Spanish-occupied MELILLA (Mlilya) is a friendly little place, with a pride in its mix of cultures and an interesting selection of early twentieth-century modernist architecture. Pleasures are to be found, too, in an exploration of the walled old town, Medina Sidonia, with its stunning views out across the Mediterranean. It’s a popular weekend destination for those living in Morocco, and if you’re here in August, there’s the marvellous, if misleadingly titled Semana Naútica, when the port fills with sailing boats from mainland Spain and further afield for a fortnight (semana means one week) of maritime extravaganzas and regattas.
Melilla centres on Plaza de España, overlooking the port, and Avenida Juan Carlos I Rey, leading inland off it. This is the most animated part of town, especially during the evening paseo, when everyone promenades up and down, or strolls through the neighbouring Parque Hernandez. To the northeast, Medina Sidonia rises up from a promontory, to watch over the town centre and marina.
Together with Ceuta, Melilla is the last of Spain’s Moroccan enclaves – a former penal colony that saw its most prosperous days under the Protectorate until 1956, when it was the main port for the Riffian mining industry. Between1956 and 2000, the city’s population halved to a little over 65,000, split roughly two to one between Christians and Muslims (mostly Berber), along with minor populations of Jews and Indian Hindus. Since 2000, however, immigration from the European mainland has risen, due largely to attractive tax laws and the city’s duty-free status. The enclave’s various religious and ethnic communities get along reasonably well, despite an episode of rioting in 1986, after the enactment of Spain’s first real “Aliens Law” threatened to deprive certain Muslim families of their residence rights. There were further riots in 1996, when four hundred Spanish Foreign Legionnaires, a tough bunch posted here by the Madrid authorities out of harm’s way, went on the rampage after one of their number had been killed in a bar brawl.
Along with Ceuta, Melilla achieved autonomous status in 1995 after years of shilly shallying on the issue by Madrid for fear of offending Morocco. The enclave is still staunchly Spanish, however, highlighted by a 2007 visit by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia – the first royal visit in 80 years – seen by some to be almost an act of defiance towards persistent Moroccan calls for re-integration.