If the Tabernas Desert in Spain's Almeria region looks like the set of a Hollywood Western, that's because it was one.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was a Hollywood outpost in Europe where dozens of American film stars — Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor — made a temporary home while filming movies, including the kind that the area became most famous for: Spaghetti Westerns. The genre's name originates from Italian directors like the late Sergio Leone, who built film sets in the windy, barren desert an hour from the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of films were made here, including Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly — as well as parts of Lawrence Of Arabia and Cleopatra.
A Hands-On Experience
Today, the sets where those movies were made have been converted into Western-style cinema theme parks where tourists can stroll through a saloon, spend time behind bars in a local jail or reenact a shootout in the town square. Actors in cowboy hats and chaps put on daily stunt shows in which Western movie themes are piped through a fake town square. The First City Bank gets robbed every day; the same gun-slinging bandit is always handed over to the hangman. There's also a zoo and water park.
"It looks quite authentic, it looks quite like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit," says Shadae Talebi, a Californian who lives in Europe and brought her two young children on vacation to Spain.
In general, the theme parks attract aficionados of Westerns.
"My husband has always watched them, so John Wayne is always around and so is Clint Eastwood," says British tourist Angela Thorogood.
Many of the workers are aging stuntmen who fell off balconies or galloped on horseback alongside Clint Eastwood back in the day — now they perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual, who drives a horse-drawn cart while packing heat.
"This is very, very hard work. Every day I kill three, four [people]," he says, chuckling.
What The 'Golden Age Of Western Films' Left Behind
Western film directors chose the Tabernas Desert because it resembles the American West with its windswept plains crisscrossed by dry riverbeds and rocky ravines. It was also cheap. But by the late 1970s, directors had found better bargain locations — in Morocco and Turkey — and Almeria's film industry dried up.
In the tiny village of Tabernas — the only real settlement for dozens of miles — elderly residents trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
"This was considered the Spanish Hollywood," says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. "All types of actors came through here — American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore."
Like much of Spain, the Tabernas Desert has fallen on hard times. Unemployment in the Almeria region tops 30 percent. Recently, Spanish photographer Alvaro Deprit spent a month living in the desert, documenting the lives of those left behind when the film work dried up.
"It's a melancholy feeling," Deprit says, "because their world has finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was."
Those left behind include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation who worked as a film extra and has been living in a rustic desert camp ever since.
There's also a local actor, Jose Novo, who looks nearly identical to the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the American actor, and gave birth exactly nine months after Fonda was last in Almeria shooting a film, in 1968. It was aptly titled, Once Upon A Time In The West.