Menorca - the Unspoilt Island of the Balearics Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Menorca - the Unspoilt Island of the Balearics

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Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera are the islands which form the Balearics.

OK, Mallorca and Ibiza have a 'certain reputation', but Menorca probably does not call many images to mind, unless you've been there. It is certainly a very different kind of place to be. The following is an attempt at being succinct while telling you all you may need to know before you decide to go.

In the end, it is best to go and see for yourself.

For reference:

  • Language - Castilian Spanish and Catalan
  • Currency - the euro
  • Population - 65,000 (augmented by the 1,000,000 visitors who come to the island each year)
  • Size - 701,84km2

Geography

The island is 50km long (north-west to south-east) and 20km wide. The coast undulates like the edge of a stamp, with thousands of little bays, fjords and creeks, adding up to 2857km of coastline. The natural harbour at Mahon is the second largest in the world - after Pearl Harbour. It is 6km long and offers sheltered mooring space for even the largest ferries, cruisers, freighters and liners.

Menorca is 40km to the east of Mallorca, making it the furthest east of the group.

The location in the middle of the Mediterranean, almost equidistant between the southern French coast and the northern Algerian Coast, and a short distance from Barcelona on the eastern Spanish coast, gives the islands a fairly temperate climate, with plenty of sea breezes, and some strong winds, particularly from the north1.

For a summer stay, sweaters or jackets are not required, but the occasional shower could cause a search for an umbrella.

Topography

The capital is Mahon, on the south-eastern tip. The traditional capital was in Ciutadella - at exactly the opposite end of the island. The British preferred Mahon to the Catholic seat of Ciutadella, where the Bishop ruled, and promptly made it their capital when they took over the island in 1712.

It remains the administrative capital to this day, with the airport and shipping port, main shopping centres, etc.

The first British Governor, Richard Kane, arranged for a coach road to be built, which goes directly across the island between the two rival towns. This is the main road, unchanged today except for some deviations, along which all journeys must go (it is well surfaced and there are no tolls to pay). Whereas earlier travellers could move along the coastal route on horseback, wheeled vehicles have to take this 'backbone' road, with myriad little roads (less well surfaced2) reaching out to the north and south from it to the various interesting destinations on the coasts.

As a general rule, the towns and villages along this road, at the interior of the island, are occupied by the native Menorcans, whereas all the holidaymakers stay on the coast during the summer months. Apart from a few fishermen, the coastal resorts are deserted during the winter.

The most convenient place to stay for seeing the sights (more on that to come), is the south east, near Mahon. Beautiful sandy beaches in tiny coves are to be found on all parts of the coast, so this need not be a criterion when choosing your base. Boat trips, too, can be boarded from Mahon or from any of the larger resorts at this end of the island.

History

The island has a fantastic amount of stone age buildings, the highest density per square km anywhere in the world. These are, to some extent, a mystery, and largely unexcavated or unresearched. There are many that look like fallen watchtowers, some the shape of ships, and some in the familiar 'table' formation with a large flat stone placed like a 'T' horizontally on a large vertical stone. It is impossible to avoid picking up the most important words:

  • Talayot - This is a corruption of the Arabic word for 'broken tower'. The word is now used world wide for this kind of construction. Possibly these were burial monuments; maybe they were watchtowers.

  • Taura - This is the local word for a 'table' as described above, most probably a kind of altar.

  • Naveta - This is the Catalan word for a little ship, as these constructions look like a ship. They are hollow, and in the most famous and best preserved (Naveta de Treburs) has signs of human remains being stored on a high ledge, which would indicate a grave or a place where the dead were worshipped.

The Romans came in 123 AD, but, surprisingly, unlike elsewhere in the Mediterranean, have left little to remember them by, except the name. They called the group of islands the Balearics because of the locals' talent in the ballistic art of stone throwing and catapulting. The designations 'Majorca' and 'Minorca' obviously come from the Latin for large and small. In fact, the official English name for the island today is still Minorca, more close to the Roman name.

The Stone Age way of life continued until the Arabs came in 903 AD. They ruled the roost until the Spaniards first came in 1287. Much architecture of originally Arab influence is still around, but the most influential period was the 18th Century when the British ruled, using the enormous harbour as a strategic base for many battles. For a short period the French took over, using their few years in charge during the late 1750s to make their mark by discovering the local way of whipping oil and egg yolks to a delicious sauce, which they then marketed as their own sauce mahonnaise. Nowadays, even the French and Spanish languages have adopted the easier pronunciation of 'mayonnaise'.

