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SPAIN - Plazas de Soberania, Africa

Location - North Africa; Capital - Madrid; Population - Plazas de Soberania - estimated 250 to 400; Spain - 46 million; Currency - Euro MORE SPAIN (Ceuta)

The Plazas de Soberania (Sovereign Territories) is the name given to the Spanish territories on the Mediterranean north African coast in Morocco. These are divided into the plazas mayores, the major territories of Melilla and Ceuta, and the plazas menores, the minor territories. More about the plazas de soberania and the headaches they bring to Spain..

The plazas menores are made up of military fortresses or uninhabited islands. In recent times the terms 'plazas de soberania' and 'plazas menores' have become interchangeable. One more thing! Peñon is a term referring to the forts built during the Spanish empire.

I'm fascinated by these political anomalies and I made several attempts to track them all down (well, nearly all) - October 2011, December 2013 and October 2014.


euroI guess the Spanish military use the Euro









Plazas de Soberanía

Plazas Mayores:

Ceuta - Spanish exclave opposite Algeciras and Gibraltar, with a population of 85,000 My Ceuta 1 and Ceuta 2 pages

Melilla - Spanish exclave opposite Malaga and Almeria, with a population of 80,000 My Melilla 1 and Melilla 2 pages


Plazas Menores:

Isla Perejil - Tiny unoccupied and hotly disputed island, west of - and classed as part of - Ceuta. Technically not a plaza de soberania but as good as..

Peñón de Velez de la Gomera - Spanish military fortress an hour's walk from Torres de Alcala, itself an hour's drive west of Al-Hoceima

Peñón de Alhucemas - Spanish fortress island in a bay opposite Plage Asfiha in Al-Hoceima

Isla de Mar and Isla de Tierra - Two uninhabited islands right next to Peñón de Alhucemas

Islas Chafarinas - Three islands off the coast of Ras el-Ma, an hour's drive east of Melilla: Isla del Rey, Isla del Congreso and Isla de Isabel II

Isla de Alboran - 50km off the Moroccan coast, north of Melilla, with a military garrison. Part of the Spanish province of Almeria (mainland Spain) 90km further north

Isla de las Nubes - Tiny unoccupied island 100 metres from Isla de Alboran


Population (all military): Velez de la Gomera: 60?; Isla de Isabel II (Chafarinas): 190; Peñón de Alhucemas: 60; Isla de Alboran: 60?


penon23Three islands are clearly visible from the Moroccan resort of Al-Hoceima. But they're not Moroccan, they're Spanish. On the left is Peñón de Alhucemas, in the middle Isla de Mar and on the right Isla de Tierra


mor513A short taxi ride to the Moroccan beach Plage Asfiha provides a good look at the islands. The main one is Peñon de Alhucemas


mor516At its longest point, Peñon de Alhucemas measures 220 metres
















mor520The military fortress is crammed with buildings, including a church, houses and a helicopter landing pad - Peñon de Alhucemas















mor526Soldiers exit the helicopter next to the church. And yes, Peñon de Alhucemas is off-limits to visitors


penon28Zooming in on Peñon de Alhucemas from Al-Hoceima



mor510A few hundred metres from the military fortress are the uninhabited islands of Isla de Tierra and Isla del Mar















mor506Isla de Tierra is so close to the Moroccan coast - weird!
It's a legacy of Spain's influence in Morocco, which extended down to Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara).














penon26Isla de Tierra, as seen from the park above the bus station at Al-Hoceima


mor509'No entry. Grounds of the Spanish Ministry of Defence' - a sign in Spanish, French and Arabic on the uninhabited island of Isla de Tierra



penon27The other Spanish island in the bay is Isla de Mar. I watched soldiers from Alhucemas take a small motorboat to the island, mess around for a few minutes then head back












penon25A Spanish military helicopter flies away from Peñon de Alhucemas















melilla369These iron gates from Peñon de Alhucemas are an exhibit at the Military Museum in Melilla


penon22An early morning walk down to Al-Hoceima bus station, looking for transport to Torres de Alcala and onward to Peñón de Velez de la Gomera - Peñon de Alhucemas


I took a private taxi from Al-Hoceima to Torres de Alcala, a Moroccan fishing village an hour's drive west of Al-Hoceima. The area has a beautiful rugged coastline; the hilltop ruins in the foreground are ruined Spanish miltary watchtowers














mor686I walked along a hillside path followed by a gravel road for about an hour until I reached Peñón de Velez de la Gomera. It took 35-40mins to get this photo opp, my first glimpse














penon33The Spanish military fortress of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera, a magnificent structure linked to the Moroccan mainland by a narrow stretch of sand


penon43Ruined walls are all that remain of the ancient city of Bades, on the hillside opposite Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon31But Bades the tiny fishing village survives, opposite the peñon














