Tabernas and Roquetas del Mar

I’m sitting on the sofa in Sitio de Calahonda, reading the Hungarian edition of National Geographic, as usual. There is a great article about Mars and its exploration. It’s about planetary scientist Ákos Kereszturi, from the Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, who is telling me that the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover (Mars rover) has been tested in the Tabernas desert in Spain, among other places. I tell you, I learned something today! It soon became clear that the Tabernas desert, located 250 kilometers away in the province of Almeria, is not only famous for its Mars research.

I quickly organized a two-day trip and left a few days later at 7 am. There are two ways to get to Almeria. The northern route takes you past Granada and the southern one along the coast, via Nerja. In order to cross the desert, I headed for Granada via the A-7, the toll AP-46, the A-92M, and finally the ‘normal’ A-92. On the way past Granada, I could still see the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra de Nevada in June.

The Tabernas Desert – which is more of a semi-desert and cannot be compared to the ancient Namib Desert – begins somewhere after 330 km on the A-92. It’s worth getting off the highway at least at one point – e.g. C-3326 at km 362 – for a few photos. (You can return to the motorway 6 km later.)

In the distance is the huge snow-covered massif of the Sierra Nevada.

A view of the village of Gérgal on the northern edge of the desert.

The landscape is really rugged, the ground is very stony and bone dry, but there are bushes almost everywhere. What is striking is the visible poverty and lack of maintenance, which we have grown accustomed to in the villages around Malaga.

On the next page, two typical desert landscapes.

Purely out of curiosity, I made a detour of about 15 km and visited the village of Tabernas, where the map shows the modern desert visitor center pictured. Unfortunately, the center has been “outlawed” and neither the e-mail address nor the telephone number provided works.

I imagine they took the €2-3 million EU grant, built it, maybe even kept it running during the maintenance period, then quickly closed it down and forgot about the whole project. Tabernas, by the way, is a real “dump”, with only a few nicer buildings in the center. There is also a castle on top of the hill, but apparently, no one has visited it for years. Nor have I. I dare say that visiting Tabernas was a waste of time.

Oasys mini Hollywood

The Tabernas Desert has attracted the interest of the film industry before Mars researchers. In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of so-called spaghetti westerns were filmed in the desert and on sets imitating small towns in the Wild West.

“The spaghetti western is a European branch of the western film genre and is the traditional name for Italian westerns. Given that spaghetti is the national dish of Italy, it is the best known overseas, hence the name of the genre. The term spaghetti was initially a term of derision that Americans applied to Italian western films in the early days to express their dislike of them.

Spaghetti westerns were usually shot by Italian directors in studios in Italy, but often also in Spain.

Several Italian westerns have featured Spanish actors, and spaghetti westerns have often been made in Italian-Spanish co-productions. There were also westerns made specifically for Spain. Sergio Leone was primarily responsible for making masterly Italian westerns, and one of his films, Once Upon a Time in the West, is not only the most popular spaghetti western but also the most famous of the genre

The Italians introduced a number of innovations to the genre, such as the use of modern guns or the extension of the action to a time when the Wild West was in decline. Although hundreds of Italian Wild West films have been made, most of them are not of a high standard and are now only of interest in film history. However, there have been some serious works in the genre, which are still hugely popular and appreciated today.

Perhaps the most famous of the three filming locations is nowadays the Oasys theme park. It is typically open on Fridays and weekends when you can expect a decent crowd, especially families with children. Don’t leave without sun cream, hats, and water! It’s worth buying a ticket (€31 for seniors) that includes a decent buffet lunch. Oasys is a small town in the Wild West, with a swimming pool complex plus a fairly large zoo.

The most famous film shot here is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” from 1966, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. Everyone has heard the music composed by Morricone.

Lee Van Cleef is in the picture. In the background, you can see the typical Tabernas desert.

From noon there will be several shows and western shows in the Saloon named after the Yellow Rose and in the Main Square. Check the website for start times, but remember that the advertised start times are “indicative postcodes”.

I watched – surprise, surprise – Can-Can and the cowgirls dance.

Lunch is available from around ¼ 2 at the Arizona Restaurant. After lunch, it’s nice to stretch out by the pool (you need to ask for a ticket when you buy your ticket – in principle for a specific time).

