You’ve had Modernist architecture, tapas restaurants, and a Romance language filled with rolling R’s on your mind. But you’ve also been thinking about the Berbers, Phoenician history, and the massive continent across the Alboran Sea. Spain or Africa? Africa or Spain? You just can’t decide.
If you go to Melilla, you don’t have to. The Spanish city sits on the north coast of Africa. It’s one of two autonomous cities—the other being Ceuta—that has been inhabited by Spain for more than 500 years. Morocco, which lines all of the city’s land borders, still claims that their land is being occupied. But the city certainly feels Spanish.
As the ferry approaches the city, you see Melilla la Vieja, the original fortress, towering over the water. The 16th-century fort, which has undergone extensive renovations, is home to an archaeological museum, a military museum, and the Church of the Conception. Underground caves and tunnels, first used by the Phoenicians, acted as a refuge during sieges. They empty onto a small beach below the cliffs.
After your first glimpse of the historic fortress, the rest of the city comes as quite a surprise. Parque Hernández, the heart of the city, is lined with palm trees and faces a bull ring. It ends at Plaza de España, which is anchored by a traditional fountain and a new courthouse that looks like a UFO. Modernist buildings—only Barcelona has more of them—Art Nouveau buildings, and Africa’s only true Gothic-style church spread out from there.
You cover the 4.7-square-mile city fairly quickly. You visit the museums. You peek in the churches. You watch the fishing boats bob in the harbor. You see the border fence, which is supposed to prevent entry into the European Union. You walk along a golden-sand beach. You hear Tarifit, the dialect of Riffian Berbers, just as frequently as you hear Spanish. While the seafood dishes at a waterfront restaurant incorporate spices you haven’t encountered on your previous trips to Spain.
Melilla may be Spanish with a little taste of Africa. Or it may be Moroccan with a heavy dose of Europe. Either way, it’s just right.