Gezi,  Sinema

An unforgettable ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ Pilgrimage: Memories from Sad Hill Cemetery

The way back to town is only seventy miles. So if you save your breath, I feel a man like you can manage it. -Blondie-

This is the first ever English article for my website. I have posted a lot before this one and all of them were in Turkish. I have seen over 20 countries, have had a lot tell, but very few of them were unprecedented, that’s why I never felt any need or enthusiasm to write in English. After all, you can easily find thousands of blog posts about the tourist attractions of, say Budapest or Paris.

But for one particular place, I just wanted to share my experiences not only with Turkish-speaking people, but also with millions of other people who maintain a special bond with a movie. That happens to be “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, which is, to me, one of the greatest films ever made and could very well be my favourite of all time. I don’t want to get into the details of my affection, you must already have your own big reasons if you are reading this post.

Well, as you may know, Spain was the main shooting location for European western and spaghetti western movies during 60’s and 70’s. Tabernas Desert, which is the only natural desert through the whole Europe, is very close to the Andalusian city of Almería in the south. A lot of westerns, including some of Sergio Leone’s were shot there. Now there is a theme park situated at Tabernas, called Mini Hollywood, which hosts the original designed sets of those, as well as special shows and collections.

After my next travel to Spain became evident, I had checked some possible destinations. Since that would mark my 3rd time in Spain, I was already familiar with some of the top tourist destinations, such as Barcelona, Madrid or Toledo. I would have visited Almería, from where, reaching the park would be easy. But as a relatively experienced traveller, I feel like I should move away from those popular places where are literally ‘invaded’ by tourists like me. Fortunately there was one unpopular destination that popped into my mind, yet much more meaningful to me.

If you are a fan of Sergio Leone, then you are a fan of Ennio Morricone by default. That’s the way it should be. My favourite Ennio Morricone music is Il triello, the enthralling piece of music which multiplies the thrill at the finale of The Good The Bad and The Ugly. When all of these facts add up, it must be quite obvious why I wanted to go to Sad Hill Cemetery, where one of the best final scenes of entire movie history had been shot. Believe me, from the moment when visiting Sad Hill emerged as a real possibility, I just wasn’t able to wipe that out. I really had to do it, one way or another. After all, if I could save my breath, a man like me could have managed it. But after a brief research, it became quite clear that actually going there would be a huge challenge for me. I’m going to share all the details with you in the further parts of this article.

First of all, a quick informational note for those who have not seen the movie yet – I don’t want to believe there are any-, and a reminder for the fans:

Before going there, I saw some pictures of the place that have been recently taken, everything seemed as good as new, thanks to the recent Sad Hill renovation project. After the shooting of the legendary scene, the cemetery, which was built by Spanish soldiers exclusively for this the movie, was completely deserted. A couple of years ago, a handful of volunteers have started a project to renovate the site. They uncovered the soil over the rocky square like archeologists, where our famous trio lined up for the ultimate duel, in addition restored the graves and made the area look just as good as new. They have even completed a documentary movie called  Sad Hill Unearthed about all of the process. It also contains interviews conducted with the crew of the movie who were still alive at the time of the restoration, such as Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood, as well as some of the famous fans of the movie, like James Hetfield. The volunteers, a bunch of unsung heroes did a phenomenal job, I also owe to them a lot for my visit. By the way, I had sent an e-mail to the renovation project’s website about the possible options to get there before, they suggested me to rent a car. My cousin’s Spanish husband told me the same thing. And they had every right to do so, it was almost impossible to make it any other way without violating what common sense orders.

Actually, I had not decided whether I would rent a car or not, until 2 days left to my planned arrival date in Spain. And since I was late to rent, prices went up, higher than my estimations (also I was a bit nervous about renting a car, something I had never done) so I practically had only one option: trusting in unknown strangers’ good intentions to pick me up.

Sad Hill Mezarlığı Tabelası
The welcoming sign at the entrance of Sad Hill Cemetery…

How to Go to Sad Hill Cemetery?

Many people would not know where the cemetery is, but it’s really easy to locate (The exact location is here), the problem lies in getting there. Practically there are two viable options. Either you can rent a car from Madrid or Burgos, or you can simply hitchhike. Well, that would not be easy, since as you get closer to cemetery, it becomes less likely to find a vehicle to hitchhike. Yes, Sad Hill is basically ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

If you select to rent a car, you can find the location by getting some technological assistance. But if you are -almost insanely- an adventurer or simply cannot afford to rent, then you could do what I did. Going to the nearest town with a bus station, then walking and hitchhiking for the rest of the way… Sounds pretty simple and fun, huh? I was all aware that my ‘optimistic’ plan would easily fall apart, but I had to go ‘literally’ all the way to the end once I made my mind up. I almost felt like I had a chip on my shoulders, I would be the first one (at least the first one who bothers to write an article about it) to make it happen on my own terms.

