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Published: December 2nd 2012
(N) "Is the age of European imperialism in Africa dead? Almost, but not quite. Melilla, a Spanish territory nestling uneasily along the Moroccan Mediterranean coast, is one of the last two European territories on the African continent. Home to some 70,000 people of Spanish, Arab and Berber descent, it is a thriving port city marked by beautiful Spanish modernist architecture. Seized in the late fifteenth century, it served for centuries as a heavily-defended garrison town. In some ways its functions remains unchanged today. Although the medieval castle is now a tourist attraction, the territory is ringed by a forbidding EU-security fence whose function is to keep undocumented migrants from North and West Africa out of the EU."
Thus writes my friend Nick Megoran, a keen geographer, who invited some friends to help celebrate his 40th birthday by travelling to Melilla, this Spanish city in northern Africa.
After an early flight, we went to a tapas bar - this would become a recurring theme of the trip. It did not have a very Spanish name ("El Pimpi") but it did have the photos of famous people across the walls of the restuarant, including Banderas, Nadal - and Blair.
other things, we ate 3 types of ham:
1. The first consisted of ham from pigs that had eaten nothing but acorns - this is the best ham you can buy.
2. The second type of ham came from pigs that had been half-fed acorns but also half-fed with normal pig feed
3. And the last type had only eaten pig feed.
We did a blind tasting amongst ourselves and there really did seem to be a difference in taste as well as colour. Suitably impressed with our new found knowledge, we also tried the local beer of course, Victoria
, whose emblem was a portly bald man wiping his brow - we later learnt that curiously this was inspired by a German tourist.
Later in the afternoon, we sidled up to the castle that overlooks the city, which in turn is overlooked by the Malaga mountains. This was a scenic walk up a path lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, and which at one point afforded a view straight down into the bullring, La Malagueta
. We saw the matadors training, which they did by squaring up to a contraption that represented a bull - which was in fact
a trolley bearing horns and pushed at full pelt by a trainer. The other wonderful aspect to the walk was the view over to the old town and the blue waters of the port.
At the top, we meandered through the thick ramparts of the fort, which was originally a Moorish palace and fortress built in 929AD by the Caliph of Cordoba. When the Spanish captured it, a church was built on the site of the mosque.
That evening, more tapas (a huge plate of croquettes filled with variety of meat, fish and cheese) were washed down with another local beer, Alhambra
, in the old bar Rincon de El Trillo
. We went for dinner to the recommended Meson Iberico
and tried to order something tasty but the cutlets were very small and the large salad was in fact potatoes covered in mayonnaise. So we basically began copying the orders from the table of seasoned locals next to us and ended up with delicious kebabs, little ciabatta sandwiches, anchovies and profiteroles, washed down with rioja. Sorted. They gave us a digestif
on the house, which looked and tasted of mouthwash.
A future visit to Malaga must include a
View over Malaga
On the way up to the castle
snifter at the musty and dusty Antigua Casa de la Guardia
, one of the oldest bars in the city, supposedly a favourite of Picasso (he was born near here), where huge barrels behind the bar dispense wine and sherry directly into the glass, and bar tabs are literally chalked up.
The following day, we took the ferry to Melilla. Before we did, we stocked up on provisions from the Ataranzas
indoor market. Expecting it to be an earthy affair, we were surprised to see that it was in fact a pristine place, housed in a former shipyard which still has a giant horseshoe arch from those days. We bought lots of fruit and veg (including a rogue courgette that was posing as a cucumber), nuts, figs, cheese and bread, which we hungrily munched on the top deck a few hours later. I bought a serrated knife to cut into the giant buffalo tomatoes, which was regrettably confiscated at security, but later returned.
The crossing took many hours; we spent the afternoon in the sunshine around our table, reading, talking and having dips in the small but refreshing swimming pool, which generated its own waves whenever the huge boat
View over Malaga
On the way up to the castle
took a lurch in the sea.
A 20-minute walk on arrival took us to the great hotel that Nick had booked for us, the Parador de Melilla
, where our rooms had balconies looking out towards the port, and out over the city, as far as Morocco. We headed back into town for yet more tapas.
