Situated on the north coast of Africa, Ceuta is probably a city anonymous to many travellers and especially unknown as one’s of Africa’s Spanish enclaves. Unearth Ceuta’s secrets with me…
Wanting a little respite from Morocco’s badgering touts, we decided Ceuta would be the next stop, after the stay in the stunning city of Chefchaouen.
Although still in Africa and on the Moroccan coast, once you arrive in Ceuta, you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed in the middle of Europe somewhere.
Everything is so very different to Morocco.
From Chefchaouen, a collective taxi rammed with six of us travellers, made the two-hour journey to the Moroccan-Spain border.
Known as the Ceuta Border Fence, this runs for just over 8 kilometres, following along Ceuta’s territory.
What you can expect at the border
Not knowing very much about Ceuta before today or what to expect, arriving at this border fence can be a confrontational experience.
Topped with nasty barbed wire, the imposing 6-metre high wire fence was built back in the early 1990s. Designed to stop smuggling and illegal immigration, the fence has seen many breaches resulting in continual improvements.
Since its inception, the fence has been upgraded with regular watch posts, video cameras, spotlights, noise and movement sensors, and with hundreds of patrolling police officers and Guardia Civil officers. Patrol boats and Guard ships also control Ceuta’s coastline.
Arriving at the fence with hundreds of other North Africans, the flood of people walking to and from the two countries within this caged path, under the sweltering African sun, is enormous.
Whether this short five-hundred metre strip of fence line is used to carry goods or for going to and from work, you cannot underestimate its daily human movement.
Walking along this path is quite an unusual experience. It almost feels like a mass exodus from Morocco, which it isn’t.
Laden with over 30kgs of luggage on my back and not feeling the urge to pull out my bulky camera, I was unable to take my own photos whilst traversing the fence. Apologies in advance for the two internet photos, but I want to give you an idea of what to expect.
The photo on the right was taken by Xemenendura and shows how the fence lacerates the picturesque African landscape.
After crossing the border on foot into Ceuta and clearing immigration, catch the local bus that takes you along Av. Martinez Cartena and into the busy city centre.
A world far-removed from the border and Morocco.
Ceuta’s tumultuous story
Situated at the very north of Africa, you can almost smell Gibraltar from Ceuta beyond the mere 28-kilometre stretch, across the Straits of Gibraltar – it really is that close.
Although Ceuta shares a land border with Morocco’s 6.4-kilometre M’diq-Fnideq Prefecture, this fortified city is one of nine Spanish territories in Africa; and lays on a narrow collar connecting Mount Hacho to the mainland. The Spanish military use the fort on the summit of Mount Hacho.
Named Abyla by the Carthaginians back in the 5th century BC, many cultures saw Ceuta as a strategic military and trading vantage. And so, over the centuries, Ceuta changed hands countless times under occupation of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Portuguese, Arabs, and the Spanish.
Since the Spanish seized control in 1580, Ceuta has remained a sovereignty of Spain, although the Moors gained control for a short period during 1694 to 1720. All of which have left an imprinted legacy on fabulous architecture, various religions and spoken languages, with characteristics also merged into the varying cuisines.
Ceuta feels as if someone has come along and plucked up a small chunk of Spain and dropped it onto the tip of this vast continent, just as you would in a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle interlocks nicely when you work out how it fits.
What’s there to see in Ceuta?
For such a small piece of African turf, there really is a considerable amount to see with a profusion of beautiful architecture to visit and of course, everything is within an easy-reach walk in Ceuta.
Surrounded by ten forts, built during differing centuries, these sites alone will keep you busy enough.
Something noticeable about this lively high street and main pedestrian, is the many mothers promenading with prams, up and down the cobblestones as if parading on a Paris catwalk. In thigh-high leather boots and flowing white Pirates of the Caribbean shirts complete with draped vest, the fashion show of the day continues. Quite theatrical and amusing to observe.
Always the people-watcher.
This street offers numerous high-end designer clothes stores and expensive jewellers. Restaurants, tapas bars, and cafés also vie for a spot on this busy thoroughfare. Stop for refreshments after your exhausting shopping day.
Previous to the city’s capture by the Portuguese, Ceuta endured many decades of instability, including competing interests from varying royal factions, and many attacks on the city.
Originally built in 962 with parts of the wall added to in the 18th century, the magnificently majestic Royal Walls are a testament to Ceuta’s turbulent history.
Although Ceuta had some fortification in the 5th century, after its capture by the Portuguese in 1415, the Royal Walls were built to include a drawbridge, bastions, and a navigable moat.
Now a Spanish Heritage site, you can easily spend a couple of days photographing and admiring this incredible medieval piece of engineering and craftsmanship.
Plaza de Armas within the Royal Walls
Once inside the walls, Plaza de Armas awaits and sees locals relaxing amongst this peaceful and pleasant space.
Castillo and Fuerte del Desnarigado
A very long walk from the city centre if you take the wrong way. The fort and castle of Desnarigado are worth braving the sizzling heat. A museum awaits’ within the castle.
Apart from the stunning Mediterranean azures along this little trek, as you ascend the hills, the vistas are gorgeous.
Military bunkers still adorn the coastal landscape although you can’t really get close to these buildings.
Fortaleza de Hacho
Further up the hill on your walk and at around 669 metres high, you stumble upon the imposing Fortaleza de Hacho, now occupied by the Spanish army.
Although first built by the Byzantines, the Arabs, Portuguese, and Spanish have all added to this fortification.
Of course, I just can’t help myself and always have to take photos. Although on this occasion, this military guard ‘ordered’ me to stop taking photos, before I could get a good shot of the fort’s entrance.
Other sites of interest
If you have time and feel like visiting museums, then wander to the underground Museo de la Basilica Tardorromana or the Museo de la Legión for a taste of history. Or, cool down in the creative waterpark Parque Marítimo del Mediterráneo, designed by the artist and architect César Manrique.
Not open to the public, the eclectic 19th-century Casa de los Dragones on Plaza de los Reyes, includes Moorish arches and is a surreal piece of architecture, crested with four massive dark dragons.
Manicured tropical gardens, alluring architecture, and cobblestone streets sees medieval Plaza de Africa as the heart of the city. The Cathedral, Town Hall, Military Command, and the Church of Africa make up this appealing space.
A taste of Ceuta
Where the icy and rough Atlantic Ocean merges with the calm and sandy Mediterranean Sea lapping the shores of Ceuta, an abundance of delicious and varying seafood abounds.
If you are partial to mouth-watering and exquisitely-cooked squid or octopus as I am, then ensure to indulge whilst visiting Ceuta.
Although belonging to Portugal during the 15th-16th centuries for around two-hundred and fifty years, Spanish and Moroccan influences propels Ceuta’s cuisine to use a plethora of colours and spices, for a gastronomic experience. Of course, you can also taste many types of Tapas in the city.
Why not consider eating your way around this city if you are staying for any length of time?
Not surprisingly, compared with Morocco, accommodation is more expensive in Ceuta.
Although the staff in the Hostal Central are friendly, the room is compact and bijou – a tad expensive for the type of accommodation, which does not include breakfast.
Perhaps a three-star hostel is better?
The local non-CTM bus drives along the scenic N16 route from Ceuta to Tangier for a couple of hours. If you don’t like taking buses, a Grand Taxi is also easy, although bargaining the price can be difficult.
The sketchy plan is a night in Tangier before taking the 5-hour train to Casablanca for the onward flight to Buenos Aires, and the start of an exciting new adventure chapter on a different continent: South America.