So the island has changed hands several times over the past few centuries between the Spanish, British and French. In fact, in 1763 Britain swapped the Philippines plus Cuba for Menorca with France! There are many of examples of British rule and references to Lord Nelson, who was rumoured to have smuggled his mistress, Lady Hamilton, on to the island, into a place called Golden Farm in 1799, sadly untrue!

The British finally gave up the island in exchange for Gibraltar, and Spain has been trying to swap back ever since.

In 1974, when General Franco of Spain died, the Menorcans must have been very relieved. Franco had some grudge against the island and granted no development funds for the tourist industry or archaeological research. The big advantage of this was that no hotel blocks had been built during the 1950s or 1960s and, by the time work started in the 1970s, people were more aware of the environment and considerate of the natural surroundings. Hotels are flat and built generally in the local style, with little cottages attached alongside each other in all directions, painted white or apricot.

Franco had also had a heavy hand on the language in Spain, making it a punishable offence to speak anything other than Castilian. The sudden freedom to speak in the local Catalan tongue that came with the end of the Franco regime has led to a certain amount of chaos.

Stones

Even now, though the place is littered with buildings and walls made of the ubiquitous stones, the ground is still covered in them. Dry stone walls section off small and middle-sized fields all across the country, as they have done since the Arabs starting farming the land in the Middle Ages. This was a clever idea, as the walls protected the soil against wind, used up the stones and delineated territories. These days, many of the dry stone walls are covered in Mediterranean shrubs, giving them the appearance of hedges. People have continued to use the dry stone walls for bordering their gardens and fields, which, despite the raw materials being readily and abundantly available, is a very expensive business, as the actual building of these walls is a highly skilled and difficult art.

Do not be fooled into thinking that any 'building' or round stone construction is a Stone Age burial monument, temple or dwelling. Modern day farmers have small shelters for their animals in the fields, also made of the local stones - these are a sort of 'wedding cake', tiered design.

Stones Underfoot

Walking anywhere is almost like rock-climbing and the best footwear is trainers with a good tread. Hiking boots are too inflexible to get a hold on the little jags in the rocks, and sandals make it too much like hard work, as well as being unsafe in parts.

Having said that, climbing in the usual tourist areas is facilitated by steps hewn out of the rocks and pathways being marked, so that most of the time you can carry a child or a camera with no great danger to either those or yourself.

Soil

It is interesting to note that the soil in the southern half of the island is red, whereas the northern half tends to be black. The blackness is not due to lava from any volcanoes, but due to the prevailing winds and tides depositing silt over the millennia.

Language

A lot of words are written with an 'X' - this has nothing to do with the South American dialect, although to look at it, you might at first be excused for thinking so, as the letter 'X' is practically unknown in Castilian Spanish (it is pronounced 'Ch' - in fact 'chocolate' may occasionally be spelled with an 'X' on a menu).

The Menorcans have their own patois, of course, but this is based mainly on Catalan. Catalan is, naturally, the official language of the area; it is very closely related to Provencal. If you have learnt Castilian Spanish at school or evening classes you will be fine with that. Most people speak English, so it is not the speaking, but the road signs and written language that will be confusing. Castilian Spanish and Catalan and the Menorcans' own patois are employed randomly; very occasionally a sign will show both Catalan and Castilian names for a town, for example, but more usually just the Catalan.

Catalan, being closer to Italian and French than Spanish, is very simple to decipher, if you have some knowledge of those languages. For example, 'cheese' is queso in Castilian Spanish; this is harder to guess at than the Catalan word Formatxa although this is similar to the Italian Formaggio. One useful word that is similar in all languages is playa - beach. The Catalan is platxa, the French plage and Italian piaggia.

Further important words:

  • Cala - This means 'bay' and will usually have a nice beach, or is a mooring place for visiting yachts - or both.

  • Cova' - means 'cave'

Interesting Places

Because of the dry stone walls along both sides of most roads, it is recommended that the visitor takes a coach trip at the beginning of his stay. The view is better from the height of a coach. Later on, smaller and more hidden places can be visited by hired car, where you can take your time and no other visitors from the coach party will spoil your photos.

