The hidden beauty of Ceuta and Melilla
Ceuta and Melilla are two cities with a large history. Today, they stand as two beautiful and diverse places that are waiting to be discovered.
By: Pelayo de las Heras
In the north of Africa, the heat of the air and the colour of the sky intermingle to form a subtly exotic whole. This is where Spain encounters its most distant history, which still lives on in its own way. Ceuta and Melilla have the footprints of, among others, the Romans, Arabs, Portuguese and, of course, Spaniards. Two autonomous cities that are often overlooked by travellers. Their beauty, however, is there: hidden, like pearls in oysters, but ready to dazzle unapologetically. Both places, despite the more than 300 kilometres that separate them, have certain similarities. Mediterranean, humid, unobtrusive, diverse: both cities tell the story of the country and, in part, of the whole world.
With their modest tourist offerings, Ceuta and Melilla are the kind of getaway where sand and sun take centre stage. Here the heat melts away on the sandy beaches, whose colour always ends up turning lightly golden with the sun’s rays. Despite the obvious attraction of this option, much of the charm of Ceuta and Melilla is hidden away in their streets, where their diverse histories and cultures come together, making both cities the ideal culmination of a trip which is enjoyed, above all, with the gaze. Bit by bit, like a well-kept secret, word seemingly starts to spread: both cities were, not long ago, some of the country’s most popular international tourist destinations.
The charm of Ceuta and Melilla is hidden away in their streets, where their diverse histories and cultures come together
A perfect example of this is the city wall of Ceuta, complete with its own moat, which can now be traversed by visitors of all stripes. The wall’s style varies throughout its distinct sections: erected in completely different centuries, the mix of styles tells of the fast-paced life of the Spanish city. Also standing guard are the sculptures of the so-called House of Dragons, which once hosted the city’s African Casino.
This building straddles the oriental and the gothic, with winding mouldings and four black winged dragons perched on the roof. At night, the orangey glow of the lightbulbs makes the building, along with its dragons, into a sort of urban lighthouse.
The city of Ceuta also bears the marks of many different religions. The Cathedral of Santa María de la Asunción, with its two small towers, rises up like a mass of flawless yellow in the middle of the city. And it is not just the façade: its museum is also worth a visit, with historical pieces which date back to almost to the Middle Ages. Right in front, meanwhile, is the epicentre of the city: the Plaza de África, whose soft green colour contrasts not only with the central monument that presides over the space, but also with the other buildings that surround it. More recent is the Mediterranean Maritime Park, an architectural marvel dedicated to leisure activities, which boasts three artificial lakes. Nestled a nearby residential zone, meanwhile, are the medieval Arab Baths of Ceuta, an Oriental-style bathhouse that is open to all those who wish to explore. Ceuta reveals itself as it is: a tower of Babel where it is possible to observe the intersection of all types of influence – so much so that the four great religious communities come together in the central neighbourhood: Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Each has its own places of worship and each one, of course, has its own history, a mixture of trade and the search for liberty.
The museum of the Cathedral of Santa María de la Asunción has historical artefacts which date back to the Middle Ages
On the other hand, Melilla is a city with a spirit as special as it is unique. The autonomous city is, in fact, a kind of outdoor museum: not only does it bear the marks of different peoples – including the Arabs and Spanish, though we can also find traces of the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines – but also the different architectural styles of the modern age.
The first impressions of the city must be acquired through its original framework. What is known as Old Melilla is, in reality, its walled citadel, one of the oldest in the country. Originating in the 15th century, it is one of the few Renaissance strongholds of the Mediterranean, which is not only preserved in a perfect state, but is also now an active part of tourism in the city. Inside, it is possible to dine in restaurants with centuries-old walls. Its austere colour, emanating directly from the beige tone of the stones, clashes with the blue colour of the sea, which occasionally has an almost Caribbean tone. Visitors can also enjoy the water: the Cove of the Galápagos, a small local beach, is located at the foot of a cliff, trapped between the beauty of the rocks and part of the wall. Few would disagree in naming the place as Melilla’s most beautiful stretch of coastline. The Conventico Caves, used in the past as a warehouse and refuge, can now be explored on a guided tour and gift the port a beach with the most pristine Mediterranean appearance. The result is a city that can look at its reflection in the sea unapologetically.
Melilla is Spain’s second-largest modernist and Art Deco architectural heritage
The city of Melilla, however, stands out also for its unwavering contemporaneity. The modernist and Art Deco architecture is the brainchild of architect Enrique Nieto, a disciple of Gaudí, and extends through the city with more than 500 works. Its architectural heritage from this era is the second largest in the country, only surpassed by Barcelona. Hidden treasures are waiting to be discovered around every corner: jewels like the House of Glass, but also with Casa Tortosa, Casa El Acueducto, the Chamber of Commerce or even the Central Mosque, a true reflection of the region’s melting pot of cultures which mixes extreme modernity with tradition.