Story by John Coyne
Photos by Fundació Foment Del Turisme De Menorca
Menorca, Yesterday and Today
I’ve been vacationing on the Balearic island of Menorca for decades, enjoying its 120+ beaches, good seafood, and the quiet, rustic charm of its many towns. But last summer I combined all that with a new (for me) angle: taking a closer look at Menorca’s history (its archeological wonders date back to 4000 BC), as well as the natural and cultural wealth of the island that, in 1993, was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Time will tell, as the expression goes, and Menorca has a lot to say. The island is an open-air museum, offering a range of geologic and historic sites, from megalithic Bronze Age monuments to gunnery stations built to fight Franco during the Spanish Civil War.
Menorcans of the Bronze Age, for example, took the art of working in stone to a high level, creating buildings that have not been found anywhere else. They built navetas (collective burial chambers), talayots (watch towers), and taula (huge T-shaped monuments). This impressive network of 1,500 preserved sites is so outstanding, it has been nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
It’s rather amazing that on a space only 33 miles long and 10 miles wide, you can learn so much about the geography, ecology, and historical roots of the wider world. And all of these sites are within a half-hour’s drive of each other. On a given day you can sightsee, then swim at any one of the island’s numerous beaches, or shop in Mao or Ciutadella, the two cities that bracket Menorca like bookends. Ciutadella is the ancient capital (and thus has much more interesting and beautiful architecture), but the British moved the government to Maó/ Mahón, because of its deep harbor. The Brits weren’t the only invaders—Menorca has also been swept by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and French—all of whom left architectural and historical treasures behind.
Many of these sites—and more—can be visited via Jeep Safari Menorca, whose six-hour group jaunts will show you everything from a 4000-year-old stone home to a working cheese farm to a corral where horses are practicing showy moves for the fiestas. Our guide, Peter, who speaks very good English, was well informed, friendly, and fun.
The British moved the island’s capital here, from Ciutadella, in the seventeenth century. Though not a large city, Maó/Mahón retains buildings from various periods of its history, especially the British occupation.
Town Hall is one of the more historic buildings. Built in 1613 and remodeled in 1789, its neoclassical façade still displays the clock contributed by the British governor Richard Kane. In the same square is the Santa Maria Church, built in the late Gothic style and rebuilt between 1748 and 1772. It houses one of the town’s great treasures, an organ which has four keyboards working 3,120 pipes.
A few yards away is the Bibliotheca Pública (Public Library), an eighteenth-century palace constructed on medieval ruins. Also of interest are the churches of Carme (neoclassical in style) and Sant Francesc, dating back to the eighteenth century and adjoining the Museum of Menorca. The cloister of Carme is now a commercial center and vegetable and meat market. Close to this building can be found the fish market, established in 1927 by King Alfonso XIII.
Mao is also the site of the Teatre Principal, the oldest opera house in Spain, which dates from 1829.
The Plaza de la Explanada is the nerve center of Maó and the starting point of a panoply of shops along the streets Ses Moreres, Hannover, Nou and S’Arravaleta. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings there is a market in the plaza.
On the other end of the island is the original capital, Ciutadella. Through the centuries, various occupiers gave Ciutadella different names but its current name dates from 1287, when Menorca was conquered by King Alfonso III of Spain and integrated into the Christian culture of Europe. Ciutadlla derives from the Latin for “small city.”
The heart of the city is the Plaza des Born, where you’ll find the Town Hall, a nineteenth-century eclectic-style building. In the center of this square is the obelisk erected in the same century to commemorate the disaster that occurred in 1558 when Turks sacked the city.
A short block away from Town Hall is the Cathedral of Menorca, constructed on a site previously occupied by a mosque. Begun in 1300 and finished 52 years later, the Cathedral is a beautiful building of Gothic art notable for the breadth of the nave which is flanked by six chapels on either side.
Radiating from the Cathedral are streets and alleys that offer a pleasant walk, as well as a variety of small shops and bars and restaurants.
