The Mole Diaries: Melilla (Volume 3)
Whether Melilla was your first choice year abroad destination, or whether (like me) you're being sent there absolutely against your will, spending several months in this wonderfully unique and surprisingly beautiful city on the north coast of Africa is a sure-fire way to make your year abroad unforgettable for all the right reasons. Your experiences will be once in a lifetime, your memories will be priceless, and your friends and family WILL be jealous.
To Melilla - via everywhere else!
Melilla is tricky and expensive to get to. This is unavoidable, so book early! If you're flying from London your best options are to use a budget airline to fly to Madrid or Malaga and then catch the (ludicrously overpriced) connection flight to Melilla. Taxis are waiting in the rank to take you to your accommodation. If you do get stuck call a taxi on +34952673624.
Another option for the thrifty (and brave) traveller is to drive to Brussels and then get a flight to Nador in Morocco and cross the border back into Morocco. I did this when I first arrived to save money. I survived it, but I would not recommend it.
No Google Street View?!
If you've researched Melilla online you'll know that there is very little information about this "autonomous enclave", and what is written doesn't exactly sell the place to the curious tourist. Unfortunately this lack of information continues once you arrive; festivals and celebrations are rarely advertised. You're more likely to just walk out of your flat and get swept up in a carnival style parade. You don't know what it's celebrating or why, but it's happening now, so enjoy it!
Melilla's extraordinary lack of online presence means two things are paramount to enjoy your stay: befriend locals and go exploring (neither of which are a bad thing on your year abroad!) This way you'll discover the hidden gems Melilla has to offer.
Homeless in Melilla?
Don't worry too much about finding accommodation before you go. Hotel Anfora often houses students for a few months, and offers a student "bundle", so this could be a useful option whilst you flat hunt.
Once there, look out for adverts advertising spare rooms, and ask around. It's worth looking online for blogs of other assistants to see how they found their accommodation, and always ask your colleagues at the school. They might even have a spare room, as this is how I found my flat.
Lonely in Melilla? Never.
The people of Melilla are friendly, welcoming, and adore British people. Once you've found your favourite café or autoservicio (corner shop) the staff are your friends for life. The teachers at my school were also incredibly welcoming, and invited me round for lunch and out for walks and really made me feel at home. However, there is also a small but tight community of Anglophones, who work at the British Centre, an English language school. They can help make Melilla feel a bit more like home.
The main shopping street in Melilla is Av. Juan Carlos I, just off the Plaza de España and next to the gorgeous Parque Hernandez. Here you can find brands like Zara, Sfera, Stradavarius etc. As for food, there are markets in most neighbourhoods offering cheap fruit and veg, open six mornings a week, and supermarkets can be found on the Paseo Maritimo (Supersol) and calle General Polvavieja (bigger Supsersol). Look out for autoservicios, corner shops found on most streets that stock all the essentials.
Note: Opening times are usually 10am-2pm, 5pm-8pm.You'll learn to love the siesta. Honestly.
Beside the Seaside...
Melilla has a beautiful beach, framed by the palm-lined promenade, and a strip of cafés, bars, and ice cream huts, as well as an amazing beach bar, that is open during the summer (Soul Beach - the best cocktails). In the hotter months you occasionally see the dreaded medusas (jellyfish) but they're bright blue so you can easily spot them in the crystal clear water. The paseo is a beautiful spot for running so bring your trainers!
Locals love their cars and look at you in a mix of horror and pity if you walk anywhere. Despite this, everywhere in Melilla is within walking distance, and I never used public transport. However there are buses that go all over the city, and taxis are very cheap and run on a meter. No need to book in advance, just call them when you're ready. They'll be at your door in about 8 seconds.
The port. Nightlife in Melilla is all about Friday and Saturday nights at the port. When in Melilla, forget everything you thought you knew about night out procedure. People will turn up for predrinks at around 12:30-1am, drinking in the flat until about 3am, then heading to the port to enjoy the bars and Melilla's most popular club 'Manhattan', until 7-8am. Then take a stroll along the beach at sunrise, and have breakfast at a cafe on the promenade. Then home to sleep away your Sunday.
