February 5, 2021: The Weirdest Extremity of Spain
Melilla is one of two Spanish Exclave Cities in North Africa. Melilla is 4 square miles (12 square kilometers) on the north Moroccan coast and is completely surrounded by Morocco. While the other exclave city, Ceuta, is located just a 30-minute ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, Melilla is about 200 kilometers across the sea from Spain on the extreme eastern coast of Morocco. In fact, it is located closer to Algeria than to Spain. From a geographic perspective, Spain’s ownership of Melilla appears random and not intuitive.
Despite its small size Melilla has played an important role in Spanish history. It has been part of Spain since 1497, which makes it an older part of Spain than Navarra. After expelling the Muslims from Iberia, the Catholic Monarch, Ferdinand and Isabella, wanted to continue their territorial expansion. Melilla was, at the time, a no-man’s land between two Islamic sultanates. Therefore, the Spanish were able to seize the ancient Phonecian city without a fight and gain a foothold into Africa.
The Arab kingdoms obviously did not like having the Spanish around and tried to capture the city many times. However, they were never able to succeed. The most recent attempt took place in 1921. Morocco still wants Melilla. On December 21, 2020, the Moroccan Prime Minister claimed that Melilla is part of Morocco. This sparked a diplomatic row that involved Spain officially summoning the Moroccan ambassador. If I were to guess, the percentage of Melilla residents who would want it to become Moroccan is close to 0 because of the strength of the EU passport and the Spanish welfare state.
Most recently, Melilla is famous for being a major destination for sub-Saharan migrants attempting to cross into the European Union. This is featured in the 2020 Spanish Netflix movie Adu. Melilla is also known as a drug smuggler’s haven. The two Spanish exclave cities are the EU’s only land borders with an African country.
I was unaware of the existence of Spain’s African exclave cities until I moved to Spain. Politically, Melilla and Ceuta are considered Autonomous Cities, which are equal in standing to an Autonomous Communities, Spain’s equivalent to a US State/Canadian Province/Australian State etc. The news always mentions them; when discussing anything about Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, articles and reports will always add “and the two autonomous exclave cities of North Africa.” Melilla gained its “independence” from Andalusia in 1995.
My friend Angus shared my interest in visiting this strange political oddity and agreed to join me on a visit. He was living in Malaga at the time, which happened to be the gateway to Melilla. From Malaga, you can either take a short flight or 4-hour ferry. We opted for the flight for two reasons. The first reason is time. Melilla is short on sights, so we wanted to be in and out in a day. The second reason is COVID restrictions. Melilla had “sealed its perimeters”. Based on my interpretation of the law, flying in constitutes a grey area (as an airport was technically not a perimeter of the territory). Some autonomous communities, such as Catalonia, specify that only land borders are not crossable. Melilla’s laws did not specify. Based on my experience, airports have not been patrolled by the immigration police, so we decided to give it a go.
Our flight left Malaga at 9:00. The ATR-72 had room for 100 passengers. However, there were at most 15 people on the flight including the crew.
30 minutes later, we were circling Melilla. From the air, the city looks ridiculous, as it is completely surrounded by Morocco. I felt like I was dropping into West Berlin during the Cold War, especially now because the borders have been closed for nearly a year due to COVID.
We touched down at the airport which takes up something like 1/4 of the total land area of the entire city. There is an interesting history regarding Melilla’s airport. The original Melilla airport was built 25 kilometers south and also served the city of Nador which at the time was also owned by Spain. Once Morocco became independent, the land transferred to Morocco and Melilla was left without an airport. A temporary agreement allowed passengers to be transported by a secure bus to Nador to then fly “domestically” back to mainland Spain. This agreement lasted 11 years until 1969 when the Melilla airport was finally built. The Spanish-built Nador International Airport is still operating in Morocco.
I had to fill out a quick form asking the purpose of my visit, but nobody checked it. And just like that, we were in Melilla! Angus and I hopped into a taxi that took us to the center of town.
The city center looks just like any other Spanish city. There were many beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. In fact, Melilla has the second most Art Nouveau buildings in all of Spain, second only to Barcelona.
There were also a disproportionate number of military statues and memorials.
