June 26, 2021: Ceuta
Having visited all 17 Autonomous Communities of Spain and the Autonomous City of Melilla, I set my sights on the Autonomous City of Ceuta, my final territory to visit in Spain. As luck would have it, I was in the area on a road trip around Andalusia. Our last stop was in Marbella.
Ceuta is a tiny 18 square km (7 square mile) peninsula attached to Morocco on the north coast of Africa directly across the Straits of Gibraltar from Mainland Spain.
Ceuta occupies a key piece of land at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, it has been a key geostrategic location for millennia. In Ancient Greek mythology Hercules had to cross a mountain that was once Atlas. Instead of crossing the mountain, he smashed it, merging the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. In place of the mountains were two pillars- one on each side of the sea. Gibraltar is the northern pillar while Ceuta is the southern (although some sources place the southern pillar as Jebel Musa in Morocco). Since then, Carthage, Rome, the Vandals, the Ummayads, Fez and finally Portugal have all claimed this key peninsula. The Portuguese conquest of Ceuta is depicted in a famous azuelejo painting in Porto´s Sao Bento railway station.
The territory became part of Spain in an unusual fashion. In 1578, a succession crisis caused Spain and Portugal to have the same ruler. This joining was called the Iberian Union. However, the two countries did not officially merge.
The Union ended in 1640 during the Portuguese Restoration War. During the 60 years of joint control, many Spaniards moved to Ceuta due to geographic proximity. Therefore, the residents of Ceuta elected to back Spain in the split. Ceuta was the only Portuguese city to do this.
Ceuta has also long been a prize of Moroccans who do not care too much to have Europeans on their continent. The longest siege of Ceuta occurred between 1694-1727. From 1912-1956, Spain controlled nearly all of the northern coast of Morocco. When Spain and France ceded territory to create the modern Kingdom of Morocco, Spain kept Ceuta and Melilla due to historical reasons.
Morocco still wants Ceuta back. As recently as 21 December 2020, the Prime Minister of Morocco stated that Ceuta and Melilla belong to Morocco. The dispute over Ceuta and Melilla continues to be a major rift between the countries.
Today, Ceuta has approximately 60,000 residents. The residents overwhelmingly want to stay part of Spain, making it one of the most conservative and nationalistic places in the entire country. Nearly 30% of the population is Muslim and speaks Moroccan Arabic. Due to this, Ceuta recognizes Eid al Adha as an official public holiday.
While I was very interested in visiting Ceuta, the Wolfpack: Cezar, Andrew, and Milly wanted to go to the beach in Tarifa instead. So, I was on my own.
The easiest and most popular way to reach Ceuta is by ferry. Ferries to Ceuta leave from the town of Algeciras in a beautiful airport-esque ferry terminal near the city center. Ferries were operating at a reduced frequency due to COVID so there were only 5 or 6 per day. Typically, there are 17 ferries per day. Ferries to Tangier, Morocco also depart from this terminal, but due to COVID, the ferries were not running.
Conveniently, our hotel in Algeciras was across the street from the ferry terminal.
I purchased my one-way ticket in the terminal for about €30. I could have saved €10 by purchasing it online, but I wanted the physical ticket for my scrapbook. After boarding, I was surprised to see that the ferry was quite luxurious and spacious. There were multiple cafes and even a gift shop. This beats a plane or bus anytime!
The ride took approximately 1 hour, and the seas were calm. Upon arrival, I danced to the Spanish version of the Shakira song Waka Waka to celebrate my arrival in Africa and having visited all the regions of Spain.
The port district- where the ferry landed – was uninteresting: just a lot of warehouses and a few cafes. The one thing I noticed here was a group of sub-Saharan Africans offering to wash cars at gas stations. Ceuta is one of the most popular landing points for African migrants trying to reach Europe. The situation reminds me a lot of migrants attempting to enter the US via the border with Mexico.
From the port, I walked into the city center. First, I visited a large fortress that was built during the Moroccan siege in 1694. The outside was open, but the inside was closed due to COVID.
The rest of the city center looked like any typical Spanish city complete with a famous church, walking street full of cafes, a Decathlon and Zara and many multistory apartment buildings.
One thing that set Ceuta apart was the nice statues all over town. My favorite was one of Hercules grabbing the two pillars.
Ceuta also has a few small museums. The most interesting and unique museum was the military museum. This museum commemorates Spain´s long military history in North Africa with a focus on the 20th century. In the 1920´s Spain and Morocco fought a brutal war known as the Rif War where Spain conquered the north coast of Morocco. One of the Spanish heroes of that war was Francisco Franco, the man who 10 years later would lead a coup and take over all of Spain for 40 years. Spain also controlled the region known as Western Sahara (then known as Spanish Sahara) from the late 1800´s until 1975.
Unsurprisingly, the museum had lots of guns, a lot of flags, a lot of portraits of Spanish generals (including Franco) and soldiers and a huge portrait of the king. This was the first time I had ever seen a portrait of the king outside of a palace that he owns. The museum is operated by the Spanish military and did not allow any photography (due to the sensitive images). This was enforced by a camoflague-clad middle-aged soldier who could rip my arms off with little to no effort.
Having now seen the city of Ceuta, it was now time to climb the mountain on the end of the peninsula for a view!
It turns out that there is a Spanish military base at the top surrounded by an ancient castle wall, but I was still able to get some good views.
For lunch, I walked over to a Moroccan restaurant that has views of Morocco, Mainland Spain, and Gibraltar! I arrived right when they opened at 13:00 but was told to wait 15 minutes. I then sat down and was reluctantly given a menu. 15 more minutes later they had not walked over to me, so I left. This was the worst service I have ever received at a restaurant.
However, I was able to get tapas in town. They were nothing special but did the job.
I had about an hour to kill before the ferry, so I walked over to the tourism office to ask for ideas. When I went in, the lady asked where I was from. When I said USA, she asked me if I was lost!!!!!! I could see a normal person responding that way, but the tourism office is supposed to encourage visitors!
Had I had a bit more time, I would have visited the beach or the incredible Mediterraneo Marine Park full of beautiful saltwater swimming pools (and designed by Lanzarote´s famed architect Cesar Manrique).
With not enough time left, I returned to the ferry terminal. The return boat, run by a different company, was delayed by an hour, but I still made it back by 6pm.
A day trip to Ceuta is certainly unique. The town center, hiking and military museum are interesting. Combined with the Mediterraneo Marine Park and/or the beach, there is enough to fill up a day and not be bored. Also, the bragging rights of going to Africa for the day are undeniable.
That said, I think that southern Andalusia has nicer towns and beaches than Ceuta and Tangier, Morocco would be the more interesting day trip by ferry. So, unless you are going for the novelty, I would skip Ceuta.
If you are set on visiting a Spanish Exclave City and are trying to figure out which one to visit, Ceuta is far better. It is much closer to Spain (a ferry instead of a flight) and is a better nicer city with more to do.