The Last Pieces of Empire

Some of the most fascinating places in northern Morocco are not Moroccan at all, but Spanish. When Spain recognised Moroccan independence in 1956, it retained a collection of historical oddities that had predated the Spanish protectorate. Known by the euphemism plazas de soberanía (places of sovereignty), they have a population of 145,000, and are divided into two groups.

The plazas mayores (greater places), Ceuta and Melilla, contain virtually all the people. Politically these are ‘autonomous cities’, with governmental powers placing them somewhere between a city and a region of Spain.

The plazas menores (lesser places) are inhabited by a handful of Spanish legionnaires, if that. These include three islands in the Bay of Al Hoceima: Isla de Mar, Isla de Tierra (both deserted, apart from Spanish flags) and El Peñón de Alhucemas, a striking white fortress that's home to some 60 soldiers. El Peñón de Velez de la Gomera, at the end of a long canyon in the Al Hoceima National Park, is another ancient rock fortress, connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of sand – and a guardhouse, one of the oddest national borders you’ll ever see. The Islas Chafarinas, 3km from Ras El Mar, have three small islands: Isla del Congreso, Isla del Rey and Isla Isabel II, the last with a garrison of 190 troops. Spain also owns the tiny Isla Perejil, near Ceuta, which was the cause of one of the world’s smallest conflicts, when Spanish troops evicted a handful of Moroccan soldiers in 2002; and the Isla de Alborán, about 75km north of Melilla, which has a small navy garrison.

While the two fortress peñónes (rocky outcrops) are must-sees, none of the plazas menores can be entered, as they are military sites. Morocco claims them all, making their defence necessary even though their strategic importance is limited.

Recent history has been focused on problems with Spain over immigration and political sovereignty. In 2006 youths set fire to several mosques in Ceuta after a number of local Muslims were arrested on the Spanish mainland in connection with the Madrid bombings. In 2007 the king of Spain visited the city for the first time in 80 years, sparking protests from the Moroccan government. So far none of this has closed a single tapas bar. In late 2010 Moroccan youths rioted in both Ceuta and Melilla over sovereignty of the cities, sparked by a lack of jobs. Tensions continue to simmer.