Evidently, the British Prime Minister Theresa May had not been reading the newspapers nor consulting the news sources I have been perusing over the past twelve months. The PM and her Government appeared surprised when Gibraltar’s British sovereignty was put under question days after Britain finally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty back in March (2017), marking the start of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Having read reports as long ago as last Summer that Spain may consider closing its border to Gibraltar and may even make a hostile claim to the British territory as soon as Article 50 was triggered, I decided to visit Gibraltar the week before potential war was declared there.
Whilst planning the trip, I also decided to make a maiden visit to Morocco as well, taking full advantage of how close I would be to the North African coast from Gibraltar (it’s around fifteen kilometres). I consulted the ferry paths out of Gibraltar and the neighbouring Spanish port of Algeciras, and noticed that all went to Tangier… except one. This rogue dotted line left Algeciras and went south-east to a narrow peninsula jutting out of Morocco called Ceuta (say-oo-ta). On further investigation, I was amazed to learn that this strip of the North African coast directly opposite Gibraltar was in fact not Morocco by rule or even technically Africa, but an enclave of Spain and thereby a part of Europe.
As professed in previous posts, I simply love photographing and filming my limbs across borders and frontiers (click here for an example). So, on discovering Ceuta I immediately downloaded the ferry times and booked a hotel in the territory. The chance of photographing myself with one foot in Europe and the other in Africa was a challenge well worth taking on.
Like Gibraltar, Ceuta’s sovereignty has always been contested by the country it borders. Going by the blatantly Spanish feel around the rich port area, Spain clearly has no intention in the foreseeable future of returning Ceuta back to Morocco.
Ceuta is very fond of statues and sculptures. Every roundabout – and there are a lot of them, particularly around the port area – appears to have one standing in the middle of it. These pieces are usually of a key Spanish figure related to the territory or a modern piece of work by a local Spanish artist. This prolific celebration of Ceuta’s Spanish roots no doubt contributes to Spain’s steadfast claim to the peninsula.
There may be few, if any sculptures or monuments celebrating the territory’s African and ancient Islamic roots – certainly not around the port area anyway – but not all pieces of public art on display in Ceuta have a Spanish- or Portuguese bias. Ceuta prides itself on being the location of the southern Pillar of Hercules, although there has always been dispute as to which peak in Ceuta it is. Greek mythology suggests that Hercules split the mountain range that once connected Europe and Africa together as one, creating and separating the two continents with the Strait of Gibraltar. The Rock of Gibraltar has always been celebrated as the northern half or ‘pillar’ of the split mountain. Mount Hacho, at the most easterly end of Ceuta is believed by some scholars to be the southern pillar, although Jebel Musa to the west of the territory is a grander peak by far, and more popularly believed to be the true pillar. It rises just metres from the territory’s border with Morocco so geographically is not quite in Ceuta, and more in keeping with the legend, stands in undisputed Africa.
Ceuta’s border with Morocco is around six-and-a-half kilometres long and is marked along its entire length by a continuous high razor-wired double fence that Donald Trump would be proud of. A visa is required to enter Ceuta via mainland Africa, but as this can be almost impossible for most African-based migrants and refugees to obtain, many desperate for a better life try to scale the fence to enter Europe via Ceuta illegally. As a result, the fence is constantly patrolled and heavily guarded by armed Spanish police and army soldiers. Even on the Spanish side, it is difficult to get close to the fence. I tried by the northern end of the fence along the foot of Jebel Musa in Benzú as well as by the southern end close to the only official frontier gateway along it, but to no avail. I could only get within a few hundred metres before I drew attention to myself. The Spanish guards were polite but were not persuaded even by my womanly charms.
The contrast with the rich Spanish port area two kilometres away and the area immediately around the frontier gateway is stark: conditions, housing and facilities appear poor for the largely Islamic population that live there. Rundown warehouses are squashed up against the frontier fence on the Ceuta side and one can only hope, for the sake of the workforce, that the pay and conditions inside are at least up to EU standards.
