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A fair number of folks know that Great Britain is still hanging on to its colony at the Iberian Peninsula's southernmost Iberia, Gibraltar. Fewer are aware that Spain, too, has its own enclaves hereabouts – though a big difference is that they’re not colonies – carved out of another country (those who have been paying attention to the international news, though, might have been hearing about African migrants trying to break into them). Ensconced along Morocco‘s Mediterranean coast, under Iberian rule (Portuguese or Castilian) since the 15th century, today Ceuta and Melilla are officially “autonomous cities” of the unitary Spanish state. Melilla, across from Almería and Granada, is the smaller of the two cities (just over a dozen square kilometres/4½ square miles, with a population a bit over 78,000), and while similar to Ceuta in many respects also has one or two pretty nifty differences that merit the word “unique” I used in the hed above.
Arranged around the larger part of an enclosed bay at the foot of Mount Gurugú, Melilla has seen a whole lot of history, stretching at least back to the ancient Phoenicians, centuries before Christ. And unsurprisingly, given its location, the population is pretty multicultural – a mix of Spanish and North African, Catholic and Muslim (historically with a good bit of of Jewish and even a hint of Hindu mixed in), and languages spoken besides Spanish include Berber and French. Access is via air and ferry from Spain as well as land from Morocco.
Melilla La Vieja, the old quarter, centered around the doughty fortress built after the city was conquered from the Kingdom of Fez in 1497 at the behest of dear old Ferdinand and Isabella. Highlights include the Hospital del Rey, including the city archives with documents, maps, and photo collections; the Museum of the City with a fine archaeological, historical, and ethnographic collection based in a series of former storehouses; the Conventico Caves, first hollowed out by the Phoenicians, then used for various purposes over the years including refuge during sieges; the Ibáñez Museum of Spanish Modern Art, covering the late 18th century to the present; the Military History Museum (no explanation needed, right?).
The “New Town” of course has a more 19th- and early-20th-century feel not unlike many other Spanish cities. What’s different here, though – and what does make Melilla truly unique – is that it has Spain’s largest grouping of Modernista (Art Nouveau/Art Deco) architecture outside of Barcelona, with one of the top local architects being a Catalan former acolyte of Antoni Gaudí named Enrique Nieto. Examples start in the central Plaza de España, with Nieto’s Casino Militar, and other landmarks include the Palacio de la Asamblea, seat of the local legislature; the Casa de los Cristales; the Or Zoruah Synagogue; the Casa de la Reconquista (above); and various others.
Apart from all that, there are several fascinating attractions in this part of town, as well, such as a pretty cool Auto Museum; and an unusual bit of business called the GASELEC Foundation, part of the local electric company which includes both a nifty display of sometimes quite large electrical doodads as you would expect but also, as you would not expect, a pretty cool exhibition on ancient Egypt, thanks to the passion of one of the company’s presidents.
Other great stuff to do in and around town includes exploration of local beaches like Playa de San Lorenzo, Playa de la Hípica, and Playa de los Cortados. If you’re up for a little hiking, there’s nature nature and great views up on Mt. Gurugú. Back down at sea level, the dining, drinking, gambling, partying, and just hanging out are swell at Puerto Noray, Melilla’s marina district. And then of course there’s shopping – both of the conventional kind as well as North Africa-style bazaars and souks like the mercadillo (open-air market) in the Polígono de Sepes – especially because it’s free of Spain’s usual VAT. Jewelry – especially watches – are a particular local specialty, and of course you’ll find plenty of traditional North African wares, as well.
Melilla definitely faces its challenges, like any city these days, but truly, for the visitor it offers an unexpected treat, and in a place you sure wouldn’t expect it.