In the old part of the city, on El Roser Street, is another of Ciutadella’s famous churches, Mother of God of the Rosary, which was begun at the end of the seventeenth century. Today it is an exhibition hall for different cultural events throughout the year.
Crossing the length of island to visit these two cities, you’ll see a geological heritage. Menorca is a treasure house dating back 410 million years. The oldest, darkest-colored rocks, of the type seen in the small hills and rocky coast near Favaritx, on the northern end of the island, were formed in the depths of the sea. In contrast, the intensely-red rocks of Cala Pilar, in the south were produced by great rivers and dense vegetation. A third type of landscape on Menorca is the grayish rock that can be found near Fornells. But perhaps the most striking rocks of Menorca are limestone, which were formed five to 11 million years ago and can now be seen all over in the island’s beautiful stone fences. (For more about the geology, see: http://www.geologiamenorca.com)
When you’ve had your fill of geology, history and archeology, turn to Menorca’s strong suit, the beaches. One hundred and thirty-five miles of coastline offer many coves with white sand and crystal-clear water. On the north side is golden sand in rugged, rocky settings. While the coves are most abundant, Menorca also has long stretches of sand beaches. Son Bou, for example, on the south coast, has a strip of smooth sand nearly two miles long.
Closer to Ciutadella, on the south side, are spectacular new beaches: Son Saura, Cala en Turqueta, Macarella and Macarelleta, Across the island, near Maó/Mahón, is the small beach of Cala Tortuga where on most days you’ll have the sand and sea to yourself.
One of the pleasures of Menorca is that if a beach doesn’t quite suit you, you can easily drive another mile and find another cove that will.
Every town has its own patron saint, whom the citizens celebrate on the same days every year. The fiesta season begins with the festival of Sant Joan in Ciutadella, on June 23 and 24, and continues all summer in different towns, finishing in Mao on September 9th with the Mare Déu de Gracia celebration. All of the fiestas have a common link: the Menorcan purebred horses and their riders, dressed in black and white and representing the different social classes (nobility, church, craftsmen and peasants). The horses, adorned with saddle cloths and tail ties embroidered with colorful flowers, represent a yearly ritual that dates from before the Middle Ages.
A highlight of these patron saints’ fiestas is the jaleo, when the riders parade through the old quarter of the town to show their skills, which include the horses rearing up on their hind legs and “dancing” through the crowds
To see Menorca in an unrushed and restful way, travel on the Camí d’en Kane road that begins in the outskirts of Maó/Mahón and runs deep into the interior. This road, only recently tarmacked, is approximately three centuries old, named in honor of the first British governor, and built to link the two ends of the island. Today it only connects Maó/Mahón with Es Mercadal, and is narrow and winding, but offers the opportunity to see rural Menorca and its agricultural beauties, from farmlands to vineyards.
Some of the towns on the Kane road, and also on the main highway crossing the island, are well worth a visit. The first is Alaior, the third-largest town, after Maó/ Mahón and Ciutadella, and home to the extension of the University of the Balearic Islands, located in the palace of Can Salort, an eighteenth-century mansion. Alaior also is the center for shoemaking and jewelry design on Menorca, which is reason alone to make a visit and stop to shop.
Also worth seeing is Es Mercadal, at the foot of Monte Toro, the highest point in Menorca. This town dates back to the conquest of Menorca by King Alfonso III of Aragón. Monte Toro is the spiritual center, where there has been a shrine and a place of pilgrimage since the thirteenth century. Many legends surround Monte Toro and a sighting of the Virgin Mary, but one thing is certain. From its height of 1,170 feet, it offers 360-degree breathtaking views of the island and the surrounding Mediterranean.
Back in Es Mercadal, you’ll want to visit the Artisan Centre located in the old military barracks. Ten different crafts are shown and in the small shop you’ll find that the work of the artisans and craftsmen are all given the brand "Artesania de Menorca," a logo registered by the Insular Council. More information is available at: http://www.artesaniademenorca.com
A few miles west of Es Mercadal is Ferreries, nestled between the hills of S’Enclusa and Son Telm. This town came into existence in the fourteenth century and is remarkable for its narrow streets, lovely homes, and proximity to Cala Galdana, one of the more beautiful beaches on the island. Here, too, is the Centre de la Natura de Menorca (Menorcan Nature Centre), a museum dedicated to raising environment awareness.
