Finding myself at the base of “La Reconquista,” Melilla’s finest example of Art Nouveau architecture, I forget I’ve crossed continents from Spain into North Africa. As my eyes wander up the organic forms curving into flowers and tendrils on the pastel walls, guiding up to red-pinecone shaped turrets, I hear the animated dialogue in Tarifit, a northern Berber dialect, from the open window above me. The city of Melilla has been Spanish territory since the 15th century, but it shares a land-border with Morocco and is only 60 miles down the coast from Algeria.
This autonomous city is a Spanish exclave, which along with the city of Ceuta near Tangiers, is the only EU territory on the African Continent. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC, the city passed into Spanish hands at the end of the 1400s. Echoes of its medieval history envelop the peninsula of the old town, bordered by sea-sculpted rocks and the foaming swell of the Mediterranean. Yet further inland, Melilla’s modernist character peers back through the wrought-iron balconies and ornate flaking plasterwork.
Melilla’s position as an EU territory on the African continent means this Spanish exclave is known for its wide barbed-wire fence and its border concerns, where African immigrants will come hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to make it across onto Spanish soil, by hiding under cars and trucks or any means possible.
However, I find Melilla a unique and fascinating place to visit. Its wide boulevards, lined with orange and palm trees, are home to some of the best examples of Spanish Modernist architecture, and North Africa’s only Art Nouveau city. In 1909, Catalan architect Enric Nieto left his home in Barcelona for love and moved to this city in Spanish Morocco. Nieto moved among the great Catalan architects, studying under Domènech i Montaner and worked with Antoni Gaudí on La Pedrera.
I learn that the central district is known as the “Golden Triangle”, in which there are 148 modernist buildings by Nieto. Some are smaller residential houses, but peeking behind the traffic island made up of verdant palm trees, the salmon façade topped with a semi-circular attic window adorned with flowers that recall Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Casa Lleó Morera on Barcelona’s Illa de la Discòrdia. For a second I’m transported back into Catalonia, until an old man in a kaftan tries to sell fake watches to the businessmen at the bar next to me.
The Golden Triangle continues up to La Reconquista, an extension completed by Nieto in 1915 with intricate plasterwork and wrought-iron detail topped off with dark orange ceramic tiled turrets. The aroma of oranges wafts from the trees along the square, that intermingles with an old car puffing out benzene.
The Islamic call to prayer crackles through a megaphone and is accompanied by the ring of church bells, a reminder of Mellila’s multicultural heritage. The North African city has earned its name as the “City of Four Cultures” for its mix of Christians, Muslims, Jews and even Hindus, the latter of whom came in the 19th century to set up trade. Nieto’s modernism also united the religions in their own way, with modernist churches popping up along side Nieto’s Mosque on Calle García Carelles and the Or Zoruah Synagogue on Calle Lopéz Moreno.
Nieto’s style influenced other architects and Melilla’s art nouveau evolved to capture this melting pot in the city, and I can see Arabic motifs in the Casa de los Cristales merged with modernist style.
Geographically North Africa, officially Spain, there is a duality that exists in the city. In the house down the road from the Casa de los Cristales, the smell of fried fish tempts me into a bar, where locals gather round drinking beer piped out of curved chrome taps accompanied by a regional interpretation of tapas, like the paella set down in front of me spiced with Moroccan ras-el-hanout.
Melilla is a city that captures multiple identities, becoming a place that’s both North African and European at the same time. There is one thread that unites the city and it’s the work of Nieto’s branch of modernism. Frequently left out of Spanish guidebooks, and left as an after thought in Moroccan ones, Melilla is a transcontinental hub of cultures and unique architecture.
Photo credit: Jennifer Walker