The nearest town to Sad Hill is Santo Domingo de Silos, which is about 5K from the cemetery. This town is 30K east of Lerma, which is a relatively bigger town next to Madrid-Burgos highway. Lerma can be reached by bus from Madrid (even from Barajas Airport) and Burgos. But there are no public transportation means to inner villages. From Lerma, Sad Hill Cemetery is like 35K away, no buses or trains available.

So my plan was getting to Lerma somehow, walking towards Sto. Domingo de Silos, hitchhiking simultaneously and hoping for some helpful local people would give a ride. Well, my well-grown beard and undeniably Middle Eastern outlook would surely not my help my cause, but I simply wasn’t at a position to consider it too much. I had to rely on the people’s good will. I was a little overwhelmed with the possibility to accomplish something that surely so few people even dared to do, let alone doing it.

The Journey to Sad Hill

My plan was doing this visit in the middle of my trip in which I had bookings for Copenhagen and Granada (I know they are completely unrelated, but sometimes low-cost airlines set your route). I had one unoccupied day in between. I wanted to make this trip on that day.

My plane from Copenhagen arrived in Madrid-Barajas Airport almost at midnight. I spent the whole night there, but these details are irrelevant, I guess. The point is, in the morning I was planning to leave for Sad Hill and I had not bought the bus ticket to Lerma yet. ALSA, the bus company you would have to deal with, has daily trips to Lerma -towards Burgos- and some of them depart from the Barajas Terminal 4. There is an office of the company there, but they don’t work during the nights, so I had to buy the ticket from ticket machines just outside of the terminal, next to the bus slots. Oddly enough, the machine didn’t accept my card and I had got to pay in cash (Madrid-Lerma bus costs about 16 €). Anyway, I was ready to complete the first stage of my plans.

The bus left Terminal 4 roughly at 8 AM, 15 minutes later than the planned departure time. We have arrived in Lerma without too much of drama, around 10.15. The first part of the mission was done, but I had little to zero control for the rest. There were not too many people and any actual buses at Lerma Bus Station. The people around confirmed that there is no public transportation to Santo Domingo de Silos, suggested me to take a taxi (something I would have never preferred, I would rather have rented a car in the first place) Very probably, there wasn’t any car rental services available, although I didn’t actually ask those people. I had the print outs of the region’s map, and there was no time to waste. I started walking towards Sto. Domingo de Silos. I took wrong turns a couple of times, that’s why I trespassed through private fields, jumped over some fences and ran on soft, mud-like soil. I finally put myswlf on the right path and started hitchhiking -without stopping of course. Well, that BU-900 apparently was not the busiest road in Spain, frequency of seeing a car was 1.5 to 2 minutes. And initially they were showing no signs of slowing down. But finally one car stopped by me, one that I would have never expected to stop, a white Mercedes. Owned by a middle aged, seemingly nice Spanish couple. I showed them the paper that I was holding -Santo Domingo De Silos-, they nodded positively. It took only 6 or 7 cars.

First they asked me my nationality. They spoke little English, I could speak even less Spanish, yet I was able to tell them the reason of my visit to Santo Domingo de Silos (surely it should have been so weird to find a Turkish hitchhiker who aims to go to that small non-touristy town) It was obvious that I loved the movie so much. I also tried to tell them about my next stop, Granada. We surely didn’t have the most productive conversation, but they were such lovely people. They drove me to Sto. Domingo de Silos, where happened to be their actual destination and we left the car together. I cannot thank them enough for their favour, I really regret I didn’t ask their names or took a photo of us together.