While there are a half dozen other small towns, each with its own special attraction, there is one special place on the north coast, the fishing town of Fornells. Situated on a large bay, Fornells is the island’s center for windsurfing and sailing. The Fornells Tower, constructed by the British between 1801 and 1802, is one of the largest towers on the island.
Camí De Cavalls
A new attraction on Menorca is the Camí DeCavalls (translated: a horse path). At 116 miles long, it encircles the entire island and was built in the sixteenth century as a military road to connect the watchtowers and fortresses along the coast. Reconstructed, this trail is arranged in stages and one might spend a whole vacation traversing each of them, on foot, on a bike, or on horseback. This is really one way to see Menorca “up close and personal.” This trail has recently has been included in the International Network of Long-distance Paths. (See more at http://www.camidecavalls360.com/ca/)
Golf Son Parc
Built in 1977 as a nine-hole course, today Son Parc has a full 18 holes and plays to a par 69. It is located on the north coast, in the urbanization of Son Parc, less than a mile from the beach of Arenal de Son Saura. It is the only golf course on the island and was designed by a leading European golf architect, Dave Thomas. The clubhouse and course are open all year and the pro shop can provide clubs, carts, and anything else one might need to play a round. The short course is flat and narrow, with few hazards and nestled neatly inside a pine forest at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
After all this sightseeing, beach time, hiking, fiestas, and golf it is time to eat. But where and what?
Fresh fish is a mainstay of Menorcan cuisine. One of its signature dishes is caldereta de langosta (lobster stew)—expensive but delicious. Another is the traditional sobrassada, a pork sausage seasoned with salt, paprika and black pepper. Cheese is a major product of the island (since 1985 it has had its own denomination of origin, Queso Mahón-Menorca). Menorca is also known for its cakes, the star being the famous ensaimada, a traditional island pastry.
Another specialty is salsa Mahónesa, which we know as mayonnaise. During the French occupation, the chef for the Duc de Richelieu invented the sauce, having tasted a farmer’s wife’s version made out of olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and eggs. The duke took the sauce home to the French court where it was renamed sauce mayonnaise, in recognition of its birthplace, Maó/Mahón, Menorca.
Dining in Maó/Mahón
Moll de Lievant,267
Port of Maó
On the port within yards of the water and a marina full of yachts, this outdoor cafe offers wonderful Menorcan dishes.
Cap Roig Restaurant
Perched on the edge of a cliff on the opposite site of the Port of Maó/Mahón, in an area that has the ambience of a fishing village, with fantastic sea views from every table.
Shopping in Maó/Mahón and Ciutadella
Isabel II 6
In this sophisticated shop youâll find chic fashions and lovely resort wear, as well as beautiful candles and crafts.
Sampedro, a designer, specializes in handbags, wallets, jewelry, and other exclusive items, such as collection boxes and iron sculptures. The store opened in 1983 and is sought out by European and American shoppers.
Where to Stay on the Island
Petit Hotel 5 Fars
Illes Balears Spain
T +34 971 489 220
The Bosch brothers converted an early nineteenth century townhouse into a boutique hotel where they would like you to feel quite at home. There are only five bedrooms.
Hotel Can Faustino
San Rafael 9
T + 34 971 489 191
In the center of Ciutadella, this palace hotel opens onto a tree shaded patio overlooking the harbor. Built in the sixteenth century, the palace was remodeled over the centuries and now offers discreet luxury of 21 rooms and 3 suites.
Port Mahón Hotel
c/av. Port de MaÃ³, s/n, Mahón - 07701
Islas Baleares Spain
T +34 971 362 600
Port Mahón Hotel is the premier hotel located in a quiet residential area with excellent views of the Port. It is a 10 minutes from the shopping center and a few miles from the airport. The hotel is known for its particular colonial building style, of special architectural interest. First rate staff. First rate hotel. My favorite.
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