Spain: Far West territory

If you are one of those who never says no to a good western, Spain offers you more places than you can imagine to follow the footsteps of the filming that this genre has left in our country. We invite you to join us on this journey that begins…

In the beginning, there was Samuel Broston

To begin planning your route, the first thing is to get into the context and know how the Western genre came to Spain.

It all started in the 1950s when a Hollywood producer (of European origin), named Samuel Bronston, discovered the benefits of post-war Spain as a location for large-scale productions. In 1959, he purchased the Chamartín Studios in Madrid, and the golden age of Hollywood productions in Spain began.

Bronston saw the advantages of Spain over Italy (the other great European “Hollywood” at that time) due to the low production costs resulting from the favourable exchange rate between the peseta and the US dollar, the high qualifications of Spanish technicians, and, above all, the good weather and varied landscapes of the country, ideal for filming outdoors without major displacements.

For all these factors, a young Italian filmmaker named Sergio Leone chose Madrid as the main setting for his most personal work: a Western that broke all the rules of the genre to date and that represented the birth of a new style of filmmaking. The film was called “A Fistful of Dollars” and featured an antihero, cold, tough, and lonely, motivated by money, without scruples or feelings. What Leone did not know at that time (1964) is that he had just created a genre that would be known as the “spaghetti Western” or “European Western,” and that Spain would have its main filming sets for the next 15 years.

And then, Sergio Leone arrived

But Leone’s films were not only famous for that new type of character. The thematic and aesthetic revolution of the Roman director was accompanied by other factors. Violence, extreme close-ups of characters’ eyes, and Ennio Morricone’s spectacular music all contributed to creating a new golden age of the genre. And Clint Eastwood, of course. In 1964, 59 years ago (as they say), the now-acclaimed actor and director was almost unknown. Only three years later, in 1966, he was “the man with no name,” the icon of the Western, and forever the face of tough guys on the big screen.

But let’s get back to Leone. The director had already filmed some of the Bronston Studios’ movies in Madrid, so he knew well the facilities that the territory offered for shooting. Hence, he chose two key provinces to film his first Western. “A Fistful of Dollars” was entirely shot in Madrid and Almería. Hoyo de Manzanares, Casa de Campo, and Aldea del Fresno were the Madrid locations chosen to recreate the town where most of the action takes place. However, the initial scene of the film was shot at Cortijo El Sotillo in Almería. Both territories perfectly resembled the New Mexico presented in fiction.

Just a year later, Leone returned to Spain with his team and shot the second part of what would later be known as “Dollars Trilogy.” For “For a Few Dollars More” Hoyo de Manzanares and Colmenar Viejo were chosen again. But in addition, Leone decided to build a town in the Tabernas Desert (Almería). The success of “For a Few Dollars More” was enormous. Leone’s style began to be imitated by numerous filmmakers. The European industry began to produce Westerns on a massive scale, and most of these titles emulated, not all with the same success, the guidelines of the Italian Western’s director. This was the beginning of Almería’s history as a setting for “Western movies,” and Madrid’s unexpected landscape as the American Far West.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was the last of the movies that established Leone, Morricone, and Eastwood as references of the European western. On this occasion, in addition to the usual sets in Colmenar Viejo and Hoyo de Manzanares in Madrid and the Tabernas village in Almería, other provinces were also included: Granada and Burgos.

Still from “A Fistful of Dollars” filmed in Hoyo de Manzanares (Madrid) / Film Madrid

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was the last of the movies that established Leone, Morricone, and Eastwood as references of the European western. On this occasion, in addition to the usual sets in Colmenar Viejo and Hoyo de Manzanares in Madrid and the Tabernas village in Almería, other provinces were also included: Granada and Burgos.

Travel to the “Near Far West”

Madrid, Almeria, Burgos… as we mentioned before, there are many places to go if you want to step into cowboy territory.

Leone was the pioneer in using us as a set for his productions, but not the only one. Over the following decades, no less than 400 movies of this genre were filmed in our country. For many, the towns in Almeria and the Tabernas desert were the reference. However, in the Community of Madrid, more than 200 of these productions were filmed.

Seriously, was it filmed in Madrid?

Yes, it was. And not only in many municipalities in the province, which we will review now, but also in La Casa de Campo. For those who visit this well-known Madrid park today, it will be difficult to imagine why western movies were filmed there. The answer is that in the 1950s, a group of popular buildings of different typologies was built around several courtyards. Among the buildings were houses, a winery, a synagogue, a hunting lodge, and even a mill. The idea was to reproduce what was then known as New Castile. Over time, the complex was rebuilt and ended up forming what is now called the Toledo Pavilion. Don’t forget to visit it next time you are in Madrid. You will be surprised.

