Matthew Parris

The bliss of a little bit of Africa that has been part of Spain since 1497

The bliss of a little bit of Africa that has been part of Spain since 1497

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It may occasionally be necessary to visit Marbella. We may have friends there and friends can be insistent. Nor is there anything wrong with the place if that’s the kind of thing you like. Offered a choice between Marbella and Margate, many of us would opt unhesitatingly for the smell of fried squid, young wine and new plaster in the sun.

But a few days are enough. Should you have longer — and having killed a morning pleasantly enough down along the waterfront at Malaga — you may find yourself staring at the almost empty quayside and wondering what to do next. A green and blue, roll-on roll-off, car-carrying boat may catch your eye. The Ciudad de Valencia is about the size of one of our smallest cross-Channel ferries, and moors beside the offices of the Compania Trasmediterranea. Like her sister-ferry, which makes the crossing overnight from Almeria, she sails daily the 100-odd miles across the Mediterranean to North Africa. She is going to the enclave of Melilla, that last and poignant reminder that Spain and Morocco were once one country.

Sunday church bells ringing out towards a Muslim land, halal food on a European ferry, African sun on Spanish soil: such are the contradictions in this contradiction of a place, Melilla. I have just returned from the three-square-mile enclave. Along with a peninsular town called Ceuta further along the coast, Melilla is Europe’s last possession in Africa, and feels like it: a sort of defiant limbo. Against the backdrop of dry African mountains sits a small harbour dominated by a big fortress on a rock and encircled by the sprawl of a town which seems amiably confused about who or where it is. The little territory (a Roman colony in the first century, a Spanish possession since 1497) is easy to get to, welcoming, clean, ordered, safe — and distinctly odd.

We sailed in at nightfall. A foot-passenger’s ticket on the eight-hour crossing from Malaga had cost less than £20, the ship had been almost empty and the solid, subsidised service reminded me of journeys between the Scottish islands with Caledonian MacBrayne. We shared the decks, bar and lounges with a visiting football team, a few officers returning for duty, a family or two and a couple of nuns. By 7 p.m. a headland loomed towards us, high, black and wild. Round the headland we could see the glow of a pool of orange light, and bright harbour lights around a sea wall.

It seemed strange to walk down the gangplank on to a new continent without customs or immigration. This might be Africa but we had not left Spain. Waving from the dockside was a little knot of friends and family come to meet our fellow passengers. Soon they were taken away into the night.

We were the only tourists, and alone. The ancient stone walls of the 500-year-old fort rose above us. We passed an elegant, tree-lined square dominated by fine Spanish-colonial public buildings, much of the architecture in the Art Deco or Modernist style. One shop window displayed fashionable ladies’ clothing. All was silent and dark. Stars shone above. We might, I felt, be on a satellite of our planet, some kind of moon. Over the Internet we had reserved a room in the territory’s best hotel: a parador, part of Spain’s once nationalised chain of fine hotels. ‘It’s on the hill, apparently,’ said my companion, so we walked up the hill. Nowhere in Melilla is more than about a mile away, and all around is the Moroccan fence. The parador was superb: cool, tasteful rooms gave out on to balconies overlooking the town, and after a lavish meal served by slightly anxious waiters we retired to sleep, to the distant barking of dogs and the angry buzz of an occasional scooter — French windows open on to the chilly African night. Winter gives Melilla a short but blessed respite from the intense heat of the rest of the year.

Next morning we walked down into town for coffee and fresh orange juice by the marina — under refurbishment with regional development funds from the European Union. It was Sunday, the bells were calling the townspeople to Mass, and everyone was reading the same newspaper, Melilla Hoy — ‘Melilla Today’. The news was that the territory is to keep its preferred status for EU grants. Other news: 45 kilograms of hashish had been found in a Belgian tourist’s car, crossing to Malaga; and 60 refugees from Algeria were still on hunger strike. There was a page-long obituary of a Spanish military hero of the pacification of Morocco, and a bullfighting section.

The place has changed greatly since my last visit during Franco’s final years. Then it had felt like a garrison, with soldiers everywhere, Arabs begging and all but a couple of streets dirty and fly-blown. Now Melilla has come up in the world. Spain has not lost interest in her African remnant. At the cost of 23 million euros the airport runway is being extended, old buildings are being restored and new ones built, and a co-operative relationship with Morocco (whose claim to both Spanish enclaves remains alive) allows citizens of Melilla and residents of the surrounding Moroccan province of Nador to move fairly freely across the frontier. The enclave is VAT-free and the authorities are conspicuously eager to encourage tourism. You can bring or hire a car or 4x4 here and drive down into the Moroccan Atlas, or to the oasis town of Figuig. There are big empty beaches along the coast, and underwater fishing off it. In the nearby hills are Barbary apes, and the Sahara is only a day’s journey away. The sun shone and canaries sang up in the old fort as we followed a series of great cannons, aimed outwards, around its perimeter. In the heart of the fort is a sweet and rather classy little museum with wonderful ancient maps. ‘Many visitors?’ I asked the friendly but underemployed young warden. ‘Pocito,’ she smiled. At an information kiosk in the town I admired a poster of Melilla. Pleased, the man in charge invited me to take as many as I liked.

I wanted to travel on into the African continent, but we had to go back. An afternoon flight on a twin-prop aircraft took us back over the Mediterranean and the Sierra Nevada to Granada. The flights were cheap and quick: we could have gone as far as Barcelona or Madrid. Looking down upon the little enclave as our plane climbed, I saw that the runway was right by the frontier fence. How long will Melilla be Spanish? Indignant Brits often make the comparison with Gibraltar, but really the similarity is more with Calais before Queen Mary lost the town. Few Spaniards would be so theatrical as to say that if their African crumb were to go they would die with the word ‘Melilla’ written on their hearts, but the possession does inspire some pride and affection. After this last visit, I share it.

On two adjacent seats behind us in the plane sat two passengers, one Spanish and one Arab. Their dress was the same; their skin-colour was the same; their hair was black and their eyes brown. Two faces, broadly similar yet strangely different: side by side and a world apart.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.