Those who know the four large islands of the Balearic Autonomous Community tend to agree that each one is very different. Later, if they have known them for a long time, they also usually comment on the changes brought about by the development of mass tourism. They are all changing, but the globalisation to which they are subjected does not mean that Majorca has lost its ancestral essence, Eivissa its African warmth, Formentera its paradisiacal charm of small and remote places… and Minorca can offer us some of the above characteristics and many others that make it even more special, if we can call it that.
Today, it could be considered as an open part of the European continent, but very sensitively anchored in the heart of the western Mediterranean. Its 700 km2, divided into eight regions, offers a lot. The quality of Menorca’s beaches and coves fully justifies this use of holiday time, but what is even more interesting and satisfying here than in other destinations is the “everything else” that is often part of traditional holiday brochures. Craft markets, fiestas, prehistoric monuments, local gastronomy, traces of history around every corner… everything invites you to enjoy the peace, one of the qualities often attributed to the people of Menorca, a place that could become a model if the sustainable development goals proposed today are achieved.
The island is approaching the 100,000 mark, something unthinkable fifty years ago, but it is clearly still far from the nightmare of population growth. Although visitor numbers almost double seasonally, the proportion of rural areas remains very high and the enjoyment of nature can extend to the maritime areas. The location of the roads makes it difficult to explore the entire coastline from land, so recreational boat trips are an alternative. As a result, copying the local enthusiasm for exploring the island in stages on family boats is becoming increasingly popular. There are also many divers, as the beauty of the seabed blends perfectly with the coastline.
More and more people are attracted by the recently opened agrotourism sites, which allow them to experience first-hand the almost untouched natural environment (agriculture has played a key role in its preservation until now), and by the curiosity of discovering aspects of island life that were previously hidden, considered of no interest to anyone. Then everything changes, as mentioned above. Probably, as it should be, these changes are taking place with a clear awareness of the dangers of environmental abuse. It is not surprising, therefore, that the warm welcome given to outsiders generates a special appeal for respect for the environment, just as the locals have done so far.
History of Menorca
The history of Minorca shares with the neighbouring islands the relationship with all the seafaring peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, the occupation of the Muslim civilisation, dominant in Spain until the time of the Catholic Monarchs (15th century), and the conquest and subsequent colonisation by the Catalan-Aragonese Crown. However, even then there was a certain independent spirit, and the special circumstances experienced during the 18th century greatly influenced this development, endowing the island with its own distinctive features that would relegate it to the secondary role it has sometimes been given.
When the British saw their presence confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), they had already been using the Port of Maó as one of their main bases in the Mediterranean for almost fifty years. In fact, the changes of nationality in the 18th century (British, French and Spanish alternated in the government of the island) ended up representing a substantial improvement after the turbulent experiences of the 16th and 17th centuries. Years of obscurantism and uncertainty, with internal strife and constant attacks from outside by pirates of all kinds, were followed by epidemics and famines that decimated the population.
It has sometimes been said that if the imprint of successive occupants on the island has lasted longer than in other parts of the world, it is due to the more or less peaceful adaptation to foreign customs. There are still toponyms of Arabic origin – rafal or bini, for example, often appear – or vocabulary and phrases that come from English. But it is the maintenance of a non-exclusive identity, to which it returned – depending on the level of repression – after each seizure of sovereignty, that has given Menorca its strength in the face of any interference. Weakened by its very insularity, it nevertheless has an extra power of resistance in the face of setbacks. In the past, it was the submission of a highly stratified society to the institutions of self-government that enabled it to maintain its cohesion. It should also be mentioned that, since its introduction, the use of the Catalan language has never been lost. Catalan is today the official and most widely used language throughout the Balearic Islands region and is a common bond of unity and identity (although phonetic and lexical changes mark differences between the islands and even between one region and another). Returning to the above, the coexistence between troops and civilians of different languages and even religions during the 18th century had a very special character because it had a positive economic impact. It also meant entry into Europe, or the World, as it was seen at the time. Nor should one delude oneself into thinking that these administrations solved all the structural problems, but they did change the course of history. Despite the return, with the Spanish absolutist administration, and despite the consequent loss of freedom and return to poverty, provoking another of the various migratory processes – this time to Algiers and other North African cities – the Menorcan people were not, and would not be, a silent or defeatist community.
When, in the mid-19th century, industrialisation allowed for a relative recovery, the new production methods and the creation of a workers’ movement became the seed of many changes in the social fabric. The 20th century opened in a genuinely democratic and progressive mood, still fearful of the ups and downs of the economy, but breathing an air of freedom that differed greatly from the tyrannical operations elsewhere.
