The streets were deserted when we arrived at Fort Bravo. Under the cloudless sky the wind was driving dust clouds through the streets of the town. A horse neighed somewhere, hooves banging impatiently against the stable doors.
The absence of human noise was striking. Between us and the wooden storefronts of the houses, there was nobody else. Just us, the American hopes and dreams of the Wild West, and the endless silence of the dry arid lands of the Tabernas Desert.
Within seconds we were immersed in the setting of an untamed American past. We did what everyone would do in this situation. We looked for the nearest saloon where – we were sure – we would find most of the town’s visitors and inhabitants: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Fort Bravo: Perfect Illusion of America’s Wild Past
Our day trip had brought us and the kids to Fort Bravo in the region of Almería, Spain. It might be open for visitors but it was not a theme park as such.
The attraction of Fort Bravo lied within its ability to create the perfect illusion. A Western town that was not located in the Wild West but in Europe. A setting that was well known to movie-goers from around the world, who were probably not realising that the movie that they were watching was not shot in the US but in the only desert of Europe, Desierto de Tabernas.
The dry, godforsaken landscapes of Tabernas were the perfect background for make-believe, for pretending that we were in Nevada, California or Arizona, and not in Spain. Yet, at the same time, the area was not cut off entirely from civilisation, making it cheap and easy for production companies to produce blockbuster movies here such as Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and A Fistful of Dollars. Thus the so-called Spaghetti Western was born.
A Land of Cowboys and Fist Fights
We had finally arrived at the saloon. A cowboy was waiting on the porch in front of the double-doors, visibly bored and playing with his gun. He was the first human being that we caught sight of since we had arrived at Fort Bravo. He greeted us, friendly, and asked us to come inside and find a seat to the right. As we entered the saloon, we finally found ourselves surrounded by people again. They were watching the cowboys in the middle of the room as they were playing a game of poker.
Just like the cowboy at the door, the poker players were speaking Spanish, so we couldn’t quite follow their conversation. But it didn’t really matter, as the atmosphere changed dramatically when the cowboy from the door came inside and created confusion among the players. The storyline developed in front of our eyes, shots being fired, bar ladies screaming, fists connecting with jaws, dead cowboys lying on the floor.
It was one of the handfuls of live shows that were performed in Fort Bravo every day. A believable scene as you could find, probably in less condensed form, in any of the more than 600 Wild West movies that had been shot here.
Fort Bravo: Film Set, not Theme Park
After the show, we explored the area with the children. Fort Bravo consisted of a number of film sets, each flowing almost seamlessly into each other. As such, there was everything here that you could hope for in a Western town setting: a church, a school, stables, a sheriff’s office, a Ponderosa style gate, a wooden fort, man-sized crosses on the edge of a riff. All of this with the stunning backdrop of the Tabernas mountain ranges.
We took our time exploring the park. We picked the little herbs that were growing between the concrete tipis and smelled their strong citrus fragrance. We climbed the gallows and pretended to be one of the bad guys who had finally been brought to justice. We followed the railway tracks that ended just metres from their starting point. Peaked into empty buildings only to discover that the houses didn’t have any furniture, walls, or even a floor.
Fort Bravo was not build to entertain the crowds, it was first and foremost a stage. There were no shops selling souvenirs or treats, just a photographer using a filter and props to sell you a Western-style photo of yourself. All the houses were empty on the inside, your investigation ended outside and wouldn’t go further than a look through the dirty glass which revealed no more than a mess of tools and hardware to build even more stage sets.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Fort Bravo was something else. Not a theme park but an adventure. For as long as you kept to the rules you could believe that this was the real deal.
As the cowboys got back on their horses to ride off into the sunset, a cloud of dust trailing behind them, you could almost hear a theme of Ennio Morricone chiming in your head. We were sure they were off to new adventures, somewhere over there behind the dry mountains of the Tabernas desert.
For more info on Fort Bravo near Almería, Spain, visit the official website.
More photos as you scroll down!