Spain's Frontier Towns

La Linea de la Concepcion, contraband capital

Separated from France via the Pyrenees and Portugal via Europe's longest border in the West, Spain also borders Morocco through its African territories and the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar on its southern tip. From the contraband-dependent town of La Linea to seedy La Jonquera, here are five Spanish towns whose history and livelihoods have been shaped by their proximity to the countries they neighbour.

La Linea de la Concepción

Since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended British involvement in the Spanish War of Succession, Gibraltar (officially a BOS - a British Overseas Territory) has been a sunny outpost of Great Britain, complete with British bobbies, dingy pubs and underwhelming stodgy cuisine. It's also an appealing hub for bootleggers.

Approximately 120 million packets of tobacco are imported into Gibraltar every year - suspiciously more than is needed for a population of only 30,000. Most of these imported cigarettes end up passing through La Linea, which sits on the other side of Gibraltar Airport's runway on the sandy neck of the Gibraltar isthmus. Here, contraband and drug smuggling are rife. Unlike in days of old, when ladies carried packs of cigarettes across the border under their skirts, now most of the smuggling is done on scooters and speedboats. The money generated by contraband has been invaluable for a fragile local economy whose unemployment hovers at around 40%. In recent years, as foreign gangs have begun to muscle in on the market and the economic benefits of smuggling increasingly bypass the local community, local police have begun a serious crackdown on illicit trade, resulting in an enormous increase in arrests.


Across the Strait of Gibraltar on the African mainland, Ceuta would be Spain's very own version of an Overseas Territory if it were not for the fact that it lies in Spanish waters and is an open international port. Officially an 'autonomous city' like Melilla, Ceuta has been an important trade hub since the time of the Carthaginians. It lies in the lee of Monte Hacho, one of the Pillars of Hercules (the other being El Peñon de Gibraltar) and has strategic importance as a gateway to the Mediterranean.

It also has strategic importance for African migrants hoping to begin to a new life in Spain. For this reason an eight km-long, 6 metre-high fence - total cost €30 million, partly funded by the EU - surrounds the enclave, separating it from the neutral zone between it and Morocco.

Spain's approach to immigration - known as contención y rechazo (containment and rejection), in which Moroccan intervention plays a key role - has been taken on by the EU in recent years as it struggles to cope with a huge increase in migrants. Over the course of one year, Spain's immigration policy went from being investigated by the EU as a violation of the Convenio Europeo de Derechos Humanos, to being championed as the general European modus operandi - with Turkey providing a buffer to migrant movement in much the same way that Morocco had for Spain. Ceuta itself is a handsomely appointed city, with an old town enclosed behind the medieval sea walls . It has a diverse population; among the 80,000-strong, mostly Hadiya and Spanish-speaking population is a small Hindi-speaking community of Sindhi Indian origin, who came to trade when Ceuta was declared a free port, as well as a Jewish community speaking Haquetia, a modern dialect of the Ladino tongue which was used in medieval Spain's Jewish communities. Pretty isolated, Ceuta's is not a resource-rich community; the services sector provide its chief industry.

La Jonquera

The hills around the Catalan border town of La Jonquera are dry and bare, peppered with the burnt trunks of oaks devastated by a wildfire which raged through the area in 2012. The town itself has a rather seedy, transient air, with numerous cheap shopping outlets and a visibly growing courtesan presence, particularly in the industrial estates on the edge of the town; in recent years La Jonquera has developed a reputation as Southern Europe's sex tourism capital. This is partly attributable to strict laws on curb-crawling over the border in France, where punters can expect to be charged between €1500 and €3700 if they are caught by the police. Since the passing of the Ley Mordaza in 2015, which penalizes anyone caught 'demanding or accepting sexual services in public spaces', Spanish fines are officially between 600 and 30,000 - however the Guardia Urbana often turns a blind eye; on average only 15 people a week have been fined during the first year of the new legislation. Another contributing factor to La Jonquera's growing sex market was the opening in 2010 of the infamous Paradise brothel. Though this 'macro-burdel' with over a hundred rooms has been an phenomenal success financially, it has repeatedly been a focalpoint for tensions between local crime groups. In December 2012 an attempt was even made to blow it up. A car loaded with TNT and butane was parked in front of the nightspot but failed to detonate; over 300 people were evacuated safely. The brothel's controversial owner Jose Moreno has since been arrested for his alleged involvement in money-laundering, sexual exploitation and illegal immigration.Of course, a key and insidious factor in La Jonquera's emerging sex economy and the success of places like Paradise is the ruthless trafficking of women, in particular from the Balkan states. A report by the Fundación Apip-Acam, which has been monitoring prostitution in the area, claims that the typical profile of worker is an Eastern European mother (most likely Romanian or Bulgarian) in her mid-twenties, controlled by her own family nucleus. The ONESVAD humanitarian group alleges that of the 300,000 prostitutes currently working in Spain, 80% are forced to do so against their will. A report by Universidad Pontifica de Comillas claims 20% of adult Spanish males admit (key word, admit) to having had a paid sex encounter.


Spain's 1214 km border with Portugal is called called La Raya - 'the parting'. With a population of only 10,000 Olivenza is not one of the major hubs on the border, but is still today the subject of a mild dispute between both nations. Belonging to the Portuguese Crown from the year 1297 onwards, Olivença was in 1801 invaded by the Spanish during the War of Oranges, and has since remained on the eastern side of the border, despite the Portuguse refusal to recognize Spanish sovereignty over the town. Sitting on the Guadiana river, 24 kilometres south of the Extremaduran capital Badajoz, Olivenza was until recently still markedly Portuguese in character; until the 1940s Portugués was still its predominant language.

The existence of Portugal as a separate independent kingdom to Spain dates back to the mid-12th Century, when it achieved autonomy from the Spanish Kingdom of Leon during the Christian Reconquest of Spain. A century later the Algarve and southern coastal regions were captured from the Moors, defining the Portuguese territory we see on maps today.


The Pyrenean town of Llívia is geographically in France, but officially belongs to Spain, like an island cast adrift on the other side of the border. The reason for Llivia's enduring allegiance to the Spanish crown despite its geographical isolation dates back to Spain's defeat at the hands of the French in the Guerra de Trenta Años. At the end of the war a treaty was signed to bring peace to the Pyrenean region, and 30 Spanish localities were ceded to France. The inhabitants of Llívia, where the treaty was signed, insisted the town remain a part of Spain, and so it did. Unlike some border towns it's a pretty humdrum, low-key sort of place, renowned for little more than its Formatgeria restaurant (housed in an old cheese factory) and a strangely opulent Pharmacy (La Fàrmacia Esteve de Llívia) reputedly the oldest in Europe. The nearest large Spanish town is Puigcerdá, seven kilometres away.

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