Perhaps for this reason, the Spanish Civil War had very dramatic repercussions on Menorcan society. These effects influenced before, during and in a very prolonged post-war period, which lasted until 1977, when free elections, the first since the Second Republic, marked the way for the Balearic Islands to recover their own governing bodies differentiated by islands.
Archaeology in Menorca
The presence of so many prehistoric monuments, so much archaeology, in the surroundings of Menorca usually surprises the new visitor. But the contact with something that belongs both to the present and to the distant past quickly captivates those who approach and examine them. It takes time to see all the catalogued excavations, but the most important ones are simple and highly recommended, as the skill of the ancient inhabitants in the structural use of stone is very impressive. Most are well signposted and are discussed on Menorca holidays.
Experts place the oldest remains at around 2500 BC, but the most outstanding series corresponds to the Talayotic period. The settlements from that period lasted beyond the Roman colonisation, reaching the Middle Ages and even being used to shelter livestock in relatively recent times.
Other monuments from past eras have also survived to the present day, such as the early Christian basilicas of North African influence (Vandal reign of Carthage) and Byzantine influence (Eastern Roman Empire). There are remains of these in Son Bou, Illa del Rei, Es Fornàs, Cap des Port de Fornells and Illa d’en Colom.
It is in the prehistoric monuments where the uniqueness of some of the elements really stands out. These are the talayots, or tower-shaped monuments, located at the highest point of the settlements and which seem to enhance the need for constant surveillance. In reality, they conceal small burial chambers. The small navetas, so called because they resemble inverted boat hulls, were used as tombs and ossuaries. Finally, there are the taules, flat stones, which are thought to have been associated with Tauric rites and whose simple arrangement, a roughly sculpted transverse block on top of another sunken in the ground – a simple taula or table – is one of the most spectacular.
Cultural Guide of Menorca
Stone and quarries
In the past, marés, sandstone, cut into ashlars, was the most commonly used building material in Menorca. This sandy stone – of marine origin as its name indicates – was extracted from the same land on which the houses were to be built, but the growing demand soon justified the opening of quarries. Some are still in production, but most of them were abandoned when lighter materials could be used. Today, a hard-working association, Lithica, is trying to recover and preserve these unique enclosures open to the sky. After cleaning and converting the spaces into pleasant gardens, some of them, such as S’Hostal (in Ciutadella), can now be visited, and are an excellent setting for cultural and leisure events.
Sant Joan festivities in Menorca
Ciutadella is synonymous with Sant Joan, the festival. In Menorca, many people associate these fiestas with images of majestic horses ploughing through the crowds, the sound of loud music, the almond shells used to make small projectiles and the daily wash of gin. There is a lot of joy, a lot of energy, a respect for identity and a great deal of elegance. The characters jealously guard the festivities to preserve their original meaning and the liturgy of honour. The caixers, members of the brotherhood, wear the clothes worn by their predecessors: white trousers and shirts, bow ties, wellington boots and tails. They also carry a whip and a guindola, a hat that gives them dignity and identifies them as guardians of secular traditions. They follow precisely the rules of medieval origins and represent in a very concrete way the different historical social classes: peasants, nobles and clerics.
The events begin on the Sunday before the 24th of June, Diumenge des Be, or Sheep Sunday, when the beautiful sheep roam the streets of the town, and culminate the night before and during the Holy Day, when the shepherds ride their horses through the old quarter. The fabioler, playing his little flute, leads the procession on a donkey. The caragol takes place (the spiral they do) with repeated games in which the riders have to mount their horses from behind, in an unstable position called fer un bot (standing up), and the madness continues until the following day, when various equestrian trials take place in the Sant Joan Square: ensortilles, ses carotes, correr abraçats (running embraced)… For two days, the city throbs with excitement.
Menorcan horses receive special treatment compared to other farm animals. Their excellent appearance, their nobility and their central role in the fiesta make them the kings of the ranch. This native breed of horse attracts attention not only because of its thick body and characteristic black coat, but also because of its “mastery of the situation”, so to speak, in the hustle and bustle and excitement of the jaleo. The youngsters beat them, demand that their jockeys do the usual weighing on their hind legs, and these wonderful animals remain calm at all times. Dressed in their best clothes, they seem to know that all eyes are on them, and they know that their mission in this world is to create a unique and expressive image.
The footwear industry in Menorca
Tanning has always been an important activity in the Balearic Islands, when the islands were still under the influence of the Muslim world, and perhaps this was the beginning of the trade that developed from it. In fact, footwear has contributed to the recent history of Menorca. The industrialisation process, which began in the last quarter of the 19th century, started precisely with the opening of two shoe factories in Ciutadella. In a short time, almost half of the active population was employed in this sector. From then on, until the appearance of tourism, footwear was the most important export product. Today, in a highly competitive world market, excellent sales are maintained thanks to the exceptional design and experience of the craftsmen, most of whom come from Ciutadella and Alaior. In contrast to traditional factory production, the great success of the simpler and more popular footwear is worth mentioning: the inimitable avarques, cowhide uppers and recycled car tyre soles, one hundred per cent pedestrian… and cosmopolitan because they attract the attention of urban youth.
