Meandering in magical Menorca: Punching way above its weight for a holiday
I love a good island, so was intrigued at the idea of Menorca, the quieter relation of Balearic neighbours Majorca and Ibiza. But, do not be fooled, Menorca punches way above its weight for a great holiday.
The hurly-burly of the resort, lounger wars by the pool and umbrella feuds on the beach are not for me. From the windier moonscape of the north coast to the turquoise sea beauties of the south, Menorca has plenty of stunning beaches with every kind of water activity available, but it would be a shame to miss out on the wealth of diverse natural and cultural adventures to be found throughout the island by "doing" beach only.
Situated in the desirable and strategic heart of the western Mediterranean, evidence of invasions by Greeks, Romans, Moors, Americans and the British abound in the architecture, defence towers, lighthouses and fortifications throughout the island, making it history heaven.
With a gentler pace of life, car hire and driving is not the usual hair-raising affair of other islands, and, indeed, the Spanish mainland. The island measures just 48km at its widest from east to west, so from the airport in the south east we were soon on the west coast, in the original capital Ciutadella.
What's not to like about a town that has banned plastic street furniture? Locals and tourists alike sit on canvas director-style chairs, watching the world go by in various tree-lined squares. Everybody was busy preparing for the celebration of the Feast of St John, the town's patron saint, with its unique festival of dancing horses. Beautiful large, black Menorcan horses and their expert riders prance through the streets, trailing members of ancient societies, local nobility, farmers, artisans and flag-bearers, the horses rearing up over the crowds of festival onlookers, who, fuelled by pomada (local gin and lemonade), throw hazelnuts at anybody who takes their fancy.
Ciutadella's compact historic centre is easy to explore. A successful spot of shoe-shopping for traditional leather sandals, avarcas, was swiftly followed by a visit to a gourmet delicatessen showcasing some of the wonderful artisan food of Menorca. Next door, the 19th Century Oliver Palace has centuries old furnishings, drawings, paintings, prints and maps throughout the original grand salons, with magnificent animal and bird friezes decorating the ceilings. I was intrigued at the idea of the huge front doors, which allowed the noble owners to ride their horses into the building, dismount in the lower entrance hall, before ascending the stairs to the grand rooms.
Nearby, in Plaza de la Libertad Square is the wonderful daily fish market with produce so fresh the names of the fishing boats are proudly displayed above each stall. You can buy fish of your choice, bring it to one of the restaurants nearby, where for about €4 they will cook it to your liking. You can order salad or other dishes from their menu to go with it, and, if required, something light and white to wash it all down. We dined on fresh squid ink fideua, similar to paella, but made with pasta rather than rice.
Driving out of the city, and intrigued by a signpost for the Lithica Foundation's quarries, we were soon walking through a series of large, deep labyrinths, the results of limestone quarrying for the building trade over centuries. The quarries had been used as vegetable and fruit gardens by local farmers, but have gradually been taken over by the natural flora and fauna. More recently, the area has been turned into a diverse botanical circuit, where you can stroll out of the heat of the sun, through medicinal and aromatic herbs and plants accompanied by the sound of water from a rose canopied fountain. In the more modern, deeper, machine-tooled quarries nearby, the owners have created a stone maze and a large amphitheatre where concerts are performed with little or no amplification.
Tourism is serious business in Menorca, many people working hard to develop different incentives to attract visitors to the island. The Farmers & Co cooperative is an island-wide movement that promotes local seasonal foods (honey, salt, olives, gin and even saffron) to bring tourists into the countryside to meet these producers in their homes and farms. One such producer, David Pons, showed me how they make their Son Piris artisan cheese on his family run farm. I was treated to a feast of farm produce: sobrassada a raw, spicy sweet, spreadable sausage from their pigs, and a selection of cheeses, wonderful to eat on their own, or to use in cooking, but particularly with a lovely red wine from the nearby Binifadet vineyard.
Started in the 1970s as a hobby by a local man, Binifadet is now one of the biggest producers of wine in Menorca, and its only producer of sparkling wines. My guide took me through rows of vines protected by beautiful dry stone walls, and into the restaurant for a lesson in tastings, and food and wine pairing.
We began with the simpler mixes of Chardonnay and Muscatel for their white wine, and Merlot and Syrah for the reds before moving to the incredibly complex compositions of the vineyard's exclusive specialist wines.
Throughout my travels I noticed that practically every field contained an archaeological ruin. I discovered there are more than 1,500 prehistoric sites on the island (two per kilometre) preserved and open to the public. Menorca has been nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to the uniqueness, number and density of these ruins.
Talaiotic Menorca is the only remains of a Mediterranean society which existed in the Bronze Age, roughly 2,000 BC. We visited the Naveta des Tudons, discovered and excavated in the 1960s, the only complete funerary structure of its type ever found. Looking like an upside down ship, in the middle of a field, it was extraordinary to think it had been built by hand nearly 3,000 years ago.
Cami de Cavalls is a 185km path around the island which dates from the 14th Century and is another fantastic tourism initiative. The path is now divided into 20 accessible segments of differing lengths and difficulty, which can be used for walking and rambling. Some stretches are suitable for mountain biking or horse riding. Our walk was the Es Grau to Favaritx route. It's a birdwatcher's paradise (spotters can see more than 200 species), it is on the migratory crossroads for birds travelling to and from Africa and offers the opportunity to take in an abundance of wildlife including quite a few ambling tortoises.
Our final day saw us take a boat ride from the largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean at Mahon, the capital of Menorca. Heading out of the harbour, we passed not only the contemporary posh villas of wealthy Menorcans, but also remnants of British invasions, including the Lazaretto (quarantine hospital), which was in operation until 1917.
Our last meal was a late lunch taken outside the restaurant Passio Mediterrania, overlooking the port of Mahon. It is run by Theresa and Alexis who lived in Barcelona for many years, but returned home to open their restaurant to showcase their love of food. Our meal consisted of local ingredients with a slightly oriental twist - aubergines with miso and honey, and a vegan paella, with a final glass of lovely chardonnay from Bodegas Binitord. Warmed by the sun, under a cloudless sky, and listening to the gentle slapping of waves on the marina, I had a sudden realisation that, despite my best efforts, I had barely scratched the surface of this fabulous island. OK, I had indulged in some swimming, but what about kayaking, paddleboarding, scuba diving, sailing, and the other 19 legs of the Cami de Cavalls?
There is only one solution, I think you know what it is.
Take Two: Top attractions
Walk in the walls
Canyon of Algendar (Barranc d'Algendar) with walls as high as 80m in places is a unique and beautiful 7km south-westerly nature walk from near Ferreries in the middle of the island to the sea at Galdana.
Fabulous local food
We enjoyed an amazing five-course meal of soup, aubergines, cheese muffins and lamb - with wine from a neighbouring vineyard - for just €15 at Restaurante Ca Na Pilar in Es Migjorn Gran. canapilar.com
You can get to Menorca via Barcelona or Madrid with Iberia, Vueling and Aer Europa. easyJet also flies via London Gatwick in the UK.
For further information see www.menorca.es and www.spain.info.
The Spanish Tourism Office in Dublin is at 01 635 0200.
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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