Minorca, Spain’s island idyll
MINORCA, the first place in Spain to see the sun rise, is aglow at the end of the day.
As I pulled my suitcase down the cobbled, car-free lanes of Ciutadella, the island’s ancient capital, an ocher glow bloomed across the faces of residents who sat on the terraces of back-street bars, their voices echoing within a canyon of Gothic and Baroque buildings.
The facades of rose and dusty yellow stone, and the narrow streets running past them, have barely changed since 1722, the year British occupiers took the title of capital away from this town on the Mediterranean island of Minorca and handed it to the port city of Mahon.
Ciutadella, to this day, remains a paean to unaltered antiquity.
The rest of the island is imbued with the same timeless quality. Although only 33 kilometres from the crowds and hustle of its high-profile neighbour, Majorca, the difference couldn’t be more profound.
Unlike Majorca, with its sprawling hotel complexes, glitzy nightclubs and yachtfilled ports, this island 400 kilometres east of Barcelona offers something unusual for a Mediterranean resort: tranquillity.
The entire 700-square-kilometre island is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, a designation issued in 1993 for the rich flora and fauna that thrive in Minorca’s forests, gorges, wetlands, salt marshes and hillsides.
In 2004, UNESCO expanded its protective reach, including in its definition the island’s widely scattered prehistoric sites, effectively preventing the construction of high-rise condominiums and hotels. Instead, rural hotels called agrotourismos are the hotels of choice outside the towns, and roughly 120 separate beaches – more than on Majorca and Ibiza (Minorca’s other Balearic island sister) combined – remain largely unsullied by development.
But there is also a cultural dimension to Minorca’s ecosystem. The island isn’t Spanish exactly, nor simply Catalan (though Menorquin, a dialect of Catalan, is the lingua franca). This pocket of old Mediterranean culture was shaped by an array of colonisers – Romans, North Africans, Spanish and, for a brief period, the Turkish. Then the island was passed back and forth for 200 years between the Spanish, the British and the French, until finally the Spanish claimed the island for good. Architecturally, the result is a legacy that includes Art Nouveau, Gothic, Baroque and even Georgian styles.
Cuisine ranges from a modified version of meat pies (a la England) to the potato-andegg tortilla of Spain, to good old mayonnaise – ostensibly a twist on a local sauce championed by the Duke of Richelieu when the French (briefly) conquered Mahon.
Last June, my partner, Ian, our daughter, Orli, then two, and my parents arrived for a week, hoping to get a sense of Minorca’s singular identity. On that first day we quickly discovered the island’s rather basic, but effective, protection against rampant tourism: Although the main highway from Mahon to Ciutadella is well-paved and commodious, many of the smaller roads that swerve into the countryside are barely wide enough for one car.
In Ciutadella we parked at the Placa del Born, a square marked by 19th-century buildings carved from magnificent rosecoloured sandstone. Cars are not allowed in the historic city centre without a special pass, so we walked the four long blocks to our hotel, peering into the bishop’s garden and glancing up at the 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
It wasn’t long before we found Hotel Tres Sants, an eight-room, year-old hotel in an 18th-century town house, tucked at the intersection of three streets named, like many in this city, for saints. Sant Sebastia, San Cristofol, San Joseps – each street was protected by a small statue of its namesake, housed in a glass box above our heads.
One evening we came upon a costumed crowd: Women with castanets wore 19thcentury dresses with white, billowing shirts and long, wide skirts; the men wore knickers. There was a full band of guitars and a female singer who barked in Menorqui like a square dance caller as the group performed. The crowd was entirely local; we were the only tourists observing.
The scene was a window, we realised, onto what life has been like here for generations.
After a two-night stay, we left Hotel Tres Sants. Our next destination was the village of Es Migjorn Gran for a one-night stay in the upscale agrotourismo Binigius Vell. The road that led there seemed unintended for cars of any size, let alone our large vehicle, but the payoff of that treacherous drive was worth it: an infinity pool, a lovely restaurant, horses on the grounds and an hourlong hike to the distant sea.
In Es Migjorn Gran we met my friend Baruc Corazon, a fashion designer from Madrid, who has been coming to Minorca since childhood.
Baruc told us we must visit a site that we later called the “lighthouse at the end of the world.” The landscape, he promised, was unlike anything else on the island. The next morning we did as told, driving up toward the northern-coast fishing village of Fornells, steering our car into the preserve marked “Parc Natural de S’Albufera des Grau” and navigating a narrow paved road. Within several kilometres, fields filled with cows and scrubby trees gave way to a lunar landscape of black and gray slate on one side, wetlands on the other. We parked and walked out to the edge of Cap de Favaritx, where we found a black-and-white-striped lighthouse out of central casting, surrounded by smooth-rock beaches.
On the way back, we picked up Baruc, who directed us down a side road toward the sea.
“There are two restaurants in this village,” he said from the back seat of our Citroen. “One has a fantastic view. The other has the most amazing food. Let’s go there.” Soon we emerged over a hill and took in a collective breath. Before us lay the tiny village of Sa Mesquida (“the Mosque,” a nod to the town’s long-ago North African residents), a handful of whitewashed houses along a one-lane road that led to a wide beach with fine white sand and a path stretching off to more coves.
“The British and the French used to hide in this bay, before they attacked Mahon,” the proprietor of Bar Sa Mesquida said to us, as we ordered a whole dorade, grilled and dressed with lemon and salt, and a tray of fried ortigas de mar, a sort of anemone with a taste like a burst of the sea itself and eaten only in early summer.
Some locals told us we must go to Mahon, the capital, to make our island tour complete. So the next morning we set out, wandering the streets, and admiring the Art Nouveau architecture around the cathedral and the magnificent views of the port.
The enormous port has drawn visitors and traders for centuries. As a result, Mahon feels more open to the world than Ciutadella. It is still nothing like the bustle of Palma on Majorca or the crowds in other Spanish seafront cities. For one thing, as Sandy Larsen, an American expatriate who helps arrange tours of the island explained to us, yachts are not encouraged. It is far more expensive to dock a yacht in Minorca than in other Mediterranean ports, she said, so the yachters don’t come. It is another way the island keeps its cities for its citizens.
On our last day, we ventured out into the countryside once again. We steered north, past Mahon, to the park that abuts Es Grau, a tiny fishing village. When we parked we saw off to one side a marked path that meandered through the protected salt marshes. In front of us was a wide, shallow-water cove, filled with that exquisite aquamarine water, perfect for wading.
A few beachfront shacks offered fried sardines. An eco-tour kayaking outfit offered friendly, and environmentally safe, tours of nearby coves and deserted islands. We opted for neither swimming nor boats, just a plate of fried sardines by the sea.
Then we stared out at the landscape, windswept and purposefully, gloriously wild.