors can have a drink and interact with Hollywood-style cowboys in the Wild West towns built as movie sets.
By PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY
Meridian Writers Group
Jun 03 2007
A short drive inland from the beaches of Spain’s Andalucian coast lies Europe’s only desert, the Tabernas, an area of arid beauty whose hills rear up around dessicated gulches spiked with giant cactuses.
It’s here that Europe’s most reliable sunshine can be found: 3,000 hours a year.
And it’s here that Sergio Leone, director of “spaghetti” Westerns such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, found sparklingly transparent air, a body of extras with just the right looks and accents, and the perfect backgrounds for his movies.
To play at being Clint Eastwood’s cheroot-chewing gun-slinger you need to go not to the U.S.A. or Italy, but to Spain.
Other directors soon followed and left the dry hills dotted with Wild West film-set ghost towns.
The best-known is Mini Hollywood, the original site of Eastwood’s three Man With No Name movies, on the A370 highway just west of the town of Tabernas.
Subsequently bought by local extras and opened to the public, it was eventually purchased by a hotel group and has now acquired the aura of a fully fledged theme park, with additional attractions such as a wildlife park.
The small maze of streets containing a surprising variety of entirely 3-D buildings: bank, wells, dentist’s office, horse troughs, saddlery, gold mine and public notary, inauthentically prosperous in freshly painted blues, browns, reds, pinks and yellows.
Coke machines carefully inset into walls, shops offer souvenirs and dress-up photo opportunities, and the Yellow Rose Saloon offers amplified country and western music.
It’s hard not to whistle Ennio Morricone’s haunting themes, although to catch the original atmosphere of the films, better still to head five minutes further west.
Here, at the more authentically battered Western Leone site, the key buildings from the director’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Charles Bronson, are easily identifable. The site, its isolation compromised by a nearby highway, is relatively little-visited.
There’s the chance to sit in a frame and be photographed for a wanted poster, but customers of any kind are wanted here.
Back past Mini Hollywood the turning to Cinema Studios Fort Bravo, also known as Texas Hollywood, looks unpromising.
The dusty, unsurfaced track winds back under the main road and into the hills for several kilometres, but eventually there’s a battered gateway and a cowboy selling tickets.
The two-street town is still in use for movies and commercials, and has appeared in everything from The Magnificent Seven to Zorro. Jackie Chan shot one of his kung-fu films here in 2004.
In between such excitements a local cast of grizzled but good-humoured actors puts on a crowd-pleasing, 45-minute gunfight drama for an audience seated at tables in the saloon.
They occasionally incorporate onlookers in the plot or freeze the action in the middle of a struggle to smile for the camera. In the end the floor is littered with spilled cards from a poker game and with bodies, including the sheriff’s.
But the bad guy gets it in the final scene, and everyone goes home happy.
IF YOU GO:
For more information on Mini Hollywood visit its website at www.hvsl.es/lei/hojas/leio0002.htm.
For more information on Cinema Studios Fort Bravo visit its website at www.texashollywood.topactive.com.
For information on travel in Spain visit the Tourist Office of Spain website at www.okspain.org.