Menorcan lobster caldereta (lobster stew)
Menorcan caldereta de langosta (lobster stew) is the best-known speciality, which everyone will mention as the glorious finishing touch to an unforgettable stay. A tasty delight that is enlarged in the memory by the obligatory ritual accompanied by the reservation of a table – if it is in the middle of August – and the scenery that gives it even more substance. Most of the time, this added setting is that of Fornells, because it was here that they soon realised that the dish would become an important source of income. Before it became the food of kings, it was the prize that fishermen awarded themselves on the boat that supplied their village with the succulent crustacean. Simple in its preparation and simple in its seasoning, the dish hides no secrets other than its main luxury ingredient (preferably a female lobster) and the accompaniment of local produce (the tomatoes called ferro, iron, which are also the star dish of another popular Menorcan dish, the humble oliaigo, a tomato soup with garlic). As for utensils, the clay pot is a must for serving it with thin slices of toasted bread (traditionally dry bread when eaten at home). The massive demand has tripled the number of restaurants in Fornells specialising in this dish, but it can be served and tasted in good restaurants all over the island with total guarantee. Another factor is that this demand has exceeded the recommended level of lobster catch and you may find the dish marked on the menu. In which case you’ll have to opt for the unbiased fish, shellfish and lobster stews, which in the right hands reach equally illustrious levels. If, on the other hand, it’s on the menu: enjoy it!
Cows and cheese in Menorca
Cows form an inseparable part of Menorca’s rural landscape, just like the walls that separate the pastures. However, it is curious that you hardly ever see any examples of the breed considered indigenous to the island, beautiful beasts with reddish coats. Fortunately, their milk capacity has meant that recent attempts to revive the breed have been successful. Menorcan cheese is generally known as “Mahón” cheese, although it is produced all over the island. This is because it was traditionally sold in the island’s main port. Its characteristics and presentation have not changed since then either. The whole cheeses, square in shape and with rounded edges, show the marks of the tarpaulins in which they were traditionally wrapped. It has had a designation of origin since 1985, although its fame dates back to the Middle Ages, when Catalan monarchs ensured that there was always a ready supply in their larders. It can be bought mild, medium, matured or aged, but any of its varieties will please the most demanding palates. As well as being delicious on its own, it is also excellent with fresh fruit (grapes) or candied fruit (quince) and forms part of the island’s culinary specialities.
Road d'en Kane in Menorca
The first British rule of Menorca began with the landing of General Stanhope’s troops in 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the time, one might have thought that the British presence would be temporary, but five years later their occupation was approved by the Treaty of Utrecht and the Menorcans had to get used to the wishes of their new rulers. In general, they respected the customs and improved the living conditions of the population and, in particular, one of their protagonists has gone down in history as a benefactor of the island and a promoter of progress and peace. This was Richard Kane, whose influence, first as a deputy and then as governor, was notable until his death in 1736.
Kane turned Maó into a large naval base and moved the capital from Ciutadella, but not without opposition from the clergy and nobility. He also regularised the census and established rules for controlling weights and measures, and placed special emphasis on improving the road network and developing agriculture and livestock farming. A monument, recently moved to the beginning of the road between Maó and Fornells, at the height of the Vergers de Sant Joan, pays tribute to him. A little further on, on the left, a detour leads to the Camino de Kane, one of his greatest contributions. This road, which was once the main communication route on the island, now plays a secondary role, but it is nonetheless of great scenic interest. Using it as an alternative route on some trips allows you to discover some curious details of this landscape. It is also the base for short excursions to the Binixems hermitage, for example, or to the Sa Roca housing estate (these detours are found before and after reaching the Alaior cemetery). The fact that it is not a fast road also makes it a good route for groups travelling by bicycle. Currently, the recovery of the road ends at the small stretch that leaves Es Mercadal in the direction of Ferreries.
The Menorcan lizard
The lizards, sargantanes in Catalan, are the protagonists of legends and songs in Menorca. They are very numerous and there are as many varieties as there are islets scattered along the coast (more than 30). One of them, in the bay of Fornells, even bears their name. The changes, especially in colouring, have occurred precisely because of the isolation of their different habitats, which could be considered the paradigm of what, for many years, saved Menorca from the great changes it is now experiencing. A very unique lizard is the one that lives on Illa del Aire, opposite Punta Prima beach, in the Sant Lluís neighbourhood. It is completely black and is a protected species, which years ago led to the occasional kidnapping, making it the exotic star of the Nordic terrariums. If you get the chance to visit the islet, you will find that you don’t have to look for them. In fact, they will approach you in large groups in search of the crumbs that may fall from a simple snack. You must bear in mind that this is a very deteriorated environment that can affect more than one species (it is one of the scenarios in which the G.O.B., Grupo Ornitológico Balear, carries out the ringing of migratory birds) and you must show the utmost respect for it.
