PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

The Spanish province may contain Europe's only desert, but it is awash with enticing attractions, from natural wonders to a spaghetti-western theme park.

1. Europe's only desert (below, top right)

Straddling the eastern tip of Andalucia and averaging 330 days of sunshine a year, the southern Spanish province of Almeria is one of the hottest, driest spots in Europe. Deep, waterless ravines, seemingly leather-crusted fulvous earth and low-growing scrub are the hallmarks of this arid region, sandwiched among the sierras (mountain ranges) of Nevada, Gador, Filabres and Alhamilla. Tabernas, at the desiccated heart of the desert, is a tatty township with ramshackle bars, flyblown stores and tumbleweed blowing down the street. It is crowned by the ruins of a castle, where Catholic kings sought refuge during the siege of Almeria in 1147. Nature lovers may want to head along one of the footpaths leading deep into the desert to discover slithering ladder snakes, spiny-footed lizards, ocellated lizards and other local lowlife.

2. Mini Hollywood (below left)

From Sergio Leone to Steven Spielberg, filmmakers on a shoestring budget seeking desert locations have flocked to Almeria province. This is where Clint Eastwood acted mean for the archetypal spaghetti westerns. Harrison Ford grew hot under the collar here as Indiana Jones and the desert backdrops witnessed Peter O'Toole playing the role of his life in Lawrence of Arabia. Several hundred films were made during the province's celluloid gold rush in the 1960s and 70s, and western-style towns, blessed with stout hitching posts and swing-door saloons, burgeoned. Then cowboy films went out of fashion and the desert crept back to cover those deserted movie lots. Mini Hollywood (entry from Euro15/HK$160; tel: 34 950 36 52 36), a well-planned Wild West theme park set in a cactus-lined gulch 7km south of Tabernas, is based on one of the few lots that survived. Walk the trail of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, learn about the region's cinematic history, ride a mechanical bucking bronco, watch a shoot-out on Main Street or mingle with the dancers doing the can-can at the Yellow Star Saloon.

3. Cuevas de Almanzora

The oldest town in this region, named after the numerous caves that permeate its hills, is a wonderland of stunning architecture, born of a profusion of different epochs and styles. Take a stroll through narrow, cobbled streets and seek the neoclassical facade of the Palacete de Torcuato Soler Bolea, the Moorish-inspired Alcazar de la Sultana or the enormous Castillo de Villaricos. The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (admission free), sheltered in the medieval Castillo del Marques de los Velez, houses a remarkable collection of 20th-century paintings and sculptures by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Miquel Barcelo. They were left to the town by local historian and globe-trotting art lover Antonio Manuel Campoy.

4. Gergal

Gergal has a well-preserved castle, but the town's biggest attraction is the hilltop Hispanic-German observatory, Calar Alto, which stands on the 2,168-metre-high Los Filabres Sierra and surveys some of Europe's clearest skies. Sadly, you can't use the high-powered telescopes that have made this one of Europe's most important observatories, but you can make the long hike to a viewing platform and revel in stunning vistas over the rugged desert.

5. Nijar

Famed across the country for vivid ceramics, pottery workshops and dyed handmade rag rugs called jarapas, Nijar is a buzzing hive of craftwork shops, but don't buy the first thing you see. Instead, decide what you want then go from door-to-door bargaining until you have a price you are happy with.

6. La Venta el Museo

Just outside Tabernas in the pretty pueblo of Lucainena, La Venta el Museo ( is a gourmet restaurant specialising in traditional local food and decked out with a blend of traditional fixtures and gleaming modern fittings. Sample lip-smacking dishes such as gurullos (pasta stew), trigo (pork stew with beans and herbs) and gachas (spicy clam stew), prepared by local chef Lola.

7. Sorbas geological museum

Surrounded by abandoned hamlets and teetering on the edge of Europe's largest gypsum quarry, the blanched, cubist settlement of Sorbas is an apposite spot for this fascinating geological museum (admission free). Learn about the minerals and glittering rocks that form the basis of this arid region's economy.

8. Sorbas caves

Sorbas' open-cast mines are mirrored by a 50km stretch of underground caves (entry from Euro6; tel: 34 950 36 47 04), bursting with stalactites and stalagmites and studded with glittering mineral and crystal formations. Call in advance to reserve your guide, who will provide you with a lamp and helmet. There are five exploratory itineraries, ranging range from the easy basic route to a tough-as-tanks technical run.

9. Laujar de Andrax

Almost 1,000 metres above sea level, backed by rocky peaks and hedged with pine forest, Laujar de Andrax was once home to the last Nasrid ruler, Boabdil. The biggest village in the Sierra Nevada National Park, it sits in a huge, protected area covering 86,208 hectares of dizzying slopes and steep gorges. Here, many locals live in subterranean homes, their white chimneys (bottom right) studding the landscape. Visitors can learn about the geology of this extensive mountain range - which has 20 peaks measuring more than 3,000 metres, making it the highest range in Europe after the Alps - at Laujar's information centre (tel: 34 950 51 35 48). The Sendero Nacimiento del Rio Andarax is a 13km round-trip hike on which you can see Bonelli's eagles, peregrine falcons, Griffon vultures and some of the 70-odd plant species native to the Sierra Nevada. Return, exhausted, to sample terreno wine and salty strips of mountain cured Serrano ham in Sociedad, the best of the bunch of spit-and-sawdust bars on Laujars' main street.

10. Velez Blanco

Stay in the medieval hamlet of Velez Blanco, north of Almeria, for longer than an hour and you're sure to hear the local version of the Elgin Marbles tale. In the early 1900s, so the story goes, two Americans came to visit the 16th-century Castillo de los Farjados, which is on a pinnacle above the village, and stole various marble sculptures that are now on display in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. El Indalo, the prehistoric en-graving of a man holding a bow, was found here on the Unesco World Heritage site Cueva de Los Letreros (admission Euro3; tel: 34 950 41 56 51), caves that are home to paintings dating back to 4000BC. These are said to be among the oldest representations of people and animals in the world. You won't have difficulty recognising El Indalo either: seen on bumper stickers and ceramic house plaques all over Almeria, he is said to bring good luck.