I grew up watching Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns with my dad. David came to them slightly later in life (his dad was more of a John Wayne fan), but we both agree that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a classic. Filmed in numerous locations across Spain in the 1960s, you might remember the climactic ending -digging for Confederate gold hidden near Arch Stanton's grave, the iconic final shootout sequence across a circular plaza with plenty of sideways glances from narrowed eyes and Tuco being left precariously balanced on a gravestone, a rope around his neck. But where was the ending of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly filmed?
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During the January - March 2021 lockdown, we came across a 2017 documentary called Sad Hill Unearthed on Netflix about a group of volunteers, all fans of the Spaghetti Westerns, who set about restoring and preserving the site in 2015. You see Sad Hill Cemetery is not a real graveyard - it was built entirely from scratch for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 1966 and after filming ended it was abandoned for nearly 50 years. Overgrown and forgotten, this iconic filming location was very nearly lost all together, until a group of fans set out to find it and discovered the famous circular plaza 3 inches below the ground. For months, volunteers from around the world came to help with this labour of love, and the iconic filming location was saved! As fans of the film ourselves we found the project so inspiring, and when we planned our Spanish road trip last summer we decided to look if we could include a detour to check it out.
It turns out Sad Hill Cemetery is in northern Spain, 168 miles south of Santander ferry port and 137 miles north of Madrid. This meant we could stop there on the first day of our road trip as we pushed south to Toledo. Perfect!
Happily, Sad Hill Cemetery is on Google Maps. As you can see, it's in the absolute middle of no where, out in the bleached, dry hills about 3 miles north of the tiny town on Santo Domingo de Silos, famous for its ancient monastery. You can see why the location was used to stand in for New Mexico! The nearest big city is Burgos, around 40 miles away.
As you leave the last few stone houses of Santo Domingo de Silos behind, the narrow road starts getting worse as tarmac gives way to rocky, dusty potholes and some absolutely savage speed bumps. Our van coped, but anything with low suspension would definitely struggle. I'm not sure if hire companies would be particularly happy about people taking their cars down there! We have heard of some people walking the route but we definitely wouldn't recommend it. It's a long, steep, exposed climb in the Spanish sun and you'd want lots of water!
At the end of the road you'll see an area to park in front of what looks like a fenced paddock. Try to leave the vehicle facing underneath one of the scrubby trees (if the cows haven't hogged them all!) to take advantage of what little shade is available -this whole site is incredibly exposed. With no parking or entrance fees to pay, you can head straight through the gate and explore. The sole information board is in Spanish, and near by is a monument to Sergio Leone.
We arrived at around lunch time in June (the hottest part of the day - perfect timing...) and apart from three older gentlemen who were just leaving we had the entire site to ourselves!
As you crest the hill, there is a black silhouette life size cut out of Clint Eastwood as Blondie that you can take a photo with, and there, laid out in front of you, are the 5000 graves in their iconic concentric circles, with paths between them leading down to the circular plaza in the middle where the film's dramatic climax takes place. To our delight, here you'll find the 'unknown' grave marker beside Arch Stanton's and the tree that Tuco's noose was tied to, although after nearly 60 years it's in a bit of a sorry state with no leaves what so ever.
After having fun recreating the stand off between Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco, we explored the grave stones. As part of the original volunteer project, for a fistful of Euros you could sponsor a grave which means that many of the names on the crosses are those of real people! We found a simple wooden post marked with the name of Eli Wallach, the actor who played Tuco, who died in 2014, the year before the restoration began. Apparently there is one sponsored by metal band Metallica (big fans of the Spaghetti Westerns, they typically open their concerts with Ennio Morricone's The Ecstasy of Gold), but despite it having a location on Google Maps we couldn't find it. After retracing our steps back and forth a few times the heat was beginning to get to us and we had to call it a day.
If you'd like to channel your inner Clint and visit Sad Hill Cemetery, it's worth noting that there is no shop, toilets or visitor centre, so make sure you bring your own water, hat and sun cream - like we said before this place gets absolutely baked by the sun and you don't want to get heatstroke. There also isn't much phone signal up there so we'd only recommend heading up there if you're confident that your car or motor bike can make it. You don't want to get stranded and not be able to call for help, believe us, we saw vultures circling up there!
When you leave the car park you have two options - retrace your drive back the way you came to Santo Domingo de Silos, or take the left hand fork from the car park which heads up further into the hills before looping back round to the main road. While this allows you to get a terrific view of the cemetery from above, this road is seriously gnarly and not an easy drive at all. Our van stalled on one of the steeper ascents, and a hill start in loose small stones is not ideal at all!
Once you get back onto paved roads, blast Morricone's theme tune in triumph as you drive away.
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