Gin must be the most appreciated souvenir for visitors to remember their stay in Menorca when they have returned home, or to give as a gift to friends. This is because its special aroma and flavour immediately trigger an association with everything to do with Menorca. The establishment of gin production must date back to the time of the first British occupation, but the distillation of the juniper berries does not follow the pattern of English gins to the letter and the result is rather different, distinguishable with its own presentation (it is cleverly distinguished by being bottled in reproductions of glazed ceramic bottles). The maturation stills, which can still be seen today in Xoriguer’s workshops in the port of Maó, play a fundamental role in the process. This brand has become very popular and a variety mixed with lemonade is also bottled, lowering its high alcohol content and is often drunk at parties held all over the island during the summer months (the famous pomada or “Menorca Moonshine”). Another popular gin drink is the pellofa, with a slice of lemon and a splash of soda.
Menorca Flora and Fauna
In the past, Menorca’s most representative vegetation was oak groves, but their partial disappearance has led to the dominance of pine and wild olive trees, the ancestor of the olive tree in genetic terms, which has traditionally been used to obtain wood. Due to the need to make the most of the available water, species with impermeable leaves and perennials dominate over annuals. The species that we could call “domestic” and which are common throughout the Balearic Islands are in decline: the carob, almond, fig and olive trees. There are junipers near the beaches and in the wetlands.
On a second level of vegetation we can find mastic trees, buckthorn, strawberry tree, heather, myrtle, heather, broom, juniper, oleander, blackberry… and even closer to the ground, liliaceous plants (such as wild asparagus), arum plants (such as the unique bec de frare, “friar’s hood”) and some curious orchids, such as the so-called yellow and blue flies, “fly” orchids. We can also see beach lilies in the dune areas, black and white stipa in the deforested areas, or giant reeds in the wetter parts. Lichens cover rocky places and in windswept coastal areas, dense, rounded thorny scrub communities called socarrells (Launaea cervicornis).
The animal kingdom consists, on land, of small mammals, reptiles, insects and many birds. Among the former are martens, ferrets, weasels, rabbits, bats, some varieties of field mice and the shy hedgehog. Among the reptiles, the Mediterranean tortoise, wall lizards and some small, non-venomous snakes stand out.
The most important population, however, is that of the winged kingdom: all the biotopes that can be referred to on the island have their populations of birds. In addition, as summer approaches, swallows, swifts, black-headed gulls and bee-eaters, among others, arrive from the Sahara. Among the areas of great ornithological importance is the Albufera des Grau, where, in addition to a large sedentary population, thousands of birds come every year to breed. Birdwatchers can spot mallards, American coots, quails, quail, reed warblers, storks, grebes, egrets, herons, sandpipers, pochards and curlews in the water, either on the shore or among the reeds.
Predatory and carrion-eating birds also dominate different areas throughout the year. The intervention of man in the places where they used to nest has seriously reduced the number of some of these large birds. This is the case of the osprey, the booted eagle and even the red kite. However, hawks, kestrels, vultures, eagle owls, Egyptian vultures and marsh harriers are easily identifiable, as are tawny owls and owls.
Menorca Biosphere Reserve
In 1993 Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO as part of its Man and Biosphere programme. This declaration was an endorsement for those who defended a model of growth that was not aggressive with natural values and rural landscape areas. The Law of Natural Spaces, which stipulates different levels of protection for almost half of the region, also confirmed the commitment of the institutions to be part of this growing environmental concern.
It is clear that the opinion of conservationists must be taken into account in the planning of the region and in the town planning programmes which, like the supervision of the activity of the tourist sector and the maintenance and promotion of the historical heritage, are the competences of the Consell Insular de Menorca (Island Council of Menorca). In this sense, the recent PDS (Sustainable Development Plan) should be seen as a draft document to promote social progress without negatively affecting these natural spaces.
Along the same lines, legislation has also been passed on the use of the Camí de Cavalls (bridle path), a much-demanded historical demarcation route, so that controlled access to these areas is possible and environmental quality is not affected (only a small part of this land is in public ownership and many owners close their estates claiming that free access would produce harmful effects). Today, at the dawn of a new millennium, Menorca’s economy inevitably revolves around the tourist industry, we must hope that society keeps a cool head, as on other occasions, and knows how to manage its greatest wealth: environmental balance.