What have the films ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘For a Few Dollars More’ got in common? The answer is that parts of all of them were filmed in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, which lies just to the east of the Spanish city of Almeria.
The shapely volcanic peaks of this wonderful district were created from a collision between the African and European tectonic plates millions of years ago. These tumultuous volcanic beginnings have left behind a wild and isolated landscape of mountains, gorges and ravines, with a dramatic rocky coastline hiding remote and unspoiled beaches.
Apart from some small towns and villages, the whole park remains almost completely undeveloped and its unique semi-arid scenery has attracted eco-tourists, nature lovers, adventure seekers and film producers for over half a century.
This is the driest part of Spain and Europe’s only true desert region, averaging only about 16cms of rain per year.
Most visitors arrive via the A7 motorway to the west, through a ghastly sprawl of plastic hothouses producing fruit and vegetables for the insatiable appetites of northern Europe. However, we chose the more scenic approach from the north, along a spectacular coastal road that begins at the popular seaside resort of Mojacar Playa.
The route initially climbs into the Sierra Cabrera Mountains to reach the charming hamlet of Sopalmo, a pristine little rural community with potted plants lining its roadsides. We couldn’t resist stopping for coffee at the local bar to admire the view, as opposite the bar was a picturesque drinking fountain nestling in the shade of a beautiful old Ficus tree.
The road then meandered through the mountains towards the sea, hugging the cliffs and entering the natural park before dropping down into Carboneras, a likeable low-key resort with a fishing port and attractive waterfront. Its only blemish was the ugly cement factory at its southern end.
Our destination was Agua Amarga a bit further along the coast. This pretty little town began life as a terminus of a railway bringing iron ore from the interior, but it has now become an enchanting year-round holiday destination with a good sandy beach. Almost hidden behind the main seafront, we discovered a number of tapas and paella restaurants around a cute little square – a perfect spot for a light lunch. Due to the rocky coastline, a detour inland was required to reach the next village of Las Negras. However, for energetic ramblers, Las Negras can be reached on foot using a coastal walking trail that also gives access to Cabo de Gata’s most isolated and seductive coves. We thought Las Negras to be a quaint little village. It isn’t the prettiest, it hasn’t got the best beach and it is not the most popular with tourists. Yet it is tucked away in its own little world and to wander its streets is a strangely satisfying experience!
Inshore fishing in this region has changed little over the years and traditional skills are handed down through the generations. The boats are small enough to keep on the shore above the high water mark.
The lovely La Isleta is perhaps the nicest of the Cabo de Gata’s fishing villages and has a great maritime vista of the highest mountains in the park.
It was a wild winter’s day when we arrived. There were no tourists in sight, just some hardy surfers braving the weather and enjoying their sport on the big waves pounding the pebbly beach. Clad in scarves and anoraks, we huddled together with a couple of Spanish families to have our lunch in a very chilly beach restaurant. Delicious grilled red mullet was ‘dish of the day’ and afterwards we warmed our hands by clutching mugs of hot coffee!
Cabo de Gata has a long history as a source of valuable minerals, and inland amidst the scrub and cactus of a colourful gold and green valley, Rodalquilar was once the home to a small gold mining settlement.
Opened in 1931, the mine closed during the Spanish civil war but new deposits discovered in the 1950s led to a short-lived boom for the village. Sadly, the ore rapidly became depleted and the facility closed in 1967. We drove up to the old mine and strolled amongst the old buildings.
It was an eerie location but easy to imagine its heyday operations with shouting miners and clattering rock-grinding equipment.
Rodalquilar is also home to the El Albardinal Botanic Garden, whose visitor centre has an informative display describing Cabo de Gata’s biological diversity. The extensive garden contains an intriguing range of the many species of flora that manage to flourish in these harsh semi-arid conditions.
The dry climate meant that throughout the centuries considerable ingenuity was needed to make the best use of limited water resources. Many villages constructed waterwheels (called ‘Norias’) and used donkey power for raising water from the wells.
The pretty village of Pozo de los Frailes, close to Rodalquilar, had a working ‘Noria’ right up until 1983. This lovely old waterwheel and the adjoining communal clothes-washing area have recently been beautifully restored.
San José is the area’s main tourist resort, situated close to the southern cape. Despite some modern developments, the town still retains its charms with white village houses and narrow streets. There is a marina, a small port and plenty of opportunities for diving, snorkeling and sailing.
The crystal clear waters on nearby ‘Sirens Reef’ are said to provide one of the world’s best places to swim with mermaids – but we couldn’t find anyone who had actually seen one of these mythical creatures!
We accessed Cabo de Gata’s best beach, the Playa de los Genoveses, by driving slowly down a long dirt road from San José. It is a pictureque stretch of sand around a horse-shoe shaped bay backed by rocky hills, overlooked by a well-preserved windmill and very popular with Spanish tourists.
It was the wide sandy area close to this beautiful beach that David Lean chose to use as the backdrop for the famous ‘Hejaz Railway’ train bombing scene in his 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He built a four kilometre track and purchased two entire trains from Spanish Railways – including steam locomotives and rolling stock!
For us, there was a moment of déjà vu as we stared across this mock Saudi Arabian desert landscape shimmering in a summer heat haze. Only a few years before, deep in the genuine Saudi desert, we had gazed in fascination at a forlorn remnant of the real Hejaz Railway. This was a large rusty steam engine, which for 100 years had been desperately straining to pull its derelict carriages across an empty desert devoid of any railway lines!
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.