If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be transported back in time to a bleak dusty world of outlaws, shoot-outs and cabaret shows, look no further than the Desierto de Tabernas. This European desert is a municipality of the southeastern province of Almería and home to three theme parks that are (quite literally) straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie. These three film studios have grown into the tourist attraction that is known today as ‘Mini Hollywood’. Fort Bravo, Oasys and Western Leone have all been shoot locations for hundreds of Westerns including ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’, as well as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and even an episode of ‘Dr. Who’ AND some of sixth season of ‘Game of Thrones’!
A variety of flora and fauna have made the Tabernas Desert their home and have flourished despite living within the driest region in Europe. Here, you’ll find the resilient sea lavender (Limonium insignis) dancing just out of extinctions reach, as well as the toadflax (Linaria nigricans lange) as it envelops the surreal desolate landscape in a vanilla-scented sheet of white flower during winter months. Amongst the moist riverbeds, you might also catch a glimpse of some of its inhabitants; largely reptiles and amphibians. Tilt your head to the heavens and you will be able to spot one of the many birds of prey that use Tabernas as their hunting ground.
In the early 1900s, this barren, semi-arid landscape provided a backdrop for a genre of film which soared in popularity during the 1960s. ‘Spaghetti westerns’ (also known as ‘Italian westerns’ or ‘Macaroni westerns’) are European productions characterised by their cowboys and gunslingers, bandits and outlaws, and stetsons and spurs. With its striking similarity to the North American Wild West, the Tabernas Desert seems an obvious choice of location for this genre of film.
The Wild West town of Fort Bravo is situated just two kilometers west of Tabernas; a town complete with a saloon, stockaded fort, prison, Mexican pueblo, Native American teepees and even its own cavalry. The long journey to Fort Bravo is an adventure within itself; an adventurous ride through an arid valley brings you to this little town located next to a canyon. If you get the sense that you’ve just walked straight onto a Hollywood set, it’s probably because you have. Originally built as a set for one of famous director Sergio Leone’s movies back in the 1960s, Fort Bravo has been used and reused for numerous other movies, television series and advertisements. Leone, son to one of Italy’s cinema pioneers, is often credited as the founding father of spaghetti westerns such as ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, which sees a young and rather dapper Clint Eastwood as ‘The Man With No Name’; a mysterious drifter who finds himself in the middle of two belligerent gangs of smugglers and pits them against each other for his own financial gain. Fort Bravo is still an active film-set today meaning parts are often shut-off, so while you’re still able to catch a cabaret show and a bite to eat, the next town over is where the real magic happens.
Oasys is an amusement park covering 30 hectares, within which you will discover a western village, pool area and a zoo. Perhaps most impressive is the 4,000 trees and 20,000 plants that are home to some 800 animals from over 175 different species (many of them protected, and several of them endangered). For some Instagram-worthy shots, there is a cactus garden housing some 250 species from across the continents. If this isn’t enough to fill your boots, there is also a mock bank raid, a 20-minute shootout (complete with unceremonious hanging) and can-can show in the Yellow Rose Saloon. Yee-haw! The Museo de Cine is worth a visit to have a look at the old projectors and film accessories, and to peruse its extensive poster collection of all the movies that have been shot there to date.
The last in the Mini Hollywood trilogy is Western Leone. The village was originally crafted for the filming of the epic-western starring Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson: ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. A tale of a widow whose life and land is threatened by an encroaching railroad, and the gunslinger tasked with taking out anyone who stood in its way. Aside from the obligatory western shows, you can also make like a cowboy (or cowgirl! Cowperson?!) and go on a horse ride around the village or out towards the desert. Before leaving, pop into the photo studio and don some contemporary garb for a photographic memento which would make a great (read: hilarious) gift for someone back home.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, what better way to take in the dramatic landscape than by camping? 5km west of Almería city by the coast lies Camping La Garrofa, a small, quaint terraced campsite on its own pebbled beach. For something a little more deluxe, head to Hotel Rural Hospedaría del Desierto; a 3-star hotel surrounded by olive trees, complete with outdoor swimming pool, sauna, à la carte restaurant, and just a 30 minute drive from Fort Bravo or 20 from Oasys. For a true taste of the wild west, you can also opt for a rural cabin or bungalow on the grounds of Fort Bravo itself.
Interestingly, it’s said that many of the actors and stuntmen from Leone’s reign still reside in Tabernas today. After the film crews had packed up and set for home, some stayed behind in the vain hope of profiting from a slice of the tourism pie that flourished following filming. Unfortunately, this was short-lived and the pie soon deflated. It’s a slower way of life for the left-behinds these days, but Mini Hollywood is still an impressive piece of cinematic history that’ll provide a fun day out for western worshipers and nature lovers alike.
It’s worth giving some of the old Western masterpieces a (re)watch before you go. Once there, immerse yourself in the sets from times gone by and feel part of these classic movies. Roam the dusty streets where Clint Eastwood captured many outlaws – and in the process, many hearts – while a re-enactment of Jesse James’ final moments goes on around you. Just don’t forget your (cowboy) hat and sunscreen; the desert heat can be an unforgiving pardner.