The following morning, we took the bus for about 15 minutes to the border, around which was the usual chaos: dirty and dusty, selling fruit, veg and UHT milk in the heat, people carrying huge amounts of luggage, including great sacks of toilet rolls and cases of Pringles. Some (but not many) men were in African robes, although almost all of the women were wearing headscarves.
We walked out of Spain and 150m further we arrived at the Morrocan checkpoint. Having completed a basic form, we changed some money (see footnote*) and jumped on a local bus to the unremarkable city of Nador (12km). The road skirted the coast, past a luxurious golf course development whose lushness was a huge contrast to the general dustiness of everywhere else.
As we approached Nador, the concrete buildings became a little denser, and a
View into the bullring
On the way up to the castle
man with horse & vegetable cart passed us, going in the other direction. New hotels are being built on the seafront. On arrival, we headed to the promenade which has been attractively paved in the hope that it will become a leisure destination. When we were there, leisure strollers were largely outnumbered by cigarette butts and sunflower seed husks. Some guys were manually lifting out piles of seaweed from the water, not sure why.
We came across a unique cafe, circular in shape, that jutted out into the sea, and inside it was quirkily decorated with ornaments on shelves and dangling from the ceiling: lamps, plants, birdcages and weighing scales. Our table looked out over the glistening sea.
As we walked through the town, we saw signs in Arabic of course, but also Spanish, English and French, reflecting its mixed history as well as its location. We found a restaurant for lunch where, between us, we had beef tagine ("Typically Moroccan", said the waiter approvingly), chicken and a plate of fish, one of which had its tail curled round into its mouth ("No wonder it got caught", explained Nick).
That night, back in Melilla, Nick treated us
to dinner: a large platter of seafood, shellfish, hot chips and almonds, all washed down with wine (Nick persuaded the waiter to let him try 3 glasses before settling on the last one) and some bottles of delicious craft beer, a collaboration between a major brewer and the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adria. The night was rounded off in Melilla's bar area.
A very lazy morning followed: a leisurely breakfast and a wander around the castle walls, before meandering down to the small beach below. In the afternoon, half the party went off to see more of the border area while a couple of us thought that a few hours by the pool would be best way to while away our final afternoon, preceded by *yet another* tapas stop, involving caldera
beef from the Rif moutains, fresh prawns and cerveza
We all had a late afernoon swim and took the first group photo of the holiday. Before catching the late-night ferry, we had a delicious dinner in the main square: it was a balmy evening, the castle was lit up above us and whole families were out taking the air. We ordered a plateful of meat, bowls of
chips and a huge omelette, with more of Ferran's lovely beer.
Once on board, we sat out on the top deck for a while before retiring to the cabins for a decent sleep.
Most of the gang went home in the morning, leaving just John and I to spend an entertaining couple of hours in the Picasso museum, housed in a beautiful old building with 7th Century Phoenician remains around the foundations. There were 12 small galleries of different periods in his life, from small sculptures to large canvasses. In the afternoon, we took a 10-minute bus-ride east to the local beaches at Pedregalejo,
which are unusual because they are divided into small u-shaped coves and are naturally very popular with families. There were plenty of restaurants too, but we just lazed around on a couple of loungers enjoying our books and the good weather, until it was time to return to Malaga for dinner and then an airport bus. We both had late-night flights that were delayed, getting home not much before sunrise - a couple of hours sleep before the working day!
Here's the final word to Nick, who initiated the trip to
celebrate his birthday:
"Melilla is worth remembering. Whenever the Spanish government huff and puff about Gibraltar, remember Melilla, which is claimed by Morocco. Whenever the EU and its member states pompously lecture the rest of the world about human rights, remember Melilla – a terrifying fortress that protects privilege by keeping out poor people, denying them the most basic human right – the right to move anywhere they like on God’s good earth."
* "Money in Morocco
: Essentially, the currency of Morocco is quite simple. A dirham is made up of 100 centimes but confusion arises with the introduction of rials. In the majority of the country, 20 rials make up a dirham. However in Tangier and the Rif, only two rials are needed to make a Dirham. The rial is more of a form of monetary expression than an actual monetary unit and this is why it has no set standard. To add to the confusion, centimes are sometimes also called francs and pesetas in certain parts of the country...."
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