Outside the capital, there are four routes spread across thirty municipalities in Madrid that invite us to discover the places that hosted those film shoots. Although there is not much left standing, it is worth escaping to this area and reliving what it was thanks to the magic of technology.

Decoration of a ranch in La Pedriza (Madrid) / Film Madrid

Unlike other places in Spain where the original sets of these productions were preserved, in Madrid there is hardly any trace of them. The most famous set of the time was called Golden City and started as a street with empty facades. As more Italians and Americans arrived, interiors were built, a saloon, several horse troughs, a fort, and later, another stage was even opened that recreated the Chicago typical of the 1970s film noir.

As we were saying, there is nothing left standing from all that magic, but … that’s where augmented reality comes in. In Hoyo de Manzanares, they have created an app that allows you to scan images showing the sets as they were in real size over the current landscape. Another excellent reference to recreate the magic of the old Madrid west is the website “Colmenar Viejo, Land of Cinema.”

You can take advantage of your stay in this area to visit the magnificent castle of Manzanares el Real and enjoy the lesser-known nature in the Parque de la Cuenca Alta del Manzanares. There are incredible places to discover, such as the Covacho Waterfall, an ideal route to do with the whole family, just like other ones that can be done riding a donkey in the Madrid mountains. That way, you will feel a true symbiosis with those caravans of the Far West.

Burgos. The cemetery of the sad hill

If you are eager to see real sets and live a Wild West experience, don’t worry. There are other places in Spain where you can recreate your favourite scenes.

Poster for the Sad Hill cemetery in Burgos / Burgos Film Commission

One place that only the most avid fans have heard of is in the Valle de Mirandilla, near Burgos. It is called Sad Hill, and here the final scene of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was filmed. The set (visible to this day) was built following the plans of set designer Carlo Simi, recreating a magnificent circular cemetery with over 5,000 tombs arranged in a system of concentric circles surrounding a central cobblestone square. Since its restoration in 2016, it has become a popular tourist destination among European Western fans.

In the surroundings of Sad Hill, we recommend a stop at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos and the beautiful village of Covarrubias. And, in the meantime, take a stroll through its capital, full of the two things that feeds a traveller’s soul: art and gastronomy. One of the best Gothic cathedrals in the world, the Atapuerca archaeological sites and the Museum of Human Evolution, the monasteries of Las Huelgas and Miraflores… it’s hard to choose. And, of course, try some of its famous “morcillas”, its legendary roasted lamb, and its renowned Ribera del Duero wines.

Almería, of course

But if there is a place in Spain where you can fully experience a western adventure, it is in the Tabernas Desert, Almería. Unlike other film sets that were built and dismantled, the village built by Sergio Leone for the filming of “For a Few Dollars More” is still standing, with the name of Mini Hollywood. Until the mid-70s, it was a key location for all the westerns filmed in our country, as were other places like Western Leone and Fort Bravo. All three survive and are in full swing. They have become theme parks, and in all of them you can see themed shows and do activities that will make you relive the golden age of European westerns.

Oasys Mini Hollywood today: a trip to the past without leaving Almería / Oasys Mini Hollywood

In addition to being able to have a cinematic experience if you drop by there, these old, renowned film sets are still being used as movie sets. Among the latest productions they have hosted are: “Assassin’s Creed” (2016), “The Sisters Brothers” (2018), “Terminator: Dark Fate” (2019), “Black Mirror” (2017), “Penny Dreadful” (2016), and “That Dirty Black Bag,” which was recently released on AMC+.

To complete the experience, Cabo de Gata, Mónsul Beach, and the Níjar Dunes, other well-known filming locations, are within easy reach of the three villages. It’s a highly recommended idea to surprise any lover of the genre.

Almería Western Film Festival

But undoubtedly, one of the best ways to enjoy Western movies in Spain is to attend the Almeria Western Film Festival. This event, which will celebrate its 13th edition in 2023, brings together professionals, amateurs, and the public in Tabernas every year. In addition to awarding short and feature films of the genre, it offers a host of unforgettable experiences for Western lovers. Check out the dates for the next edition.