Alternatively, the tapas bars stay open into the early hours if you prefer to just have a few drinks with friends, and don't forget your free tapas with every drink! (Seriously. Tapas. With EVERY DRINK.)
Note: Do watch out for pickpockets in Melilla, especially at the port where they work in groups. Try to leave valuables at home - I learned the hard way...
Morocco's Influence and the border:
The city has a real mix of cultures, the two most evident being the Spaniards and the Moroccans. Although in school I did have to deal with a few minor incidents of racism among the children, for the most part the two cultures live happily alongside one another without conflict.
I do recommend a visit to Morocco, and though the neighbouring town of Beni Ensar has nothing to offer, a 6 hour train journey can take you to Fes which is worth the journey, and certainly worth the €20ish ticket. Nador is only a 20 minute taxi from Beni Ensar, but there's not much to see, so if you want to see the maze of medinas, go to Fes.
Immigration and The Famous Fence:
Now with practicalities out of the way, it's the part everyone's heard about; la frontera.
Research Melilla's border problems before you go; there's been a lot in the news recently and 2014 has been the worst year to date. Whilst in some areas of Melilla (near the beach) you could be sitting in a tapas bar eating paella and drinking tinto de verano and forget you're mere meters from Morocco and the 6m-high-triple-barbed-wire-topped fence, in other areas it's shockingly evident.
Explore just a few streets back from the centre of town and it's like stepping into Morocco; women on the streets selling fresh msemen and harcha (flatbreads) and wobbly bikes piled high with everything from scrap metal to washing machines. The best way to see this contrast is to ask a taxi driver to take you through the Moroccan neighbourhoods, to see the fence, CETI (temporary accomodation for immigrants) and the infamous "el barrio chino", a hotspot for fence break-ins. I did this and the driver was fantastic, and full of local knowledge I'd never have found online.
The immigrants themselves can often be seen in Melilla, walking from CETI down to the beach where many work washing cars for €3. However others prefer to play football or work out on the beach, or go swimming in the sea. In my experience they have all been polite and incredibly respectful of Melilla and its residents. Unlike the Moroccans and Spaniards who often pipe up with a friendly "¡Hola Guapa!" on the streets, the subsaharans tend to keep themselves to themselves.
Basically, what I'm trying to say is however much bad press Melilla gets about the illegal immigration, as long as you respect the situation it is not going to be any threat to your safety during your year abroad. (Tell your mum not to worry like mine did!)
If you're a teaching assistant like me, you're in for a treat. The kids are lovely, they'll all be curious about the British person, and the level of English in my school (IES Virgen de la Victoria) was actually very good. Dress code is quite casual, I wore tshirt, jeans and converse shoes everyday. Yes, the jeans did mean I was sweltering on the way to work, but the one rule to obey is don't show too much skin.
Making and Spending Money
A little money goes a long way in Melilla, so chances are you'll be able to comfortably live off your wages and grant, but if you want to make a little extra, private English lessons are the way to go. I worked 4 days a week and made a total of €70 for 4 hours work. It's best to find pupils through work colleagues, rather than accepting the requests of people who will stop you on the street and ask for lessons. My pale skin was a giveaway in the first few weeks, and I'd get stopped a lot by people wanting lessons. You can be picky with who you take on, the demand is great. I charged €15 for 1 person/hour, then an additional €5 for every extra person in that hour. (eg. For two sisters in the same hour I charged €20)
TRYP Hotel Melilla Puerto is beautiful, comfortable, and has an excellent location between the city and the beach. It's the most expensive, but if your parents are visiting and want a bit of comfort to help cushion the culture shock, this is the place. Make sure you go for breakfast there at least once - it is amazing.
Anthony's Pizzeria for freshly cooked pizzas, La Pergola for BBQ and seafood, El Coracol Moderno for authentic Moroccan tagines and couscous in a luxurious setting.
La Cervecería in the centre of town is always packed with locals, and La Doche Vita in Plaza de las Culturas has a great variety.
Tetería Nazarí is a hidden gem of Melilla. A traditional Moroccan tea bar they offer a huge menu of teas and Moroccan snackfood, with friendly service and beautiful traditional Moroccan decor.