Santo Domingo de Silos - Sad Hill
Sad Hill sign, at the exit of Santo Domingo de Silos…

Everything worked out just fine until that moment, but I had a little more to go. After asking a person the way to the cemetery, I was finally on the right track (If you won’t be able to communicate with local people about Sad Hill’s whereabouts, you can try asking the way to Contreras, the next town after Sad Hill). It was only a walk of a little less than 5K distance, surely there was almost no chance would I encounter another car to hitchhike. Anyway, I would have preferred to walk the remaining distance either way, I wanted to keep that final experience just for myself. I started walking without wasting any time. I got so excited as I got closer, almost as much as Tuco was, while he was running between the graves to find Arch Stanton. The road was not stabilized with lots of bumps and stones. A vehicle would be able to proceed, but vulnerable to those stones. You’d have to drive really slowly and carefully to protect the bottom of your car. Also it had a sweet but constant slope upwards, you technically climb the valley that surrounds the cemetery. As I got closer to my target, I saw some crow-like birds flying over me, I could hear their cries. Also flies were not shy to land on my face and my bare skin. Why should I have complained about it, everything was so spaghetti-westernish, that added to my excitement of course.

After a 35 minute of walk from Sto. Domigo de Silos, the road made me take a right, there was a worn-out gate there. On my left, I finally saw what I had longed for a long time. The circular rocky area and the wooden crosses surrounding it. I was finally there. All I had to do was following the same road that brought me there, which leads you to the main entrance of the site. I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely sure that I could ever make it until I actually see it. During the walk, I had not seen a single human being, while I was about 200 meters away from the gate, a car had passed me by.

Sad Hill Cemetery

There it was. The ultimated goal was finally accomplished. The cemetery was located in the middle of Mirandilla Valley, which consists of beautiful series of hills at both sides. Actually the hills seemed a little greener to me than I remember from the movie. 50 years had passed after all, this phenomena was completely natural. At the entrance of the cemetery, there are a couple of signs dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the movie (and Il triello). There was also a relief carved on stone, depicting Blondie and ‘S. Leone’ was written on it. As you proceed inside, you can see the main Sad Hill sign and a marvellous life-size silhouette of Blondie, watching over the cemetery. Then the cemetery part begins. The first grave that you’d see is not a wooden cross, but a simple stone. Do you remember when Blondie fired a cannonball towards Tuco, who jumped forward to narrowly evade it and hit his head to a stone? Yes, it was ‘that’ stone. As you walk among the crosses, you would face too much of difficulty to stop yourself running hysterically just like Tuco did with Ecstasy of Gold. And practically nothing can avoid you from doing that, but I suggest you to download that song -and Il triello of course- before coming there, so that you can play and feel the atmosphere better than just visualizing the scene in your mind.

P_20170919_121834
Honestly, I’m not that short, the statue is life-size and the great Clint Eastwood is 1.93 m (6’4”)…

Then the cemetery part begins. The first grave that you’d see is not a wooden cross, but a simple stone. Do you remember when Blondie fired a cannonball towards Tuco, who jumped forward to narrowly evade it and hit his head to a stone? Yes, it was ‘that’ stone. As you walk among the crosses, you would face too much of difficulty to stop yourself running hysterically just like Tuco did with Ecstasy of Gold. And practically nothing can avoid you from doing that, but I suggest you to download that song -and Il triello of course- before coming there, so that you can play and feel the atmosphere better than just visualizing the scene in your mind.

Angel Eyes'ın içine düştüğü mezar...
The empty grave which Blondie dragged Angel Eyes into…

You don’t have to check each grave to find your obvious destination. To see Arch Stanton’s grave and -as Bill Carson told- the “Unknown” grave right beside Arch Stanton, you simply walk straight to the middle of the cemetery. There is also the tree just behind them, which was used as gallows by Blondie, excusively for Tuco. On the tree, there is rope swinging loose and it was knotted to complete the noose. Of course it was not as high as in the movie, you know Tuco had to climb over the Arch Stanton’s cross to put the noose around his neck. You can reach it by merely standing on the ground (don’t forget to have a photo you while your neck is wrapped around it). These details are so realistic that you can remember from the movie itself.

Arch Stanton'ın Mezarı ve darağacı
Arch Stanton, the ‘Unknown’ grave and the gallows…

The empty grave which Angel Eyes was ‘dragged into’ by Blondie is also there. You can take a selfie after lying inside of it. There is even a flat stone at the very center of the circle, which ‘might’ be the one that Blondie had written the name of the grave where the 200,000 $ of gold were buried inside. Don’t skip that touch. Also remember to walk to the opposite side of the cemetery, where Blondie had galloped his horse to the hills and didn’t forget to stop for the one last ‘cutting the rope’ job. What surprised me most is the size of the circular area. After watching the movie, I had the feeling that it roughly has a diameter of 40-50 meters, but it was much smaller than I thought in reality. It didn’t seem longer than 20-25 meters. Kudos to late cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli -and Sergio Leone of course- for the depth they created at those unforgettable shots.

