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The Spanish Saharan town that should never have existed

1 September 2019

Watching the bashed up green bus do a U-turn and groan away into the rolling mist, we felt like we’d been dropped off at the end of the world. This eerie outpost on the edge of the Sahara feels like it’s not supposed to be here at all – there are no rivers, no mines or quarries, no industries or power plants, and no fertile land to farm. Just a small, Art Deco settlement, a crumbling offshore crane and an abandoned military airfield.

It’s dark and our 2G isn’t working, so we follow our former fellow bus passengers to the town centre and track down our hotel.

“Here’s your room. Enjoy your stay. Oh, and please try to limit your use of water – we’re in the desert.”

… said the owner. We open our door to Atlantic mist billowing in through the window. Dew drops begin gathering on the curls of my hair and the door slams shut behind us, putting an end to my post-apocalyptic wind tunnel moment. When morning arrives and the fog has cleared, we realise we’re overlooking an ageing holiday camp…

We head down to the terrace of white plastic chairs for breakfast where I spot a man dressed in blue slowly walking towards us. Between sips of tea, I faff with my phone – I still can’t get any signal on my Moroccan SIM, and the Wi-Fi won’t connect. All I can pick up is the radio, and it’s in Spanish, coming from the Canary Islands some 300 km away.

Why are you here?

… asks the man dressed in blue, in Spanish. “Errm, border towns fascinate me”, I reply, thinking how far too short an answer that is to a very unexpected question. Conversation evolves to what there is to do here, but if I could go back and answer him again, I would tell him this instead:

“Your town is different to all the other towns on the Saharan coast. It’s the last sizeable settlement before you reach the harshest stretch of the Sahara below and, as the ship sails, it’s the closest town to Spain’s Canary Islands.

For 110 years, I know that your home was Spanish. In 1860, Spain’s colonialists changed its name to Santa Cruz del Mar Pequeña – do you remember? You might remember what happened in the late 1950s, when Morocco launched a decolonisation movement, which unfortunately coincided with Franco’s reign. You were probably there during eight months of fighting, when Spanish troops stormed your peaceful town, leaving over 1000 people dead.

In Spain, we call it the Forgotten War, because only people who were here know what really happened. Franco kept it quiet because I imagine that nobody in Spain would have been okay with his regime fighting one of the last colonial wars of the Spanish Empire.

In 1969, when Franco was forced to surrender your town and drag his wounded troops back across the Atlantic ocean, the hangover of Spain’s secret war with Africa kicked in and can still be felt in your architecture, your streets, your food, language and even your economy. And I’m curious to learn more.”

Sidi Ifni seems to be a transient town. It receives many Moroccan tourists, who come to enjoy the beach, even if it is only the men that go in the water. It’s also a popular surfing spot, attracting many Spanish surfers too. With waves rolling in from all the way over in the Canary Islands, they’ve got time to swell.

Most of the houses and hotels we can see today were built in the 1930s and are a portal to the Spanish Empire’s Art Deco heyday…

Some are still going strong, whereas some of the nightclubs have been left to decay…

These seaside restaurants and cafés are fading and peeling with the sun, wind and mist. There are still bars, which are hard to find outside of Morocco’s bigger cities, and here, on the clifftop of Hotel La Belle Vue, we found a belle vue

Weaved throughout the town are houses much more typical of elsewhere in Morocco, though the architecture in Sifi Ifni blends both together well.

The abandoned military airfield has become an important market hub for locals and nomads. Everything from carpets to melons are sold here, with stall holders barbecuing fish in between the tents.

We sit down for a meal in a small street-food stall, and order what the Berber with blue eyes sitting next to us is having. We spotted him earlier – he was walking his camel around the town. Maybe he was here for the market, like many other people.

Sidi Ifni is a sleepy town with bursts of energy around meal times, but beneath the calm surface, desert winds stir. We were warned not to head further south than Sidi Ifni because conflict can occasionally drift north.

The worst hangover of Spain’s invasion of Africa lies just south of here, at the ruler-drawn border to the Western Sahara. This is still one of West Africa’s most disputed territories – fighting having reignited around the final handover from Spain to Morocco, a mere six days before Franco died. Overnight, Sidi Ifni’s Spanish nationals were asked to leave everything behind and board a plane up to mainland Spain, which was departing in a matter of hours, with just minutes to decide what to do.

A lot of loose ends were hastily tied while the dictator was in the intensive care unit, but Sidi’s troubles were never publicised – much like their war. An opportunity for the Forgotten War to enter the spotlight was snatched away once again.

Sidi Ifni is a living museum of the all too recently departed Spanish Empire, and is the current border town of one of Spain’s last colonial wars. Ghosts of those days haunt the Art Deco streets and the Saharan sands, clustering in the abandoned military airfield, the crumbling offshore crane, the old clifftop barracks Cité Militaire, and deep in the memories of the Sidi Ifni people.

INFO

  • Coordinates of Sidi Ifni: 29°22’56.0″N 10°10’21.1″W.
  • If you’d like to visit, the easiest way to get there is by bus from Agadir. It takes between three and seven hours, depending on numerous unpredictable factors, including desert storms.
  • The hotel we stayed in is called Hôtel Suerte Loca.
  • The snack bar we ate in was an unmarked, unnamed stall near this bus station, but there were many delicious-looking street food stalls on that stretch.
  • Note: Alcohol, though very expensive in Morocco, is permitted but not in view of a mosque.

If you’d like to see more of my Sidi Ifni locations, including a covert bar, a few snack bars and some living museums, I’ve marked everything on The Map.

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