Mellila - Hidden Gem (Video)

Melilla is a Spanish city on the northern coast of Africa and 180 km southeast of Malaga and its population is about 70,000.

Melilla is a hidden gem and is for tourists who want to explore places off the beaten track that have not been spoiled by mass tourism. There seems to be little tourism in the city and there is not a single tourist store. This is an unexpected treasure trove of Modernist buildings, which are very beautiful. It is wonderful to see people of different faiths get along splendidly without any tensions and this is a role model for the Middle East and other places in the world where people do not get along with each other. The people are very friendly in Melilla and it seems to be a very safe place. The Spanish military presence is very large here because this is the frontier of Spain and in the past there have been hostilities provoked by outsiders. The best thing to do is to take an architectural walk in the Golden Triangle and admire the beautiful buildings.

One can go to Melilla from Malaga by air (Iberia and Air Europa) or one can take the ferry (Trasmediterranea). The ferry is a fast catamaran ship from the Transmediterranea company in Malaga, and this takes 4 hours and a one way fare costs about 55 euros. The catamaran is very modern and can handle 880 passengers. It has big picture windows and very comfortable seating that is not crowded at all. There is a cafeteria in the middle with a skylight and a duty free store that sells perfumes, liquor, and food, such as chocolates. The ship shows two movies to keep people entertained.

One can spend two nights at the Hotel Melilla Puerto, which is the best hotel in the city, and the only 4 star hotel. It is fairly new, with big bedrooms and bathrooms, and good food. It is located by the port, by the beach, and is a ten minute walk to downtown.


Melilla was founded by the Phoenicians with the name of Rusadir. After the Punic wars, the Romans occupied the city. They were followed by the Vandals, the Byzantines, Visigoths, and then the Arabs. In 1497 the city was conquered by Pedro de Estopiñan Virues, who worked for the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Juan Alonso Perez de Guzman (known as Guzman el Bueno). The fortress of Melilla was improved and remodeled many times since the Arabs. All the new technology of fortresses were incorporated during the remodeling. The fortress became famous for being able to resist sieges. There was a siege in 1774 where 3000 defenders in the city were able to resist the siege of 40,000 men of the Sultan Muley Abdalah. The Arabs outside the city are Rif Berbers and there has always been trouble with them. In 1862 the city limits were defined by how far a cannon ball could travel when shot from the cannon called El Caminante. The Spanish were smart and put the cannon at the highest point of the fortress before firing it. The resultant limit was recognized by Morocco at that time. Melilla la Vieja is the name of the fortress and its surrounding area. This was named an Artistic/Historic Site in 1953.

Melilla has a current problem of illegal immigration because thousands of Africans try to reach Europe by trying to scale a fence around the city, which is protected by the army. The Spanish army has a large contingent stationed in the city because this city is considered the frontier of Spain. The city was Spanish since 1497, long before the surrounding area became part of Morocco or before the state of Morocco was created. Spain has rejected all demands from Morocco to acquire it.

Melilla is famous for being a city where four cultures get along very well. Besides the Christians, there are Muslims, Jews, and Hindus who live in the city peacefully. When walking in the city, one can see people who are mixtures of these races and everyone enjoys the festivals of each ethnic community.

Modernism in Melilla

Melilla is the city that has the most Modernist buildings, after Barcelona. Most people do not know this. Enrique Nieto was a Catalan architect from Barcelona who worked with Gaudi on Casa Mila. He was the disciple of the other famous architect Josep Domenech i Montaner. Nieto arrived in Melilla in 1909. At that time the city was expanding and there was a new section which is downtown and called the Golden Triangle, because of the layout of the streets in the area. Nieto was very prolific and single handedly designed and constructed 457 buildings in the city! He became the city architect and worked until 1949. He died 5 years later in 1954 and today there is a bronze statue of him created by Mustafa Arruf on the Avenida Juan Carlos I, the main downtown street.

Modernism in Melilla is defined as the buildings constructed from the end of the 19th century to about 1935. They have several different styles, including classic architecture, Art Nouveau, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Arab, Art Deco, and Sgraffito. Nieto was a master of all of them. All of the buildings that he constructed are elegant. Many of his Art Nouveau buildings are characterized by flowers, garlands, and the faces of women. His buildings are easily recognized. Among his famous buildings are the Palacio Municipal (1948) in Art Deco style, the Jewish Synagogue (1924), the Mezquita (1945), the Antiguo Economato Militar (1914), Casa de la Reconquista (1915) and No. 1 of Avenida Juan Carlos I (1916), probably the most beautiful building in Melilla. Nieto really left his mark on the city.

