Spain is really not far from Morocco. Across the Mediterranean, you think? Spain is actually within Morocco too! There are two really interesting, and also controversial, Spanish territories to visit when you are touring the North of Morocco: Ceuta and Melilla. Here is what you need to know about the Spanish Enclaves of Morocco.
Conquered by Spain in the 15th Century, Ceuta and Melilla are two small territories on the North Coast of Morocco and somewhat of a historical anomaly. The North of Morocco was occupied by Spain for a long time and, as I noticed in Tangier, Tetouan and Chefchaouen, Spanish is still widely spoken. Spain recognised Morocco’s independence in 1956 but the two enclaves remained Spanish, known as Plazas de Soberania. They retained their culture and their Spanish population, however, they are claimed by Morocco, and are a bit of a sore point between the two nations. Today, those territories are somewhat vulnerable to large groups of illegal migrants trying to find their way to Europe. If you are exploring the North of Morocco, I recommend hopping into Spain for a day or two and enjoy something different.
On our last trip to Morocco, my father Thierry had the curiosity of visiting the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Ceuta is roughly 20 km from Tangier, along a very good road, which runs partially along the Mediterranean Coast. The road is quite dramatic and offers some beautiful vistas, wedged between the coast and the Rif Mountains. We were on our way to Tetouan and Chefchaouen and had a busy road trip. Along the way, the view over Tanger-Med, a cargo port opened in 2007. I have no particular interest in industrial scenery but my father loves it… Photo Thierry Mignon
And I have to say that the view is quite spectacular, as is often the case on Moroccan roads. Tanger-Med is not something that you would visit as a tourist attraction but it’s worth taking a break and taking in the views… and some photos of course! If anything, Tanger-Med is an interesting testimony of Morocco’s economic and industrial development.
An Interesting History
Ceuta is also known as Sebta and is home to some 80,000 people. True to the multicultural identity of the North of Morocco, the population is a mix of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and even Hindus… The location of Ceuta has been of economic significance since the 5th Century. Together with Gibraltar on the European side, Ceuta forms one of the famous “Pillars of Hercules”. Followed a long period of unstable history and changing occupation until 1415, when Ceuta was captured by the Portuguese. Finally, Portugal ceded the territory to Spain in 1668.
Spain recognised the independence of Morocco in 1956, however, Ceuta and other Plazas de Soberenia remained under Spanish rule. Since then, these territories are disputed by Morocco. Until 1995, Ceuta was part of the Province of Malaga. Since then, Ceuta has an autonomous status.
Ceuta is the largest Spanish enclave in Morocco and is worth visiting for a few hours. If anything, the experience of going into Spain for a day is fun. I haven’t visited Spain for many years and I found it entertaining to eat the food and listen to the language for a few hours.
In order to get into Ceuta, you can take a ferry from Spain. If you come from Morocco, you need to cross the border. However, if you are driving in Morocco and hiring a car, you won’t be able to take it inside the enclave. You need to cross the border on foot, which is quicker than sitting in the line of vehicles.
Crossing the Border
A lot of Moroccans go into Ceuta in order to work or to shop the European retail brands present in the enclave. Therefore, the border is very busy and can be overwhelming. You will need to park your vehicle in a large car park a kilometre or so before you get to the border. I wasn’t particularly reassured walking to the border on my own, simply because there weren’t many people around and only the odd car driving past.
The border crossing itself is an interesting experience. You have to walk one kilometre along a line of cars, in a sort of caged corridor. There are quite a few people who seem to “hang out” rather than transit from one country to the other, and I’m not sure what they were doing… Crossing into Spain, we had our passports checked no less than four times. The Moroccan army is quite bureaucratic and will ask questions as to what you are doing. You also have to fill out a yellow form which proved a little challenging to obtain amongst the crowd. And of course, there will be people telling you that the form is for sale…
There were a few tourists crossing the border on foot, but most people were from Morocco. One woman approached me and handed me her passport, asking me to fill out the yellow form for her. I suspect it was because she couldn’t write… Crossing the border on foot is quite a moving experience, amongst poor people living a harsh reality… Once you get to the other side, you can get a taxi into town for 5 Euros or a bus… Yes, this is Spain and you need to have a few Euros handy…
What To See in Ceuta
Ceuta is reasonably widespread but the centre is small enough to walk around. Monte Anvera is the highest point in Ceuta and you can go for a hike to enjoy the scenery. We toured the centre of town on foot, walking through streets with a distinctive Spanish feel.
