Matthew Parris 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

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.

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