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Sweating it out in Europe’s only desert

Tabernas Desert - the annual rainfall does not exceed 25mm, with the average temperature over 17 degrees Celsius. Photo: Archant. - Credit: Archant

It’s our continent, but not as you know it. DAVID HURST pays a visit to one of the most unusual spots in the EU.

It is Europe at its most extreme.

At the height of the day, temperatures here can reach 50°C, touching more than 40°C in the shade, before falling to -5°C at night. It has more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year and as little as 160mm of rain, which mostly falls in just a few winter days, creating, for the rest of the year, one of the hottest, driest places anywhere on earth.

Welcome to the Tabernas Desert (Desierto de Tabernas) – the continent’s only true desert, a classification it receives because of that rainfall figure, as much as its temperature (deserts must have less than 250mm per year). To give an idea of how much it blazes here, the sunshine – as well as being a great deal hotter – is more than double what London receives.

Found only 20 miles from the beaches of the Mediterranean in Spain’s Almeria province, the desert covers just 110 square miles of land and is essentially a crucible sandwiched between the Sierra de los Filabres mountain range to the north and the Sierra de Alhamilla range to the south and southeast.

It all started eight million years ago during the Miocene period when sea covered what is now the Tabernas desert. The seawater flowed inland as far as the Sierra de los Filabres, where there is now a strip of fossilised coral dunes that reveals the exact position of the ancient coastline. A million years later the Sierra Alhamilla rose, isolating the Tabernas area from the sea but leaving an inland sea. Then 1.6 million years ago, the sea receded, leaving the seabed as the land we see today.

Nowadays, the desert area itself rises from around 400 to 800 metres above sea level, and is sheltered by the surrounding hills from the humid winds of the Mediterranean. Here, wet winds coming in from the sea drop all their moisture in the hills, creating a ‘rain shadow’ around the desert.

These already forbidding geographical characteristics are further intensified by the so-called ‘foehn effect’, which occurs when air passes over mountains and creates, on the downwind sides, strong, warm, dry gusts which blast over the desert.

As the little rainfall is usually torrential, so the ground – an unconsolidated sedimentary rock or soil formed of clay and lime (known as marl) and sandstone with little vegetation – is unable to retain moisture. Instead, the rain causes erosion, forming the landscape of badlands, extensive tracts of heavily eroded uncultivable land. Plants are rare but include sea lavender (in danger of extinction) and cacti, succulents such as prickly pears that store water, or tiny plants that are able to shelter from the persistent heat in the shadow of larger plants or behind rocks. The effect is a most un-European landscape.

Indeed, its similarities with North American deserts – as well as North African and Arabian landscapes – (plus favourable tax arrangements) have long made the Tabernas a favourite location for filmmakers.

Italian director Sergio Leone shot A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here, leading some locals to

joke that the Spaghetti Western genre should really have been named the Paella Western. Indeed, so many westerns have been filmed here that specially-created ‘Wild West’ film set towns were built for their use. There were once a dozen ‘cowboy’ towns dotting the region, but few now remain. One is Fort Bravo, created in the 1960s and the location for about 600 films, accessible only by an intrepid drive through a sunbaked valley. It is still used for filming to this day, as well as serving as a tourist attraction where visitors watch cowboy re-enactments of shoot-outs, poker fights and horses galloping out of town.

This desert has seen more than just cowboys though. Other movies filmed here include Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 2014 epic biblical drama Exodus: Gods and Kings. More recently Game Of Thrones has been shot here, and even Dr Who’s Tardis has touched down. Each year, hundreds of locals from surrounding villages and towns find work as extras, while businesses in the area benefit from a sudden influx of high net worth individuals.

The desert’s more established – natural – population are concentrated in steep-sided gullies known as arroyos, formed by the action of the fast-flowing torrential rain streams. These are a haven for hedgehogs, dormice, rabbits and hares. There is also a reptilian population including ladder snakes, spiny-footed and ocellated lizards, marsh frogs and natterjack toads.

Drifting above in the skies, birds of prey can be spotted, such as Bonelli’s eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels and eagle-owls. Bird species include the blue rock thrush, rock sparrow and rock bunting that are found around the desert’s more rocky areas, whereas warblers, goldfinches, golden orioles and serins prefer to live by the dry river beds.

These river beds provide a microclimate more humid than anywhere else in the terrain. They will only fill with water for a few days a year, following flash floods. There are also some springs, although the water from these have a high concentration of dissolved salts and so is not healthy to drink. Make sure you take some drinking water if visiting as there are – unsurprisingly – no large settlements here. The main village is Tabernas, which is actually southwest of the desert’s edge. The desert is overwhelmingly untouched by the human hand.

Officially protected by the Andalusia regional government as a ‘wilderness area’, the desert’s unusual landscape makes it a growing destination for tourism, combined with the nearby city of Almeria, which has its very own place in film history. Overlooking the city – as it has since the 10th century – is a Moorish fortress, used as a location in Conan the Barbarian, Indiana

Jones and the Last Crusade: and Never Say Never Again. The fort, the Alcazaba, actually gives the city its name, with Al-Mari’yah being Arabic for ‘the watchtower’.

The city’s cathedral has a fortress-like appearance too, as a result of its ancient towers, created to defend it from Berber pirate attacks. Originally a mosque, it was later converted into a Christian church, before being destroyed in an earthquake in 1522. It was rebuilt over the next 40 years in Gothic style with Renaissance façades, while still retaining some of its defensive features.

The city’s other defensive feature are its underground air raid galleries, created for civilian protection during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. These shelters are almost three miles long, and even include a surgery room. But the region’s really impressive feature – if you can stand the heat – is the Desierto de Tabernas.

David Hurst is a writer who has recently travelled extensively by motorhome with his family throughout Europe and

Morocco. While on the road he has edited a book, called Authors On Their Travels, of his travel interviews with bestselling authors

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