mor688The beach at Bades















penon32La Isleta, the stone block on the right, also forms part of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon78It's linked to the fort by some base rock and a rickety looking bridge, Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon45Spain gained the fortress in the 16th century following a battle with Ottoman soldiers in 1564 - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon46You can see a Moroccan watchtower in the bottom right. The two countries keep an eye on each other - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon80A slightly bored Moroccan soldier looks across the waters to Peñón de Velez de la Gomera. He looked surprised as I walked down the rough hillside tracks, and asked me why I was there. After explaining I wanted to see the fort he let me carry on down to the beach


penon66The most bizarre international border I've come across! The thin blue rope just after the fishing boats marks the border between Morocco and Spain. Until 1934 it was an island but a storm washed up rocks and sand, creating the weirdest frontier - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon69As I walked towards the rope soldiers from both Morocco and Spain began shouting at me - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera














penon49As the plazas de soberania are too small for airstrips (save for Melilla) the helicopter comes into its own - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon52I got talking to some Legion soldiers in Melilla's Casino Militar (they were present for a photographic exhibition detailing the Spanish Legion in Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan etc) who told me that they have a six-month placement on Peñón de Velez de la Gomera while based in Melilla


penon53The Spanish flag flies from the top of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


melilla282A model of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera can be found in the foyer of the Casino Militar in Melilla















melilla283The east side - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















melilla287The model comes complete with a map - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon71A local (by that I mean Moroccan) fishing boat hangs around the base of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


melilla347'La Custodia de Sol' (Custody of the Sun) is an ancient silver piece from Peñón de Velez de la Gomera, on display in the Convent in Melilla's old town


penon57A Spanish soldier on lookout duty - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon55He took off his machine gun, placed it against the wall and did a bit of sweeping up - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera














penon65The helicopter pad stands above the housing area of Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon63I can see satellite dishes, communications antennae, clothes on a washing line and maybe an outside chill-out area on the corner. According to the Casino Militar map in Melilla, on the other side there's shops - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon72At the base is a motorised dinghy and quite a bit of barberd wire - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera














penon74In 2012 seven Moroccan activists entered Spanish territory and placed Moroccan flags on the rock - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera















penon75All these fishing boats are in Morocco. On the left, in Spanish territory, is a volleyball net - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon79From the Moroocan fishing village of Bades, with La Isleta as a backdrop - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera


penon35As I made my way back to Torres de Alcala the helicopter took off, presumably on its way to Melilla - Peñón de Velez de la Gomera














mor648The Chafarinas Islands are another slice of Spain in Africa, just off the coast of Morocco at Ras el-Ma


mor646A seawall protects Ras el-Ma from the Mediterranean. The resort is an hour's drive east of Nador, on the way to Algeria


mor642The headland facing the islands is a Moroccan military zone, supposedly off-limits to visitors - Ras el-Ma















mor652From the headland the three islands that constitute Islas Chafarinas are in full view. On the left is the largest, Isla del Congreso, followed by Isla de Isabel II, with Isla del Rey on the right - Ras el-Ma















melilla380There's a brief archaeological history of the Chafarinas Islands in Melilla's History Museum - Islas Chafarinas


penon13Isla del Congreso is a rugged island with no permanent population - Islas Chafarinas


penon20These were the solitary buildings I saw on Isla del Congreso - Islas Chafarinas














penon4Isla de Isabel II is the only populated island - Islas Chafarinas















penon15bIt has a 190-man military garrison - Isla de Isabel II, Islas Chafarinas



As well as the garrison Isla de Isabel II has a lighthouse, watchtower, Church of the Immaculate Conception and the Neolithic site of Zafrin - Islas Chafarinas


penon9Isla del Rey is the most easterly of the three islands - Islas Chafarinas














penon19A civil cemetery lies on Isla del Rey though I'm not sure whether it's still in use - Islas Chafarinas














penon11A look at the Chafarinas Islands from the seawall at Ras el-Ma



penon21Biologists and archaeologists have a small chance of visiting the islands, though I read somewhere these permissions have been revoked. Military only! Islas Chafarinas


morocco710 And so to my final Spanish territory for now, a short walk from the coastal town of Belyounech, which hugs the northern border of Ceuta (the Ceuti village of Benzu is in the distance, left)














perejil3Once the dirt road ends, my taxi driver Abdel Kadir led the short walk over a ridge from Belyounech to the tiny, uninhabited Isla de Perejil














perejil6Isla de Perejil was briefly occupied by Moroccan soldiers in 2002. Spanish forces booted them off the island seven days later


ceuta343The Spanish Legion Museum in Ceuta has a picture dedicated to Operation Romeo-Sierra, the name given to the liberation of Isla de Perejil in 2002


perejil11Posing in front of Isla de Perejil, known as 'Laila' in Arabic















perejil10My first attempted visit ended in torrential rain with a taxi driver who led me to the opposite side of the Belyounech bay. Try try again!
Abdel Kadir goes fishing near Isla de Perejil so he knows what he's doing, driving from Fnideq grand taxi station (tel: 06781 63773)














perejil7Only goats are a permanent feature on Isla de Perejil but having said that I didn't see anything but trees


penon83Somewhere in this photo is (maybe) Isla de Perejil, from the Ceuta - Algeciras boat to mainland Spain



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