The Almería Western Film Festival is an unmissable event for fans of the genre / AWFF

Esplugues del Llobregat, the Catalan western

Did Catalonia also have western sets? Yes, and with a Catalan accent. With the very patriotic name of “Esplugas City,” the Catalan western town was built in 1964 and was used to shoot some scenes from “A Fistful of Dollars.”

It turns out that the Balcázar film studios needed a space to shoot exteriors, and this first artificial town had an area of ​​10,000 square meters. After a while, it had to be moved to Mallola de Esplugues as a highway had to be built, but the simulation of a Wild West town was achieved again.

Between 1964 and 1972, about 60 films were shot there, such as “Arizona Colt” or “A Pistol for Ringo.” When the genre began to decline in the 70s, the owners considered reusing it as a theme park, but the project was not carried out because the authorities at the time ordered its demolition. However, the mythical “Esplugas City” had a cinematic ending: it was blown up in the last scene of its last film, “They Called Him Calamity”; a scene in which bandits destroy the town and served to put an end to the relationship between the spaghetti western and the Catalan land.

Navarra and Aragón: the west is not only desert

Although it is not one of the most popular genres in the 21st century, the western is still alive and well in Spain. In 2018, French director Jacques Audiard shot “The Sisters Brothers” in the north of our country. In this case, it was necessary to recreate the lush landscape of Oregon (USA), and the beautiful forests of the Navarre and Aragonese Pyrenees served as a setting for the adventures of Joaquim Phoenix and George C. Reilly.

A spectacular and sparsely populated environment in which fresh air, crystal-clear waters, and endless forests alternate with small and charming medieval towns where you can rest and enjoy the local delicacies. Some of the places to visit in Navarra are Otsagabia, Orbaizeta, Orreaga-Roncesvalles, Auritz-Burguete, Aribe, or any of the towns in the Arce Valley. And, in Aragón, the Hoya region (Huesca), and the Parque Natural de los Valles Occidentales located in the Jacetania region.

Filming of “The Sisters Brothers” in the Selva de Oza (Aragón) / Aragón Film Commission

By the way, when “The Sisters Brothers” team stayed in this area, they stayed in rural houses in the area. Fernando Victoria, a film producer who collaborated on the project, says that Jake Gyllenhaal took advantage of breaks to make a trip to San Sebastian and enjoy the beach and restaurants, while George C. Reilly drove through much of northern Spain by car. Two good ideas to complete a great holiday in the area.

The BBC and Castilla (Old and New)

The latest example of a Far West American history filmed in Spain is even more recent. “The English,” a production of the BBC, Drama Republic, and Amazon, starring Emily Blunt, was filmed in the provinces of Ávila, Segovia, Madrid, and Toledo. Now available on the streaming platform, you can binge-watch it this very weekend. 

Although the series’ settings are rather Castilian steppe (American in fiction), the Ávila region is one of Spain’s most lush and spectacular. In the Tiétar Valley, the Sierra de Gredos, the Alberche Valley, and the Laguna del Duque, you can enjoy some of the most incredible landscapes you can imagine. Canyoning, hiking, cycling, archery, fishing, horseback riding… the list of activities is long enough to repeat getaway after getaway. 

Not to mention the monumental richness that its towns and, above all, its ancient capital, contain, showcasing architectural styles spanning the last twenty centuries. And like is usual in our geography, gastronomy is an attraction by itself. From the mythical “Yemas de Santa Teresa” to their famous meats (some of the best in the country), passing through their soups and stews, it will make you want to come back. 

For all these reasons, both Emily Blunt and the rest of the “The English” team were delighted during their stay in this Castilian province (despite the heat and the corsets of the 19th century). The British actress was named Honorary Ambassador of the Spain Film Commission precisely during the series’ filming.

Emily Blunt during the filming of “The English” / BBC and Amazon Studios

Needless to say, the province of Segovia has so much to offer that it is difficult to summarize, but we will try in six “tips”: Roman aqueduct, royal palace, lush forests, medieval castles, cobblestone towns, and… “cochinillo”!. 

Even more challenging (if that is possible), is the province of Toledo. Only the capital, a unique city where the architectural and cultural traces of the three religions that coexisted in it for centuries are preserved, can offer a thousand and one routes. But in its province, the routes multiply according to what the traveller desires most. There is nature, wineries, gastronomy, architecture, and popular festivals for all tastes. 

So, whether you are a fan of the genre or looking for a different way to travel Spain from north to south and from east to centre, we hope that all the routes we propose have given you ideas for a fun getaway with friends or family. 

And remember: Spain has been and continues to be Far West territory, so live what you see!

By María Parcero

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