February 9th, 2012
Once upon a time very few film directors came to Spain to shoot their movie.
For decades film fans reminisced about the days when famous film actors could be found reciting their lines in Spain.
Spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood or they pined for the time when Omar Sharif performed in front of camera for director David Lean in Doctor Zhivago. A movie that made many a woman swoon over Shairf.
Fans of big films on the big screen wanted to visit the setting of their favourite film. Places like Peñiscola, where a cast of thousands took part in the filming of El Cid.
But there were many barren years. The time when Hollywood ignored Europe as a whole, including the stunning scenery of Spain. It is all very different now.
There are worst ways of discovering Spain than through the eyes and lens of film directors who appreciate what Spain has to offer. Let’s cut to the chase and explore some of those locations.
Peñiscola was the setting for the making of El Cid. Released in 1961 the epic movie starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. The Oscar nominated film put this previously unheralded part of the Spanish coast firmly on the map.
The castle itself is the second most visited monument in Spain, after the Alhambra Palace in Granada. It is a national listed building that rises 64 kilometres above the sea. It was built by the Knights Templar between 1294 and 1307 and is the best preserved example of their construction work.
Bu they played no part in the construction of the uppermost battlements. No. They were constructed specifically in order to stage the dramatic fight scenes in ‘El Cid’.
The north beach, which played a supporting role in the film, is vast at over 5000 metres in length and 44 metres wide.
Peñiscola is somewhere that has become increasingly dependent on tourism. The Serra d’Irta, for example, lies on the southern shore of Peñiscola and is the last unspoilt mountain range in the Valencian region. Here cliffs measure 40 metres in height and the area attracts rare birds and those who like to watch them. The sea is home to several botanical species that are exclusive to the area and, therefore, of interest to scuba divers.
A much more modern film, shot in more recent times, was Sexy Beast starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.
An uncompromising, but very popular movie with many, much of it was shot in a province of Spain that has been popular with film directors for decades.
The shots of Winstone laying poolside, and many of the confrontational scenes between his character and that played by Kingsley, were filmed in a favourite location of mine, Agua Amarga. I love the place not just for its glorious, sun drenched setting. But for how quaint and unspoiled it is.
In the days when the Berber pirates sought a hiding place on the Almeria coastline, it was in the coves of the Cabo de Gata that they sought seclusion. Today the region may still be remote but improved road and air links have ensured that Spaniards know all about the area.
The area is also a magnet for scuba divers. A substantial marine zone of over 12.000 hectares is home to a colourful array of coral reef and fish.
Movie fans also visit the deserts of Almeria and the Cabo de Gata to pay homage to the locations where scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia and many a Clint Eastwood western were shot.
If a film director is seeking desert like conditions then they head for the province of Almeria. If they also want true “silence on set” then they drive that extra kilometre to the wild and isolated landscape of the Cabo de Gata.
It is here that certain regulations are enforced by the local authority. All in order to ensure the land and all its inhabitants live largely undisturbed by other facets of modern day life. Firstly, a speed limit of thirty kilometres per hour is strictly adhered to.
Fishing from the shore is also prohibited. And finally, no free camping is allowed.
Agua Amarga is a favourite destination of mine. Peaceful for most of the year. Friendly locals and a great place to get far away from the stresses and strains of modern day life. It manages to be both chic and shabby in equal measure. The high level of salt content in the sea water leads to some buildings being more grey washed than white washed.
The beach and crystal clear waters are more than adequate compensation for the fact that some of the nearby housing – unoccupied for the majority of the year – can look a little sad and unloved in the winter months.
The housing in Agua Amarga is a mixture of ageing low level apartments and new, grand houses. There are some impressive villas to rent along the country roads between Agua Amarga and Carboneras.
Villas just like the one used in the controversial movie, Sexy Beast.
The Cabo de Gata is as close to a desert island as you are likely to find on mainland Spain. Outside of summer, it is not for those who crave plenty of life, noise and company.
This is the south-eastern tip of the country. It is in every sense of the phrase, out on its own. Its very remoteness appeals to many.
Of course the most famous films shot in the area were the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were all located in the barren lands of Almeria.
It is arguable that director Sergio Leone did more to promote this corner of Spain than anyone involved in the Spanish tourism industry. Though they have been promoting the connection between Almeria and big scale movies ever since.
Many of today’s famous film directors grew up watching Leone’s films and have themselves gone on to make their own films there.
Including Steven Spielberg. He used the desert like conditions close to the town of Tabernas to shoot many scenes from the Indiana Jones series of films, starring Harrison Ford. In 1989 he shot ‘The Last Crusade’ there.
The marvellous Mojacar has developed greatly over the years but the oh so pretty old quarter has been the backdrop for many a movie. Sometimes those not actually set in Spain. The pueblo of Mojacar has doubled for locations outside of Spain.
I shall never forget the first time, in winter, that i arrived in Tabernas from not a million miles away in Granada. I had to remove several layers of winter clothing, it was so warm in Almeria. And that is what attracts many expats to Tabernas and the surrounding area.
I found it to be a charming town and I understand why so many westerns have been shot there. And movies like Indiana Jones that lead the audience to believe they have been filmed in some far away, desert territory.
Spielberg also travelled closer to the unique city of Granada when he shot other scenes for Indian Jones in the distinctive town of Guadix. Famous for its cave buildings, the location excited Spielberg.
His long time good friend, and fellow director, George Lucas has also made some big movies in Spain. When he decided to make prequels to the original Star Wars series, he shot many a scene in Spain. Plaza Espana in Seville has featured in many a movie, including the 2002 epic Star Wars II – Attack of the Clones. It doubled for a place called Naboo!
Woody Allen has grown to enjoy filming in Spain. His charming film Vicky Cristina Barcelona was shot not just in the wonderful city of Barcelona that figures so large in the title.
The stars Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz also pitched up in Oviedo in the wonderful province of Asturias. Oviedo had also been the setting a year earlier when the superb and thrilling Spanish film ‘The Orphanage’ was filmed there.
Film directors like Spain because it offers them so much variety when it comes to the landscape. Whether they are wanting a stunning coastline or an atmospheric city as the backdrop; the country provides them with what they have one eye on.
And, in take two, I shall be visiting some other locations in Spain that have made it on to the big screen. Some well known. Others that have escaped attention.
Who knows? You may be living or spending a holiday in the middle of a film set.