48 hours in Melilla

Looking out to sea from the heavily fortified old town.
Looking out to sea from the heavily fortified old town. / Ash Bolton
  • Two old schoolfriends jump on their motorbikes to soak up the sights, aromas and sounds of this Spanish enclave on the North African coast

It was around 5.30am when we roared nonchalantly into Melilla on two wheels after spending eight hours on the overnight ferry from Malaga.

The port was eerily empty of people, somewhat chilly for the summer, and, we had no idea where our hotel was - but most importantly, we had arrived.

And who was the first person to greet us as we emerged blurry eyed into the heavily fortified military town? That's right, it was none other than General Francisco Franco himself - or to be more specific, the last remaining statue in Spain of the former dictator, who stands solemnly at the entrance to the port greeting weary travellers and the occasional Brit with a penchant for exploring Spanish enclaves. And thus began our whistle-stop-tour of this captivating little corner of Spain that finds itself with one foot in Europe and one foot in Africa.

Melilla had been on my bucket list for a while, especially after an enjoyable visit to its sister city, Ceuta, two years ago. However, I couldn't find many travel articles about Melilla - so I was curious about what I would find here.

My only knowledge of the border town up to this point, was that scores of illegal migrants regularly try to jump over the border fence in order to make it to Europe.

La Vieja

I absolutely love a good old town, so for me, the best part of Melilla was its historic centre, or La Vieja. And what an old town!

Essentially this is a heavily fortified village built upon a rock that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea, linked to the mainland by a spit.

Divided into four precincts, we literally spent an entire day meandering around the narrow, historic streets, visiting museums and marvelling at the impressive defensive walls. This is, for me, hands-down the most beautiful part of Melilla.

There is a stunning beach that's almost hidden in the old town, called Ensenada de los Galápagos (Galapagos Cove), where you can soak up the sun and dip into the warm waters. You can find it by taking a tunnel under Melilla's fortress, which adds to its mysteriousness.

The last remaining statue ofFrancisco Franco in Spain.

The last remaining statue ofFrancisco Franco in Spain. / A. B.

We also spent an hour on a free tour of the Cuevas del Conventico (Convent Caves). The caves were first excavated by the Phoenicians and were enlarged over the centuries by the various cultures that settled here. The tour is only in Spanish, but even if you only speak English, it's still worth doing as there is plenty to see.

The caves lead to a cliff face, where you can walk down some narrow stairs to a secret little beach, which otherwise is only accessible by boat.

This was one of the highlights of the weekend for us, but we almost missed it as it's not well advertised, so make sure you get the times and location from the tourist office and announce yourself in a dramatic fashion at the door.

A lot of local residents still live in the old town and there is a great little bar in Plaza de Armas, where we enjoyed several cold bottles of Alhambra Reserva 1925 while people-watching.

Outside the old town, the Plaza de España is an imposing landmark, as is the leafy Hernández park, where a street market was in full swing when we walked through on Saturday afternoon.


We circumnavigated the town on motorbikes, which allowed us to get off the beaten tourist track. Thus we got a good look at the seemingly impenetrable fence that runs for 11 kilometres along the border with Morocco, which some might recognise from the Spanish news.

We peered through the fence and could see people going about their daily business just metres away at times. This really brought home the reality that Melilla is not your average Spanish city.

What also took me by surprise was the large amount of military bases on the outskirts of this frontier town - they were everywhere.

Plaza de España, in the centre of Melilla.

Plaza de España, in the centre of Melilla. / A. Bolton

Even in the centre as we had our morning coffee, a large armoured vehicle thundered past, causing us to raise our eye brows at each other in mutual surprise.

Picture-postcard beautiful

It's fair to say that the centre of Melilla is picture-postcard beautiful, but the outskirts were a bit run-down in places.

We were advised by friendly locals and off-duty military officers to avoid certain neighbourhoods at night, just in case.

The tourism sector doesn't seem to be booming in Melilla. There were clearly a few Spanish tourists visiting but international visitors were conspicuous by their absence. What's more, as an avid postcard collector, I couldn't find one for sale!

As for the locals, they were disarmingly friendly and were curious as to why we were visiting Melilla.

On our first day we had a well lubricated tapas crawl, made all the better for the locals who joined us. On their recommendation we ended up in La Pergola in the port, which was bustling with people well into the early hours of the morning.

Where to eat

We also followed our noses to a cracking tapas bar one lunchtime called El Rincón - Casa Sadia. As is typical with good restaurants, we had to wait about 30 minutes at the bar supping cold beer - it really is a hard life - such was the queue to get in. Once seated we feasted on a menu boasting both Spanish and Moroccan cuisine. We hoovered up lamb pinchos cooked on an outdoor barbecue (that's the aroma that led us here), a lamb tajine, snails and some 'croquetas de jamón'.

Another restaurant I would return to was La Traviata. Smack bang in the centre, this cosy little eatery served both tapas and what I like to call "table and candlestick" meals, and is the kind of place to make a good impression with a hot date.

I devoured a steak with a small mountain of rock salt and home-cut chips. A steady stream of well-heeled customers entered while we ate; it was definitely the place to be seen in Melilla.

Moroccan influence

Although Melilla is staunchly Spanish, there were hints of Moroccan culture everywhere. Plenty of locals were dressed in typical Moroccan dress and were just as likely to be seen drinking mint tea as a café con leche. What's more, not every bar sold alcohol. In fact, one afternoon we spent a panic-stricken hour trying to find a bar that sold beer - something unheard of in mainland Spain.

Melilla embraces its dual identity and I was surprised to learn that the population is nearly equally divided between Spanish Catholic and Berber Muslim. In addition, it is a popular weekend destination for those living in Morocco - giving it a multicultural charm.

Melilla is charming frontier town that's ideal for a long weekend getaway. The accommodation is competitively priced. It's got plenty of lip-smacking tapas bars, warm people and although Spanish by name, there is definitely a Moroccan vibe going on, which makes it all the more alluring.