Back in the summer, we had a solemn moment over our evening tapas as we marked the tenth anniversary of the invasion of the island of Perejil. In July 2002, a small Moroccan force invaded this fragment of Spanish land off the coast of North Africa, only to be ousted a week later when Spain took the territory back again. It highlighted the remnants of Spanish North Africa that nowadays still add curiosity to the political map of the western Mediterranean.
Echoes of colonial rule
Cast back one hundred years and Spain had just secured (through the Treaty of Fez in the spring of 1912) international recognition for her North African protectorate which extended from Larache on the Atlantic coast to well east of Melilla on the Mediterranean coast. Moroccan independence in 1956 spelled the end of the protectorate, but Spain has clung to two cities on the coast of Morocco, eight offshore islands in the Alboran Sea and one heavily fortified rock connected to the Moroccan mainland by a sandy isthmus.
Many of these fragments of Spanish territory are no-go areas for civilians, but the two cities, Melilla and Ceuta, both make interesting excursions for travelers exploring the western Mediterranean. And each is a potential gateway to Africa – albeit a very unusual introduction to the continent.
Both Melilla and Ceuta share common land borders with Morocco, and in each case that frontier is marked by a ferocious border fence, designed to deter migrants from elsewhere in Africa who might otherwise use Ceuta and Melilla as easy routes into the European Union. These are, in a very real sense, gated communities.
That said, there is a high level of contact between the two Spanish cities and nearby communities in Morocco — in Ceuta particularly with Tetouan province and in Melilla especially with Nador province. Yet, for many Africans, the two Spanish cities on the coast of Morocco are a very tangible manifestation of Fortress Europe.
Many faces, many races
Both cities are similarly large, in each case with a population of about 70,000 including an interesting mix of Spanish, Moroccan, Berber, and Jewish settlers. In both cities, you’ll hear a rich mix of languages, recalling the cosmopolitan mosaic of races, cultures and religions that long characterized many Mediterranean ports. In Ceuta, there is even a small Hindi-speaking population.
Ceuta has a more industrial feel, as befits a port that handles a wide range of goods and has huge ferries leaving every hour for Spain proper. Melilla is a shade more laid-back, relying heavily on the local fishing industry. Both towns make for a curious first taste of Africa.
Given the choice, make for Melilla rather than Ceuta. During the current winter season, Acciona Trasmediterranea operate daily ferries from both Málaga and Almería to Melilla. The passage time is six to nine hours. Melilla is well placed for onward journeys through Morocco. After a stay in Melilla, it is an easy walk over the border to pick up the Moroccan rail network at Beni Nsar.
Ceuta and Melilla are both part of the Eurozone and both are on the same time zone as mainland Spain (so, depending on the time of year, either one or two hours in advance of Morocco).
Both cities are part of the Schengen area. Thus, a Schengen visa is valid for entry to both these fragments of Spanish territory in North Africa. However, if you are planning onward travel beyond Ceuta and Melilla into Morocco (and beyond), bear in mind that you will be leaving the Schengen area. A single-entry Schengen visa will thus be canceled as you leave Spanish territory and you will not be able to reenter the Schengen area without securing a new visa. Similarly, make sure that your passport is valid for visa-free travel to Morocco before planning journeys beyond Ceuta or Melilla. And, if it isn’t, then don’t forget that Moroccan visa.