Sad Hill Mezarlığı'nda Eli Wallach'ın yeri
Eli Wallach (Tuco) – 1915-2014

The cemetery almost entirely consists of wooden crosses now (there were just a little more grave stones in the movie as far as I remember). Some of those crosses are dedicated to the creators of that epic scene, like late Sergio Leone and Eli Wallach. You can locate those grave marks around Arch Stanton. Some of the crosses are dedicated to those who have contributed to the ‘unearting’ project, like Metallica, Robert Trujillo (you surely know that Metallica’s beginning song to each concert is Ecstasy of Gold) and presumably the volunteers who have actually taken place in the project. Also I should note that you can have your own name written on a cross here by donating a modest amount of money to the association that I have mentioned above. You can check their website for further details)

Sad Hill Mezarlığı'nın ortası
The circular rocky square in the middle was much smaller than I imagined…

Return to civilization from Sad Hill

Everything was wonderful, much better than I could have ever imagined. All of those details were so vivid to me, I could have spent maybe half an hour more there. But I had to leave there before it’s too late, since I would have to get back to Madrid. I had already booked a bus leaving for Granada at night. And I still had no vehicle, I couldn’t be that lucky on my way back. My initial plan was walking back to Santo Domingo de Silos and hitchhiking back to Lerma, or maybe taking a taxi if it’d be absolutely necessary. But I was lucky. You remember the car which was entering the cemetery just as I arrived? Well, there was a couple inside. I learnt that they are Scottish, Paul and Ann, obviously fans of the movie as I was. We visited the site together, took each other’s photos, chatted, discovered and shared some little details. They were leaving there as well after some time and offered me a lift to some arbitrary place that could suit for my upcoming plans. They were going to Logroño and Burgos was the ideal destination for me to spend the rest of the day. I happily accepted the offer and they gave me a lift to Burgos with their rented car. We talked about many stuff during the travel (and didn’t forget to stop for a final glance of the cemetery of course, from a higher spot) before they dropped me at the very heart of Burgos. I am going to remain sincerely grateful to them forever, as well. Oh man, you get to meet really great people as long as you are ready to take some risks.

'Il triello'
I  am not talking further, just saying ‘Il triello’…

For the rest of the day, I visited a couple of attractions like the cathedral and the castle in Burgos and took a bus to Madrid around 6 PM. I made it to the bus station on time and consequently took my bus to Granada. That day proved to be one of the most convincing days that I had ever lived, I’m certainly positive.

Sad Hill ve mezarları
Visiting Sad Hill Cemetery on a beautiful, sunny day is advised…

When I look back at the whole experience, I tend to think that way initially: I shouldn’t have been that lucky, it was almost unfair. I was indeed lucky, there is no doubt about that. All the stars had aligned for me on that day. But I was so determined to make that happen that I eventually would have to see the pieces fall in my favour. This is what ‘divine justice’ orders, if such divine concepts ever exist. I’d rather think that way: I rolled the dice and hit the jackpot, but I was willing to do whatever within the limits of my physical and mental power. When you are more than ready to sacrifice so much, you can sometimes receive the help of the universe (in this case, in the form of two unbeliavably nice and helpful couples). I’m totally nowhere close to a believer or even a spiritual human being normally. I am still not a believer, but if I was looking for reasons to believe, I would take this adventure as a rock-solid proof.

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig. -Blondie-

As Blondie stated really accurately, there are two kinds of people in the world: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. If I am destined to find something beautiful eventually, I’ll always be ready to “dig”. I dug, I dug really deep, and as a result, I think I got what I deserved, a really unique travelling experience that I’ll never forget my whole life. I generally regard the journey more imporant than reaching the destination itself, but in this case, they were equally great and remarkable. Also I had the chance to ‘verify’ myself, in terms of my unconventional ways of travel.

Blondie'nin atını alıp gittiği tepeler...
Right after ‘Il triello’, Blondie rode his horse to that direction… Please note the beauty of the hills behind…

So yes, now I’m the pilgrim of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” religion. If you would like to be, too, you can e-mail me from davranb@gmail.com about anything you would like to know.
My Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/geckalmisyolcu

PS: I have to make it clear that I’m not trying to make a hero or something like that out of me whatsoever. I have just shared the experience, but of course I could hide my excitement and sense of satisfaction to a certain extent.

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