The Casa de Los Dragones is a curiosity and there are a couple of Spanish-style churches. We had a very pleasant lunch in a restaurant overlooking the marina.
We weren’t prepared for an important detail during our visit: Spanish time! After lunch, everything is closed until well into the afternoon… The streets were pretty quiet and most things were closed, including the Museo de la Legion… This is something to bear in mind if you are doing a day trip from Morocco, it might be better to start early in the morning or stay in the enclave late in the afternoon.
The Royal Walls are an impressive structure, dating back to the 5th Century. The walls are nicely renovated and make for a pleasant walk on a sunny day. There are information boards in English and we enjoyed a cool drink at the cafe in the courtyard. Again, the loud music playing in the restaurant next door reminded us that we were in Spain!
Also, don’t miss the waterfront and its row of Greek philosophers’ bronze bust… I was a little puzzled by this… It really felt like a cultural statement, reminding everyone of Ceuta’s European identity…
Return to Morocco
While I didn’t find Ceuta overly charming in its architecture, it’s an interesting experience. The European feel and more specifically Spanish is everywhere. No matter how small, it is a different country. La Ribera Beach also has the atmosphere of the Costa Del Sol or perhaps Southern France…
We hopped on bus number 7 to get back to the border and cross into Morocco. Again, we walked a kilometre within a cage with the poor Moroccan workers making their way home, seemingly laden with goods purchased in European retailers…
Further east along the Mediterranean Coast, close to the town of Nador, lies the second Spanish enclave in Morocco: Melilla. Located close to the Moroccan town of Nador, Melilla is a smaller enclave surrounded by a 6 m high border fence, erected to deter mass intrusions by illegal immigrants.
History, Past and Present
Melilla has a similar history to Ceuta. Before gaining a status of autonomy in 1995, Melilla was part of the Province of Andalusia in Spain. The Spanish conquered Melilla in the 15th Century and Morocco has been disputing their ownership since the independence in 1956.
Again, Melilla is a multicultural Spanish outpost with a mix of Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu population, around 80,000. Melilla has an important collection of modernist buildings, a Medieval fortress and a swathe of tapas bars. Accessible by ferry from Spain and across the border from Morocco, it’s an ideal place to enjoy a Spanish weekend.
Melilla is rich in history and is the only place in Spain that still has a statue of General Franco… Indeed, Franco flew out of Melilla in 1936 to launch the Spanish Civil War…
Melilla La Vieja
The Medieval Fortress in Old Melilla has been beautifully restored and has a number of interesting museums. The depths of the fortress also hold ancient cisterns and a cave and tunnel system that was used to shelter refugees during invasions.
Who would think a far-flung Spanish enclave could almost rival Barcelona as a centre of Modernist architecture. Gaudi’s student Enrique Nieto designed several buildings in the “Golden Triangle”.
Spanish Influence in Africa
After years of visiting Morocco the typical tourist destinations such as Marrakech and Essaouira, visiting the Spanish Enclaves of Morocco is a very interesting discovery. It really makes feel that I should include Spain in my next European adventure. Ceuta and Melilla are a link between Europe and Africa, and their future as Spanish enclaves is uncertain. Indeed, some locals see the Spanish government’s decision to establish a statute of autonomy as taking a step in the direction of returning the enclaves to Morocco. I’m sure there is a long way to go yet, but the cost of maintaining the enclaves and the threat of massive intrusions is an important question for Spain.
Would you make the Spanish Enclaves a reason to travel to Morocco? Please tell me in the comments below.
For more Morocco inspiration, I also wrote a list of what to pack for Morocco.