Most of the park is taken up by the zoo, which is too big and too enclosed and paved for my taste. (In comparison, the Bioparc in Fuengirola is a refreshment.) It’s a shame, but apparently many animals are missing and only listed in the signage.

That being said, and despite only walking through a good 1/3 of the heavily dime-hilly zoo, I did see some interesting animals (too).

In the afternoon there is a bird show in the “bird arena”. Parrots, cockatoos, and the like fly up and down. It’s all good fun. I liked the parrot the best, the one they taught to play “here’s the red one, where’s the red one?” and it always “won”. Clever!

By now I was sufficiently tired and headed for the beach.

Roquetas del Mar
This seaside town is a pleasant 45-minute drive from the park. The municipality had 7,000 inhabitants in 1960 and now has 50,000 (the whole Municipio has nearly 96,000), making RdM the second largest town in the province of Almeria, which I hadn’t heard of until now. All of this is coupled with 25,000 hotel beds – so you can imagine I’ve arrived in a real tourist factory. Covid seems to have made a serious ‘dent’ in the industry, with every second outlet either closed or closed and for sale. You hardly see people on the streets, yet parking is a nightmare. I can’t imagine what would happen if the tourists came back?

The roughly 600-room, four-star hotel is fair. prices are about half those on the Costa del Sol. At least there are a good number of people here, especially Spanish families with small children.

Before dinner, I drove to the Cas- tillo de Santa Ana, which has been protecting the port for hundreds of years.

The view from the bastion is beautiful.

An unexpected twist: I even met some real fishermen in the harbor.

It was a Friday, and we had a buffet-style gala dinner at the hotel, for around €18. (No comment!) Everything, really everything, could only be touched with plastic gloves. I once accidentally touched a picking tool with my free hand, and a sharp-eyed older lady immediately denounced me to a head waiter, who then reprimanded me harshly and nervously replaced at least ten picking tools within ten feet of me. Along the way, of course, I myself became a supporter of the regime when I was surprised that no one was shaking hands with a baguette in front of me with their free hand,

which I cut into two slices. At dinner, we used up about 4 000 plastic gloves and at least 250 kg of pre-heated langoustine.

The next morning I set off with high hopes to explore the Salinas (sea salt marshes) and Maris-mas (marshland). Google Maps showed me a road, which turned out to be a dirt road with a speed of 10 km per hour, and it ended at a barrier, so I could turn back. I would not recommend this route to anyone, so I will not go into details.

Moreover, there are no salt marshes around here, few marshes, even fewer birds, and they are always on the move (flying, in fact), so I can’t photograph them. Still, the landscape is interesting.

For a “real” sea salt distillation, head to Huelva or Walfischbucht. I have written a detailed report on Huelva myself.

This is what Playa de Cerrillos looks like at 18 degrees Celsius:

This is the terminus of the bag road, the Torre de Cerrillos, from the Middle Ages. It is said to have been a coastal watchtower.

I hiked back to where I started from and targeted Faro Sabinar on Google Maps. To do this, you have to turn left off the AL-3300 after a tricky bend. If you go past the turnoff, you can do a good 8 km loop (as I did). The poor lighthouse deserves a proper parking lot. The walk from the exit to the lighthouse is about 2.6 km, so it’s worth it. As it wasn’t too hot, I did the walk and didn’t regret it. Too bad the lighthouse is fenced off and you can’t get down to the beach.

At least there are some decent saltwater marshy lakes (above) and dunes (below) around here.

On the next page is the lighthouse at the end of the road, and the eponymous “Sabina” berry plant on the right. In Latin it’s called “Juniperus phoenicea subsp. turbinata”, but that doesn’t make me any the wiser.

From there, the road led home, past vast, covered agricultural fruit and vegetable plantations:

The next page shows the metal frame of a new plant under construction:

In conclusion, it is worth taking a small amount of fanaticism with you on this journey. Don’t start your exploration of Andalusia in Roquetas del Mar, but once you’ve seen it all, it might be worth a trip to this part of the country

Conversely, the trip I’ve just described can be perfectly combined with a visit to Nerja, Almeria, and Cabo de Gata, which I wrote about at length in 2018.

Sitio de Calahonda, 25 June 2021.

Imre Réthy