A coach trip will also give you some feel for the layout, and a good accompanying guide will also tell you many amusing, useful and interesting details. Most tour operators all offer these coach tours.

This Researcher's personal favourite bay was Es Canutells. It had an old-fashioned atmosphere about it and although the beach was a bit mucky with seaweed it had a family atmosphere, was quiet and unspoilt, and all the accommodation seemed to be private. This is on the south eastern end of the island, where it all happens anyway.

Pre-history

The best examples of the stone age sites are:

  • The Torre d'En Gaumes - A village which housed 1000 people, and still has three talayots, a temple and a water-filter system.

  • Torralba d'En Salort - The best restored dig; you even have to pay to get in.

Cova d'en Xoroi - the Disco in the Cliffside and the Legend of the One-eared Pirate

This sounds tacky, but it's absolutely great at any time of day. The Cova d'en Xoroi is a large complex of caves which has been converted to a discotheque, halfway down the cliffs, about 3/4 of the way along the south coast, (going from west to east). It is made all the more romantic by the legend of the Arab Pirate who lived there for years. He came out and took a local girl and they lived together undiscovered until he died. He jumped into the sea when he realised they'd found him out. Due to freak conditions - snow - he had left tell-tale footprints. His son jumped after him, but his wife and other children went back to her village to continue a normal life. Xoroi is the Spanish for 'Man with one ear', as the Arab was once seen and appeared to have lost an ear, probably in a fight in his pirating days.

This is very close to the Cales Coves, a multi-storey troglodyte settlement of caves dotted about the cliffs, which was even occupied in the 1980s by what are generally termed 'hippies'. They were chucked out in 1986 because of the mess they made.

Life as a Tourist

Menorca enjoys an excellent infrastructure. It is well equipped with cash points, telephone boxes, public toilets, car parks, petrol stations, supermarkets, car hire offices. (Hiring a car is no more hassle than buying a packet of crisps3). Shops (in the resorts) are open throughout, including Sundays, showers work and have constant hot water, public bus services run punctually and are cheap.

Warning to British visitors. Many accidents are caused by British drivers driving (and cyclists cycling) on the wrong side of the road. Please take care.

Prices are somewhat higher than the Spanish mainland because (almost) everything has to be shipped in.

Water is very clean - 95% of the used water is recycled in sewage plants. This is considerably higher than most places in Europe, where the overall average is said to be around 7%. So there is no need to fear when cleaning your teeth, but the water tastes salty, and is not suitable for making tea or coffee.

Mobile phones get good reception all over the island.

In general, the island is very clean, and has been granted the title of Reserva de la Biosfera (a UNESCO award), a biosphere with special environmental qualities and privileges.

Food and Drink

For people who like good food, Menorcan cuisine offers many fish dishes including their famous lobster casserole. But let's not forget their special blend of gin, the best known of which is Xoriguer, and has been distilled since the 18th Century, when Menorca was actually under British rule! It is made from grape, not grain, as the traditional London gins are.

The Xoriguer Distillery is near the port in Mahon. Here you can get a 'Menorcan Breakfast' (neat gin), and try all the locally-produced liquors, of which there are about 12.

Getting There

Most visitors will come on a package deal, as there are very few guest houses, bed and breakfasts, etc, and only one camp site. If you want to try an individual holiday, you may find someone who owns a holiday flat you can stay in, or you can sail to the island and moor off one of the smaller towns, or Mahon itself, and hire a car or hitchhike from there to visit the inside of the island.

What to Look for

The only typical souvenirs are the local gin, the local cheese, and the shoes - leather sandals, but only authentic when the soles are made of old car tyres.

A Final Word

At almost any turning in the road you can find yourself on an idyllic beach, with turquoise water and perfect soft, warm, white sand, so, don't forget your towel.

1You can always tell north by looking at an olive tree - due to the winds coming predominantly from the north, all the branches point south, giving some very distinctive shapes.2When hiring a car, it is strongly recommended to go for an off-roader, but a small one, as these side roads are very rough and very narrow.3And it was a relief to find that Walkers Crisps were available, as well as the most popular British biscuits.

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