Carboneras is a small fishing village in Almeria province on the northeastern side of the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park, about 70 kilometres from the city of Almeria. Some would say it is remote, on the edge of the only semi-arid zone in Europe, but it is surprisingly easy to reach. From the north, Mojacar, take the coastal road south and enjoy the views as the road hairpins up and down the coastal cliffs before descending sharply as it approaches Carboneras. From the Almeria direction the A7 takes you to the Venta del Pobre exit, and the N341 takes you through the National Park directly to your destination.
The question is, why would you want to go there in the first place? After all, it is not the first destination to come to mind for a holiday, a weekend away or even a day out. Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quayle amongst many other film stars must have asked themselves the same question during filming of the 1962 production of Lawrence of Arabia. The film crew built a replica of the Jordanian town of Aqaba complete with 300 houses, a mosque and town hall and employed over 400 extras from Carboneras and the surrounding area. The location was found by Eddie Fowlie, one of film director’s David Leans’s ‘Dedicated Maniacs’. In 2006, Eddie gave a talk in Carboneras about the making of the film and was asked why he choose Spain. Eddie told his audience that Spanish officials bent over backwards to help filmmakers and ‘were bloody easy to bribe.’ He could have mentioned the crystal clear air or the 17 kilometres of pristine beaches. Later productions shot in the area include an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the film, ‘How I Won The War’ starring John Lennon, but no other film has been taken to heart like ‘Lawrence’. A bronze statue of Lawrence of Arabia proudly stands in the square next to the tourist office.
Camera operators and reporters descended on Carboneras again in 1966 for less welcome reasons. On the 17th January that year an American B52 bomber had collided with a KC-135 tanker while engaging in inflight refuelling over the Mediterranean Sea just off Carboneras. The B52 broke apart and lost its cargo of four hydrogen bombs. Three were found on land near Palomares, 35 kilometres north of Carboneras and an intensive sea search was started to locate the fourth. A fleet of over thirty United States Naval ships systematically searched the area between Carboneras and Palomares. In April the fourth bomb was found at a depth of 880 metres. It was raised by using submersibles and returned to the United States.
So, a film producer may have a reason for taking the road to Carboneras. Could a historian find something there? The Castle of San Andrés is a focal point in the town. It looks in suspiciously good condition considering it was built in 1583 until you discover that it was restored in 2013. The original fortification was commissioned by the Marquess del Carpio to defend the coast from the Barbary Pirates. The town, initially for the men who built the castle and later staffed it, grew up around the castle. When the tourist office across the plaza from the castle is closed you will find it in the castle itself. Much of the castle is given over to exhibitions by local school children but on the first floor is a fascinating photographic history of the town from the late 19th century onwards. In the vaults you will find a short history of that, for 4000 years, ubiquitous container, the amphora and a thriving local initiative, ‘Anforas de Mar’, that reproduces them accurately, complete with barnacles.
Carboneras is proud of its windmill. It is the only surviving one on the Almeria coast and used the winds from the sea to turn its huge sails that powered grinding wheels to mill grain. Now restored it houses an Interpretation Centre that looks at the history of grain production and milling in the area and the windmills themselves.
Perhaps the greatest draw for visitors is the incredibly straight beach of Playa de los Muertos. It is over a kilometre in length between two cliffs. The sea is a sapphire blue and great for snorkelling. Access is from a small road that leads south out of the town and then a footpath from a car park about a kilometre down that road.
Since its foundation, Carboneras has depended on the sea. A small harbour, built in 1991, shelters the small fishing boat fleet that specialises in long lining and trawling. The catch is brought ashore and much of it finds its way to the local restaurants.
There are over 30 restaurants in this small town of about 7,500 people. Apart from a few Italian restaurants, the majority specialise in the fish brought in by the local boats. On a quiet Friday morning in early September, the restaurants along the paseo were setting up for lunch. The majority appeared to have most tables reserved, which speaks volumes. Most of the restaurants specialise in fish. Some of the fish brought ashore is unique to the area. The Carboneras prawn has an intense flavour and the species of razor fish (galanes) caught in the waters around Carboneras is not found anywhere else. The white flesh is exquisite - ideal after a hard day on the beach.