Story and photos by John Coyne
Menorca In The Sun
In the swirl of European summer travel, Menorca, Spain is the calm eye of the storm. It is not a jet-set haven or the playground of young, swinging Europe; rather, it is an island that attracts visitors who love the sea and sand and quiet nights.
From the air, Menorca lies open like one’s palm, smooth and pink, and crisscrossed with twisting and narrow roads that look like so many lifelines. The island, one sees from the air, crowds its coasts. High-rises hotel complexes and sprawling urbanizations hem in rocky coves and patches of Mediterranean sand, leaving the interior landscape to a few towns, miles of low, rock walls, and isolated whitewashed farmhouses.
Where in the world is Menorca (Minorca)?
The island of Menorca lies in the Mediterranean, 130 miles off the coast of Spain. It is the northernmost island of the Balearic archipelago. Less than 32 miles long and only nine miles wide, it has more than 100 sandy beaches, rocky coves and tiny inlets. The abundance of warm blue water beaches is the island’s greatest, but not, its only treasure.
The capital, Mahón, is a city of 25,000, half the island’s population. Mahón is an ancient fort-city, built by the Carthaginians high up on steep cliffs.
The word âMahÃ³nâ is actually a corruption of Portus Magonis, the name of Hannibalâs brother who spent the winter of 206 B.C. in Menorca.
Prize of the Med
Mahón has one of the finest deep-water anchorage in the world. The U.S. maintained a naval base in the Port of Mahón from 1822 to 1847 where midshipmen trained prior to the founding of Annapolis. A number of sailors married Menorcan women and America’s first Admiral, David G. Farragut, was of Menorcan descent.
Lord Nelson sailed into the port of Mahón in 1799, arriving with a squadron and seizing the Golden Farm, a red-brick mansion with a classical portico that overlooked the harbor. Some accounts say that Lady Hamilton was with him during the several months he spent on Menorca, but local historians have no record of her arrival. There is documentation, however, that Lord Nelson wrote part of his memoirs while on the island. The Golden Farm is still visible on the cliffs overlooking the city.
In and around Mahón
MahÃ³n has Georgian town houses and tight, narrow cobblestones streets that twist and turn through the hills, leading from one plaza to the next.
And herein lies the town’s real pleasure â” to wander aimlessly, discovering accidentally the eccentric collection of historical sights. In the Plaza Generalísimo Franco, for example, is the Baroque church of Santa María, built in 1748. Farther along a cobblestone side street is the city’s most famous ruin, a section of the medieval stone fortification walls that were erected around Mahón during the reign of King Alfonso III, who conquered Menorca in 1287.
Most of the island’s interior is farmland. The gentle, rolling hills are dominated by large red-tile-and-whitewash houses built to overlook acres of green fields. The land has been squared off with long walls of rock, cleared from the fields and built up through centuries of manual labor. These walls stretch to all horizons in checkerboard fashion, and when you drive the narrow back roads, you feel caught in an endless maze until quite suddenly bright blue water comes into view. Every road in Menorca leads eventually to the sea and the sand.
What to do in Menorca
I usually start my day in Mahón with café con leche and a huge sugar-dusted ensaimada pastry at the outdoor bar in the Place Reial in the center of town and watch the small cobblestone streets fill up with British tourists.
Then I wander off to have lunch down on the port, or drive to nearby Cala Fonts in Es Castell where I can stare at the water and enjoy a meal at one of the half-dozen inexpensive seaside restaurants.
Later in the afternoon, when the sun is less menacing, I’ll travel ten minutes to the Son Parc golf course and play a round. The course is only nine holes and not difficult, and its setting, carved out of farmland and pine groves, is lovely. Afterward, I might go for a swim at nearby Son Saura beach, a smooth arc of beach in a glorious cove.
Returning to Mahón. I’ll stop at sunset down in the port and watch local fishing boats glide silently out into the night. Also in this famous harbor are dozens of shops and restaurant that in recent years has turned the port into the center of the island’s night life. Two bars to visit after midnight are Café Baixamar and Akelarre.
If you aren’t one to wander late into the night, return to Es Castell and find Gabriel’s Bar on Cala Corb and listen to local customers sign Spanish standards and folk songs. It is a wonderful way to end an evening.
John Coyne’s latest novel, Long Ago & Far Away is partially set in Menorca. Coyne has written for Travel & Leisure, Diversion, Foreign Affairs, Smithsonian, Americana,Washingtonian, Horizons USA, Today’s Education among other magazines. He is the author of 26 books, fiction and non-fiction.
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