Although it is relatively easy to obtain a visa application form in Ceuta in order to cross into and back out of Morocco, I read from a number of sources that it is difficult to locate the right official at the gateway to stamp the form and legitimise the visa. According to other travel bloggers’ experiences, information and communication on how to get visas stamped are almost non-existent at the gateway, and visa touts take full advantage of the situation, often confusing and misleading tourists into parting with money – and sometimes their passports – in order to get their visas stamped and gain access across the border. Not wishing to experience such an ordeal, and admittedly not feeling terribly safe travelling alone on foot there, even on the Spanish side of the gateway, I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to straddle this European-African border after all, certainly not on this occasion anyway.
The cheapest and most regular route to Ceuta is by ferry from the port of Algeciras.
Algeciras can be reached by bus from La Linea de la Concepción station which is just a few hundred metres from the Gibraltar border, on the Spanish side. The M-120 bus leaves approximately every 45 minutes and takes around 45 minutes to reach the bus station in Algeciras. Timetables can be found on the Andalucia.com website here. Tickets can be bought from the driver and cost around €6 (2017) one way. From Algeciras bus station it is around a 10-15 minute walk to the port. Signs are sadly, few and far between but the route is straight forward down Calle San Bernardo leading to Calle Segismundo Moret and the port area.
A Spanish taxi from the Gibraltar border to Algeciras port costs around €28 (2017) but is faster and far more convenient. Tell the driver you wish to catch the ferry to Ceuta (or just point to Ceuta on a map/guidebook if the language barrier is too great) so that s/he drops you off in front of the right port terminal.
Three companies run ferries to Ceuta from Algeciras. The fare is roughly the same on all of them (around €35-60 one way depending on the craft and time of year) and the journey takes one to one-and-a-quarter hours. In total there are around fifteen crossings a day, departing approximately every one-and-a-half hours. Click here to peruse the timetables on the directferries.co.uk website, but there is absolutely no need to book in advance other than to save a few Euros. Tickets can be bought up to half an hour before departure from the counters in the terminal building, and the ferries are rarely crowded. Although the companies are in competition with each other, the ticket sellers often advise customers or put up a sign for when the next ferry is parting and which company window to go to for tickets to that ferry. Always buy tickets inside the port terminals and not from the surrounding port agents, particularly around Ceuta, who often charge a hefty commission on top.
The crafts are small but clean and comfortable with plenty of seating and toilet facilities. There is a small area on board selling canned drinks and light snacks, and an even smaller Duty Free shop. Disappointingly though, there is no access to the decks whatsoever. On top of that, the windows are coated in sea salt residue on the outside and tinted sun-screen plastic on the inside making it very difficult to take a decent sea view photo.
The area around Ceuta port is easy and pleasant to walk around. All the main sights, statues and museums can be reached on foot and are well sign-posted. Mount Hacho is not a terribly taxing hike from the port area and again is reasonably well sign-posted.
Ceuta has a small but reliable bus network covering the territory. All routes pass through Plaza de la Constitucion close to the Pillars of Hercules statue, and fares are a flat €1.40 (2017). Timetables and routes can be found on the Ceuta Transporte Urbano website here. Although it is only available in Spanish, it is fairly easy to navigate.
To see Jebel Musa up close, take bus line 5 to the end of the line at Benzù. The journey takes around half an hour along the coast offering lovely views across the Strait. There is little else to see and do in Benzù so the twenty-five minutes it takes for the return bus to appear is ample time to admire the peak and take some decent photos.
If you are curious and really want to go and see the frontier gateway, or even cross it (visa application forms are available for free on the ferry and at Ceuta’s tourist information offices), take bus line 7 to ‘Frontera’. It terminates by the gateway. As previously mentioned, the area is not the prettiest nor the friendliest place in the world (unlike the rest of Ceuta which is pleasant, friendly and charming). Unlike me, avoid walking along the frontier fence from the gateway especially if you are a woman travelling alone. Go to Benzù to catch a glimpse of the fence in more scenic surroundings.
Gibraltar & Ceuta: rocks, pillars and frontiers (a short film)