The Fortress

The fortress is known to have been impregnable and is made up of four walled enclosures, and three of these are in good condition. The fortress has moats, towers, and bastions. It contains the history of fortification because one can see Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassic styles. Every major improvement in fortification in Europe influenced the remodeling of the fortress to make it impregnable.

There are many interesting places to visit in the fortress. The La Purisima Conception Church is within the walls and was built in the 17th century. There are three naves and a beautiful main altarpiece, which is gilded. There is an arcade of Tuscan columns that separates each nave. The Conventico Caves are located under a convent and were excavated from the rock. During many sieges the population of the city took refuge in these caves. There is a very large cistern, which has a filter. When there was rain, the water was collected and channeled to the cistern and its filter. These can be seen by visitors. The Puerta de Santiago is one of the main gates to the fortress and inside it is the small Gothic chapel, the Santiago Chapel, which is the only Gothic religious architecture in Africa. The Puerta de Santa Ana is another gate, which has the coat of arms of King Carlos V beside it.

Plaza de España

The Plaza de España is a round plaza in front of the Palacio Municipal. There are three concentric circles and the inner circle contains the monument of Heroes of the Campaigns in Morocco. This is an Art Deco monument that was done by the architect Juan Lopez Merino in 1930. There are fountains at the base of the monument. The Plaza de España is connected to the main downtown street, Avenida Juan Carlos I. This plaza was designed in 1913 by Jose de la Gandara.

Parque Hernandez

Parque Hernandez is a big park located downtown and adjacent to the Plaza de España. This park has three long walkways, each with a large number of palm trees on its borders. The park is a pleasant place to visit. This park was designed by Jose de la Gandara in 1913.

Sacred Heart Church

The Sacred Heart Church is located downtown beside the Plaza Menendez Pelayo and was designed by the Malaga architect Fernando Guerrero Strachan in 1918. It has a modern Neo-Romanesque design and the facade has an impressive bell tower. There is a beautiful big mural in the vault above the main altar.

The Mezquita

The Mezquita was built by Enrique Nieto in 1945 and has a beautiful Neo-Arab design. It is called the Mezquita del Poligono, the Poligono being the name of the barrio beside downtown, where the structure is located. The Mezquita is also called Or Zoruah or Yamin Benarroch. Its exterior facade is striking and well preserved.

Monument to Pedro de Estopiñan

In the Melilla Fortress, there is a statue of Pedro de Estopiñan Virues. In 1497 the city was conquered by him on the orders of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, Juan Alonso Perez de Guzman (known as Guzman el Bueno).

Monument of "Encuentros"

In 1997 the sculptor Mustafa Arruf unveiled the gigantic modernistic sculpture called "Encuentros" by the paseo maritimo and across from the Hotel Melilla Puerto. It means the union of two cultures, two continents, and two persons. The year 1997 was the 500th anniversary of the city of Melilla. Mustafa Arruf is acknowledged to be the best sculptor of Melilla.

Monument to Enrique Nieto

Enrique Nieto is considered to be the father of Modernism in Melilla. In 2009, for the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Enrique Nieto to Melilla, the sculptor Mustafa Arruf unveiled a life size bronze statue of the architect on the Avenida Juan Carlos I, on the sidewalk. The statue is looking across at the building with No. 1, considered to be his most beautiful building.

Plaza Menendez Pelayo

The Plaza Menendez Pelayo is a small plaza adjacent to the main street, Avenida Juan Carlos I. It has a monument to Cervantes and the life size statues in bronze show Cervantes seating down and writing, while behind him is Don Quixote. Juan Carlos Martinez was the sculptor of the work. The plaza has many columns that are very modernistic and are in tile with different colors. They hold up an arbor. Beside the plaza is the Sacred Heart Church.

Palacio Municipal

The Palacio Municipal is a government building built in 1948 by Enrique Nieto. It holds the government offices of the autonomous City of Melilla. Inside the impressive lobby are two stairways going to the upstairs floor and there are stained glass windows on the landings. One landing has a suit of armor. The lobby has a very good bronze statue of King Juan Carlos when he was young.

La Purisima Conception Church

La Purisima Conception is located in the fortress and dates from the 17th century. There are three naves and a beautiful main altarpiece, which is gilded. There is an arcade of Tuscan columns that separates each nave.