Italian director Sergio Leone had less than US$200,000 (HK$1.56 million) to make A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. He couldn’t afford to shoot in America or to hire big stars: so he opted for Almería, Spain, and hired Clint Eastwood, an actor in a fading TV Western series called Rawhide. Leone wasn’t the first European to make a Western in Almería’s Tabernas desert, in southern Spain, but he did it best. The wind-carved rocks, heat, light, cactuses, gullies and emptiness, plus fantastic sets created by Carlo Simi, were to become the backdrop for the best of the many Spaghetti Westerns ever made.
Leone only shot five films here (the Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West and Fistful of Dynamite aka Duck, You Sucker!) and the desert has featured in hundreds of films since.
Compared to the crowded coastlines to its east and west, Almería province feels remote and not greatly changed since the days Eastwood and Henry Fonda were kicking up the dust. The protected coastal area of Cabo de Gata-Níjar and the idiosyncratic coastal villages of Mojácar and Agua Amarga are well worth a detour.
1. Los Albaricoques
This sleepy town stands in for Agua Caliente in For a Few Dollars More (1965), the setting for the famous shifty-eyed duel between Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volontè. The low-walled threshing ring on the edge of town where it takes place has been meticulously touched up, and diehard fans can hire costumes and re-enact the standoff. Clint Eastwood first appeared here with poncho, cheroot and squint a year earlier in A Fistful of Dollars. The Hostal Restaurante Alba is packed with memorabilia, while there are countless locations between Avenida Sergio Leone and Calle Clint Eastwood. hostal-alba.com
2. Oasys Mini-Hollywood
The first of three sets built by Carlo Simi, this is the El Paso of For a Few Dollars More. It’s here that Klaus Kinski stakes out the bank while Van Cleef checks into a room at the saloon. The set, with some minor adjustments, is at the centre of the action the following year in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Eli Wallach wanders in from the desert over a rickety walkway and heads for the very same saloon. After filming wrapped, the set was taken over by a group of extras and opened to the public as an attraction. Now run by a hotel group, it’s a bonafide theme park (complete with shootouts, swimming pool and zoo) but the iconic film locations are well preserved. oasysparquetematico.com/en
3. Fort Bravo
Simi built this town and Mexican pueblo for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it has continued as a working location, featuring in Navajo Joe and many French, German and Italian Westerns. Like Oasys Mini-Hollywood, the set was bought by crew, in this case stuntman Rafa Molina and horse trainer Francisco Ardura, whose credits span teaching outlaws to ride to Game of Thrones. Open to the public, it’s now a Wild West village with daily bank robberies, cancan shows and a coach museum with stagecoaches, carts and wagons used in Spaghetti Westerns, along with, rather randomly, a sleigh from Dr Zhivago. fortbravooficial.com/en
4. Cortijo del Fraile
Wallach and Eastwood travel by horse and cart to see Father Ramirez at the San Antonio Mission in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and end up here. The woefully dilapidated old friary farmhouse, standing alone against a backdrop of bare, rocky hills in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, is instantly recognisable and a port of call on all local film tours. It’s even better known as the scene of a real-life murder that inspired Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s 1932 tragedy Blood Wedding.
5. Western Leone
Cue the eerie harmonica. This is the fictional Sweetwater, Utah, from the epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson – and Claudia Cardinale, who arrives there to start married life at the McBain ranch only to find her new widower husband and his children murdered. Arriving today, she’d find her imposing maroon ranch house is a saloon (hosting shootout shows and selling beer), a sheriff’s office next door and quite a bit of new development. Rumour has it that the wood for the house was recycled from the tavern built for Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, shot in Spain two years before. western-leone.es
Cathay Pacific flies to Barcelona and Madrid from Hong Kong, which offer easy connections to Almería