Magazine article The Spectator

The Bliss of a Little Bit of Africa That Has Been Part of Spain since 1497

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bliss of a Little Bit of Africa That Has Been Part of Spain since 1497

Article excerpt

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. …

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