Despite the Spanish-ness, there were a few subtle clues that this city was different. First, about 30-50% of the people on the street looked Moroccan. Many women were wearing Moroccan-style clothing. Second, there were a few stores selling Moroccan souvenirs such as tea sets, silver plates, and clothing. When we passed by these stores, the shop owners aggressively called to us. These touts would never happen elsewhere in Spain.
It was still only 10:30 AM, so most of the shops had not opened yet. So, we walked over to the town’s main tourist attraction: the fortress.
The massive castle-like fortress was originally built by the Spanish in the 16th century. It has been expanded many times. Had this fortress been located in mainland Spain, it would be a major attraction drawing tourists from all around. But alas here in isolated Melilla, it was empty.
Just outside the walls was a most curious sight: a statue of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. This is reportedly the only one in all of Spain. Franco was the head of all military operations in Spanish North Africa which at the time included the entire north coast of Morocco. Franco played a pivotal role against Morocco in the Rif Wars. Interestingly, Melilla was the location of the first Franco uprising and is considered the birthplace of the Spanish Civil War.
Franco’s reputation today in Spain is mixed, but the majority believe he caused a lot more harm than good. In recent years, the government has tried to hide his legacy. The many statues of him have all been taken down. Just in the last year, his body was removed from the Valley of the Fallen and the government seized one of his houses owned by his family. The debate in Spain is quite similar to the issue of Confederate memorials in the United States. (Update: 1 month after my trip on February 25, 2021, the statue was taken down. Every party except Vox voted to remove it).
We then walked through the epic gate into the fortress. The entry chamber has a Gothic ceiling and a small statue of a Saint. This is considered to be a chapel and is the only authentic piece of Gothic architecture in all of Africa.
The fortress contains a few museums. One museum is a history museum. A second is a military museum and a third museum covers the unique cultures in Melilla: the Berbers, Roma (Gypsies) and Sephardim (Jews). Even to this day, Melilla has one of the largest Jewish populations in all of Spain.
The fortress also has spectacular views of all of Melilla and Morocco beyond.
Back in town, we stopped for lunch at a Moroccan restaurant. We got a spectacular tagine- meat and broth cooked in a clay pot topped with vegetables and Moroccan tea.
With just a few hours left, we took a big walk down the beach to the southernmost point in the territory. Here, we reached was a humongous mall. The anchor store was a 50-aisle grocery store- presumably this is where Moroccans go to buy EU goods. However, with the pandemic closing the international border, the store was shuttered and the shelves empty. A few locals were at the mall.
Next, we headed to the border. This massive 15-meter-tall metal barricade divides Europe and Africa, two completely different worlds. Through the fence we saw a goat herder. I was reminded of the fence between the US and Mexico which I have visited in a few different spots. The fence here was taller and seemingly more intense. The top not only had barbed wire, but also had a metal bulb so if you did manage to make it to the top, you could not grab the other side and would fall to your death.
We walked along the fence for about 4 kilometers. The entire border was heavily patrolled by armies on both sides. There are three official border crossings- all of them closed to due COVID. When compared to the US/Mexico fence, this one is far far shorter. The height of the fence is comparable to the border in urban areas such as Tijuana.
Eventually, we ended up back at the airport.
Now it was time to head back to Malaga. When attempting to go through security, I was stopped by a Spanish national police officer. He asked for a justification to travel during COVID. I said returning home to Barcelona. He followed up by asking why I came to Melilla in the first place. I gave a reason, but he didn’t buy it. Eventually, Angus argued on my behalf and he begrudgingly let us through while threatening to give us 500-euro fines. Later on, he threatened someone else to never come back to Melilla because the man didn’t have proof in writing that his sick brother was indeed sick.
Next, we passed through an immigration booth where our passports were checked. Luckily here there was no issue. I later learned that the immigration here is extra strict to prevent migrants from flying to mainland Spain. In retrospect, I should have done better research, which would have told me about the intense security screening when leaving Melilla.
I have no intention of ever coming back to Melilla and I would not recommend it as a destination. However, if you happen to already be in the Nador, Morocco, then it is worth the visit to see this strange place. Also, while I understand the history, I do not understand why Spain wants to keep this place. To me, Melilla seems like a bigger liability than a benefit due to the migrant issue and the effort spent to keep them out.