Just getting to Melilla is a completely different experience from any other trip you might make to Spanish destinations. For a start, the plane trip is likely to be the shortest you have ever made, with just half an hour barely giving the stewardess time to pass round the orange juice and get back to her seat for landing. And then the plane swoops in over the mountains, gives you a quick bird’s eye view into the square courtyards of low lying Moroccan farms, and after a quick U-turn pulls up neatly by the steps into the terminal.
Melilla, like Ceuta, is a Spanish enclave in north Africa and boasts newly acquired autonomous powers. Little known to tourists, it is largely visited by relatives of the big military contingent which guards its borders, and by tradespeople with an interest in its busy port. However in 1997 it celebrated its fifth centenary and it is making a huge effort to attract visitors, not only by means of an advertising campaign but also by developing every resource possible and sprucing up the town in general. A new marina, a casino and an aparthotel are just a few of the projects in the pipeline ready for the “Quinto Centenario”.
Reminders about the fifth centenary, and consequently about the history of Melilla, will meet you everywhere you go. The Melillenses are Spanish, and they want everyone else to know it. At some point in the past, somebody worked out that Melilla was Spanish 18 years before Navarre became part of the Kingdom of Castille, 162 years before Roussillon became French, and 279 years before the United States came into existence – and this fact is printed prominently in the leaflets, on the maps and even on a plaque in the museum. It was conquered by Pedro de Estopiñán of the house of Medina Sidonia on September 17th, 1497, during the time of Isabel and Ferdinand and to help defend the mainland against invasion from Africa.
For a visitor, however, Melilla’s great attraction is that although Spanish by history and conviction, geographically and culturally it is a meeting point. “Gateway to Africa” is one of its slogans, and “Gateway to four Cultures” is another. The four cultures in question are the result of the four predominant religions – Catholic, which is still in the majority; Moslem, which is growing; Jewish and Hindu. This means that the town is spotted with churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, and that Melilla is probably the only Spanish town to publish a calendar of religious festivities in four denominations and a guide to its gastronomy with recipes for Spanish fish dishes, couscous and samosas.
What to see
The old town, which was originally heavily fortified, stands separate from the main residential areas of Melilla. Much of it can only be reached on foot, but it is possible to drive up to the museum and park in the area to tour the walls, towers, cannon emplacements and the rest of the old citadel. It was from the citadel and by agreement with the Moroccan Sultan that in 1859 a cannon was fired several times to mark the boundaries of the Spanish property, which are still where the cannon balls fell to earth.
Nobody who goes to Melilla is likely to miss a shopping expedition to the numerous shops and bazaars and to the street market in the “polígono”.
Favourite purchases are electronic goods like televisions or hi-fi equipment, watches, jewellery, table linen and Moroccan crafts. The bargaining system is very much in operation – particularly in the bazaars in the area known as “El Monumental”, shoppers should not pay the first price they are asked for.
Strolling round the centre – and the back streets – of Melilla will also ensure a view of the many beautiful buildings. Residents in the past have had money to spend, and some of it went on the rich adornment of its monuments and houses.
One of the main improvements to Melilla in recent years has been to its beaches, to the benefit of residents and visitors alike. Long stretches of golden sand are in use almost year round by bathers – though the more squeamish will probably prefer to avoid going in the sea when the wind is blowing from the east!
If one of the main objects of the expedition is to do some shopping, a mid week break is better than a long weekend – because of the different religions, closing day also differs and some shops will be closed on Friday, some on Saturday and some on Sunday.
A good place to eat is the “El Caracol II” restaurant in Calle Poeta Salvador Rueda, which has a selection of Moroccan and Spanish dishes. The service is slow, but the “kefta” (minced lamb sausage) is definitely worth waiting for.
One of the sad things about Melilla’s unique situation is the almost inevitable preponderance of beggars in the streets, many of them Moslem women with their infants draped over their knees. Look down, and you see misery on the rubbish strewn pavements. Look up, and you are surrounded by magnificent buildings with modernist façades, every one of them worth a photo.
Wherever you decide to eat, you are likely to feel over-full afterwards. The solution is to ask for mint tea instead of coffee – for some reason, the hot sweet “green” tea instantly settles the stomach and makes you feel light again. If the restaurant or hotel can’t serve it, there are plenty of “teterías” around.
How to get there
By plane from Malaga or Almeria, or by ferry, also from Malaga or Almeria. The Transmediterránea ferry is a daily service, except Sundays, and takes approximately seven hours to make the crossing.
When to go:
Any time. Holy Week has the added attraction of processions, but fewer shopping hours, and the annual fair is at the beginning of September. July and August can be spectacularly hot.
Where to stay:
Melilla has several hotels, including a Parador which sits above a park and offers panoramic views.