Smugglers' paradise in a rocky gateway to the Third World

MELILLA DAYS

My Spanish friend Antonia and I drove from Europe to Africa the other day and were back by lunchtime. Melilla, Spain's possession in Morocco that is about the size of Richmond Park, is a casual European-Union gateway into the Third World.

The last trench in the ancient Iberian stand-off between Moors and Christians, Melilla has been Spanish since 1497, when the conquistador Don Pedro de Estopinan and 500 men seized the rocky outcrop, built a huge fortress and then extended the city boundaries to the range of a cannon-shot.

As the Moors had been expelled from the peninsula only five years earlier, Spain established a string of fortresses along the Moroccan coast to ensure it would never again be invaded from the south. Six Spanish specks remain, but Melilla and Ceuta are the only ones anyone has heard of.

It may be a Spanish city flying the starred blue flag of Europe, but when you arrive on the domestic flight from Madrid lands at Melilla airport, it is the baked earth of Africa that assails your nostrils.

Antonia and I jumped into her car and bowled along handsome Art Deco boulevards - laid out with palm trees in the early 1900s by the Catalan, Enrique Nieto, a disciple of Gaudi - to the border town of Beni-Enzar ("son of a Christian"). The journey took 10 minutes, during which the torpor of a blistering morning gave way to the hectic bustle of traders on the move.

Men, women in gigantic flowing jellabahs and children walked purposefully, laden with enormous burdens. A mule, its eyes protected from the desert sun by folded cardboard popped over its ears, pulled a trap, creaking under the weight of a refrigerator. Similar burdens wobbled on bicycles and on backs that were bent double.

Moroccans lined up outside shops along the frontier road, buying clothes, crates of soft drinks, biscuits, kitchenware and nappies. "All these goods come by boat from mainland Spain, but only about 20 per cent stay in Melilla," Antonia said. "That French company that makes cheap glassware sells more to Melilla than to Madrid and Barcelona put together. Only 65,000 people live here, but the whole of Africa is the market.

"Contraband," she adds."

At the border, fearsome spiked-metal platforms lie ready to be dragged across the path of any transgressing vehicle, but human traffic passes without hindrance. Moroccans from the surrounding Rif area, the country's poorest, can come and go freely so long as they are home by evening.

There are frowns at the unexpected appearance of a northern European, but Antonia speaks through a slit in the wooden border post to an official who is invisible behind a dusty window. "I know him," she explains. She takes my passport and returns within minutes, bearing two flimsy forms - exit and re-entry visas - fluttering in her fingers.

Once across, I am transfixed by the squat, pastel-washed houses that dot Morocco's parched hills. But Antonia spots something else. "Look, the Guguru is on fire." Flames rip the mountain top ahead of us. "This happened last year and the Moroccan authorities called on Melillan firefighters and police for help, because they don't have enough water. The smugglers had a wonderful night with no one watching the border."

A mile on, police check the taxis for contraband. But the passengers with their burdens have already disembarked. The empty taxis drive on and wait for their passengers to rejoin them.

At Nador, we plunged into the souk, through alleyways of up-ended sheep's heads, windpipe and horns that curled up to meet us, past conical heaps of spices, fruit and vegetables arranged geometrically, carrot by carrot, fig by fig, to what Antonia called "El Corte Ingles", after Spain's biggest store.

In the stalls of jeans, trainers, women's suits and men's shirts, the labels said "Made in Spain" and the prices were knockdown. If I inadvertently jostled someone, they apologised profusely in fractured German. We couldn't enter a cafe, of course, so took a cola and a dish of mint-and-almond pastries at the five-star hotel.

The road back north runs alongside the abandoned "ore railway" that used to bring iron from the Rif to Melilla's portside. We stopped at the beach, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Gypsies lolled and strolled together.

The picture of racial harmony was jarred only by the burnt remnants of a union flag, testimony to Spanish disappointment over a Wembley football match the day before.

Finally we stepped into the cool Spanish home of Antonia's mother for lunch. She had prepared her speciality: couscous, followed by mint tea.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice