3 Feb, 2022 @ 14:59
3 mins read

TRAVEL SPAIN: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – 24 hours in ‘España Vacia’

Sad Hill Sarah
Sad Hill photo. Sarah Crozier

AS everybody in Madrid who has Spanish friends knows, almost no one is really from the capital, but considers their real home to be their ‘pueblo’ – the village where their parents or grandparents were born.

And so it is on a Saturday night that I find myself driving with two friends to deepest, darkest Burgos province, Castilla y León.

Once we leave Madrid, the roads are deserted for the two and a half hours that it takes us to reach Salas de los Infantes (population 1,955). We check into the empty B&B around midnight, and my friends are eager for us to head out for a nightcap in one of their youthful haunts.

They text a local to see where might be open – El Ferrari is closed for Covid, El Pelayo is closed for holidays, El Mudarra is closed forever…

“What about La Fragata?”, asks Teresa in despair, and sure enough, we finish the night with a refreshingly cheap round of drinks at what appears still to be the most buzzing place in town.

The village is, my companions admit, quite ugly. Salas de los Infantes is divided by a river and its rival churches, with its main claim to fame being the collection of bones in its dinosaur museum.

It combines dilapidated and modern buildings (the abandoned prison building is strangely aesthetic in this mix and was the unwelcome residence of a principled aunt during the Franco era). Their fondness for the place comes from childhood memories of lively squares filled with fiestas during summers, local bullfights, and shops long since closed.

The Old Prison In Salas De Los Infantes 2 1
The old prison in Salas de los Infantes. All photos: Sarah Crozier

After some family matters are taken care of, we head off for a 20-minute drive to the day’s main destination of interest: Sath Ghill, as they pronounce it Spanish. Or as it’s otherwise known, Sad Hill cemetery, the film set for the climax of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Almeria is more famous for Leone’s films than Burgos, but for his civil war tale set in Virginia, a greener location was required. It’s a stunning place, with dramatic rock formations rising up on all sides in an untouched landscape that could easily be the wild west. Franco’s army helped dig the 5,000 bodiless graves with crosses (yes, these ones were marked but empty).

Its distinctive circular format is more reminiscent of an amphitheatre than a graveyard, perfect for the final shoot-out. I was surprised that my friends had never come here before during all those endless teenage summers, but it turns out that until 2015 the place was largely buried and forgotten.

An association of local film buffs and archaeologists had organised its restoration, which was captured in a Goya-nominated documentary (Sad Hill Unearthed, available on Netflix).

Missing crosses were replanted, some of which have been painted with the names of the real deceased (one friend searches in vain for the name of a second cousin, lost in infancy, but the place is vast).

A metal cut-out of Clint Eastwood and a couple of signs are the only indications that this place is not entirely authentic.

As we drive away up the mountain, we catch a view from above – it’s like a piece of geometric land art in its perfect circular form.

Sad Hill From Above
Sad Hill cemetery from above.

The next stop is Santo Domingo de los Silos, known for its Benedictine monastery, which is still in operation and a place that attracts people from all over the country to retreat into its quiet seclusion.

We have missed the opening times to check out its ornate Romanesque cloisters, so instead admire the natural beauty of the nearby Yecla gorge.

We have booked ahead for lunch at Casa Antón in Lerma, reserving a serving of roast suckling lamb and sweetbreads. The place is packed and is clearly something of a local institution, with the waiting list spilling out on to the pavement. And very good the food is too! We round off the meal with a coffee in the impressive 17th century palace on the main square that is now the Parador hotel of Lerma.

So, with the ugly village and good food, the only thing missing from our trip is the bad. And that’s the evening traffic standstill on the road back to Madrid.


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