First passing from Carthaginians to Romans to Vandals to Visigoths, Tariq, the one who started conquering Spain by landing in Gibraltar, used Ceuta as a staging ground to cross the straits. Later, the area changed hands multiple times after the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, before Ceuta was conquered by the Portuguese in 1415. At the end of the 16th century, Portugal, including Ceuta, for a while was ruled by Spanish kings. When Portugal regained its independence in 1640, Ceuta was the only city in the Portuguese empire that sided with Spain, which was formalized in 1668 with the Treaty of Lisbon.
Now, Ceuta, together with Melilla, a while to the east, are the only pieces of Europe on the African mainland.
The border between Ceuta and Morocco is formed by seven hills, called the seven brothers, Septem Frates in Latin or Hepta Adelphoi in Greek, probably the etymological source of Ceuta, Cebta in Arabic.
The border is formed by a wall of Israelite proportions, trying to keep aspiring Africans out. With that, Moroccans moving back and forth legally seem to facilitate much of the Ceuta economy. Taking a shared taxi from Tanger to Fnideq, from where it's a short walk to Ceuta, the car passed several dozen black Africans on the highway, all in small groups and all wrapped up in padded winter coats. I can't but imagine that, somehow, their plan was to get into Ceuta and the European Union.
The Ceuta tourist office tries hard to attract tourists and position the exclave as a destination in its own right, promoting the city as a place where all religions live together in harmony. I more found Ceuta a place that has a hard time forging an identity for itself. Yes, it's in Spain, but walking around, I heard more Arabic than Spanish on the streets. Parking guards are all black and the few beggars are all Moroccan women. The area around the port is a conglomerate of large shopping outlets, including a huge Lidl, because of the city being a tax-free zone. Plenty of restaurants serve tapas, but as many serve kebabs. The owner of my hotel spoke French, Spanish and Arabic. Some shops put up signs saying they don't accept Dirham, Morocco's currency, implying that there are others that do.
Out of character for both morocco and Spain is that all cars are keen on letting pedestrians cross, being overly courteous even. How did that happen?
Ceuta does have a few bums on the street, at night sleeping in one of the few nooks and cranny on the peninsula. But, it seems, they are purposely left alone.
On Sunday afternoon. As I was strolling through the town's high street, a bum, wearing his sleeping bag as a cape and having his few possessions scattered about him, was put on the spot by two policemen pouring out of a police car. The police asked questions, showed disdain, while the bum responded loudly in a raspy voice and, eventually handed over a piece of paper. I stood and watched to see how the drama would unfold, just as when a broad shouldered training suit and sunglasses wearing goon sat down on steps close to me. After a minute he got up and asked me what I was doing.
"I'm looking at how this unfolds. What are you doing?"
He turned out to be Guarda Civil, in plainclothes, asked for my ID and had it checked.
Later, after I had gotten my ID back, he thanked me and walked off, together with what was another plainclothesman. The police eventually left the bum alone, who, after a while, put on a felt hat, slung his sleeping bag around him as a satchel, picked up his few belongings and walked off.
Both on Gibraltar and in Ceuta, I stumbled upon young adults and kids playing war games. Kids with very real looking machine guns were circling each other at a distance over difficult terrain in order to achieve, literally, the high ground. In Gibraltar, some of them were wearing army fatigues, first confusing me into thinking the game was real, soldiers trying to prevent armed teenagers from entering the peninsula.
In Ceuta, strolling through town, I was passed by an overweight man dressed like, well, a bishop, or perhaps a king, as he seemed to be wearing a crown. Then, later, heading to my hotel, I stumbled upon a get together, lots of families with young kids, crowding around a big band which started playing as I walked past.
Checking them out, I noticed a dressed up trio at the front of the parade. Two looked fairly identical, crowns, big white beards, long tunics, the third would have resembled a Moor, and was made up with black face. They were throwing candy around, taking it from a bag they were holding, kids scrambling for the sweet prizes flying through the air.
Resembling the Dutch/Belgian Sinterklaas celebrations, these were actually the three kings. Yet, as Sinterklaas, these three were bringing gifts for kids, here not Christmas Day, but January 6, three kings, being the day kids get their presents at these end-of-year celebrations.