Magical Menorca

BY Lia Grainger

1st Jan 2015 Travel

Magical Menorca

A knot of anticipation bubbled in my chest as I wound down the amber-bathed road. Golden fields punctuated by wild olive trees tumbled down to an endless sea, with not a human in sight. Warm air brushed my hair across my face. I closed my eyes. This tiny, tranquil Spanish island was my antidote to frenzied city life

A Beautiful Anxiety

I’d touched down earlier that day on the tiny Spanish island of Menorca, the little sister of Mallorca to the south-west. Yet, as the serene landscape flew by, a wave of anxiety overcame me.  

An admittedly gregarious city dweller, I’m most in my element on buzzing thoroughfares and in boisterous bars, making conversation with vivacious strangers. But it had been a frenzied year and I’d decided I needed some stillness.

From what I’d heard, this speck of earth in the Balearic Sea was home to ageing Catalan fishermen, a smattering of British retirees and few others. Its status as a Unesco biosphere reserve means that it’s
protected from major development. I’d also heard it would be easy to find myself devoid of human company, with only the animals and insects for companionship—on a sandy beach, a windswept bluff or a deserted winding country road.

I paused at the side of just such a road, dust in my sandals and the smell of wild gladioli sweetening the air. So far, the rumours were true.


A Morning Ride Under Clear Blue Skies

The early May morning had brought with it clear skies—the norm for about 225 days a year here. My plan for my first day was to rent a mountain bike and tour sections of the Camí de Cavalls, or “Path of Horses”, a 115-mile ancient trail originally used for military patrols. I grabbed a bike for ten euros in San Lluís, one of the island’s few inland towns.

The chatty shop lady who took my tenner applauded my timing, for I’d managed to arrive when every wildflower on the island seemed to bloom at once. The morning ride was accented with the aroma of, first, clusters of violet stinging nettle, then bursts of red Indian paintbrush and finally tiny orange scarlet pimpernels.

Suddenly I smelled the sea and, cresting a hill, spied Sa Mesquida, a whitewashed cluster of fishermen’s homes crowned by a 200-year-old British defense tower. The landscape was tidily divided by low-lying white stone walls that date as far back as the 14th century. I’d hop off my bike every few hundred yards and open the island’s trademark hand-carved wooden gates that allow shepherds and quiet tourists like myself to pass from one plot to the next. 

Loudes Segade

Fresh FISH 

To say I pedalled the Camí de Cavalls is a stretch, for the route was decidedly less cyclist friendly than my guidebook had promised. When I wasn’t flying screaming down treacherous slopes, I was pushing my bike up dramatic inclines. It was with great relief that I approached the coastal fishing village of Es Grau. 

Lunch was a comically generous helping of freshly grilled cuttlefish and lemon at the harbour-front eatery Es Moll, where I shared the restaurant’s patio with a table of townsfolk sipping tiny bottles of Estrella beer. As I ate, several locals made a Laurel and Hardy-esque attempt to get their worn fishing boat in the water, a scene I imagined to be typical Menorcan entertainment.

The afternoon’s ride was mercifully gentler. I passed through the island’s most strictly protected zone, the Parc Natural de S’Albufera des Grau, where I observed a lagoon erupting with birdsong, a thick forest of towering pines and a beach covered in strange tape-like seaweed with whitened logs poking out like dinosaur bones. 

Here and there, the landscape was interrupted by a crumbling stone structure or a towering pile of white rocks, for Menorca is littered with archaeological remains. I nearly rode into a 4,000-year-old watchtower standing peacefully unprotected in a wild meadow, and realised that in my short ride I’d already encountered the edifices of almost half a dozen societies spanning several millennia.

The island’s motley assortment of architecture hints at a turbulent history. Originally colonised by the Greeks, Menorca was subsequently occupied by the Romans, Moors, Turks, Brits and French, with periods of Spanish rule in the mix. Though Spain finally got its little island back for good in 1802, foreign influences are still evident in the people, the cuisine and, surprisingly, the horses.


A Sleek Muscular Stallion

I came across just such a beast on my bike ride—a sleek muscular stallion with a shining black coat. He was a coveted Cavall Menorquí, a breed whose lineage reveals Arabic, Spanish and British roots.

As he stretched his neck over the fence, I laid my hand on my new friend’s smooth forehead and, realising I’d barely spoken the entire day, silently watched the sun go down over the deserted spring countryside. 



That evening I had a wander in Mahon, the archipelago’s most south-easterly city and the island’s capital. In search of libations, I ducked into a local tapas haunt, Can Vermut. “What should I have?” I enquired, to which the barman, tickled at having his opinion solicited, replied with gusto, “Pomada!” and promptly filled a large tumbler with lemonade and several shots of Xoriguer, the famous Menorcan gin brewed right there in the harbour—another vestige of British occupation. 

It was the cadence of my own language that drew me to a port-side restaurant called Nikki’s in the neighbouring town of Es Castell. Ducking in, I was greeted by the proprietor herself, an imposing British woman with an inviting smile who had arrived in 1974 and, like many other Brits, found it a perfect retreat and never looked back (Lord Horatio Nelson is rumoured to have decamped to Mahon with his married lover, Lady Emma Hamilton, to escape the prying eyes of London gossips).

“When we started there were no taxes, no books, no till—there wasn’t even a menu,” said Nicky, her eyes glazing over at the memory. “It was so relaxed, so laid back.” 

Things still seemed pretty mellow in the little white-walled tavern. Spanish and British customers chatted like old friends, and our gracious host seemed to greet everyone by name.


On Horse Back

Having tackled the south-east of the island, I was ready to explore the rolling hinterlands that stretched the 29 miles between the island’s coasts. I’d signed up for a country ride led by 25-year-old cheese farmer and trail guide Raquel Manresa Raquel, an au naturel beauty hailing from Manresa, north of Barcelona, with rough hands and a gentle smile. She led me to Bruc—the biggest and darkest of several horses in the stables. 

“Can you get on?” asked Raquel, and we were off, trotting through wheat fields that undulated like ocean swells. 

Raquel’s charmingly unpolished approach to tourism seemed to be the status quo on Menorca, and it got me wondering how the island maintained such a relaxed and almost flippant regard for foreign holiday cash.

That evening in an empty pizza restaurant in the tiny cove-side town of Biniancolla, I got my answer—from a 66-year-old Menorcan fisherman and construction worker named Lito. He didn’t say much, but with some prodding let me in on the secret of their little paradise’s preservation: an incongruous trifecta of leather sandals, cheese and costume jewellery.

Before the tourist boom in the 1950s and 1960s, the island already had a healthy economy producing these three commodities for mainland Spain. So when, as Lito put it, “the girls in
bikinis came”, Menorca wasn’t salivating for tourist money. Instead, Menorcans passed a series of laws that protected the island and forbade major touristic development. 

“It’s still virgin land,” said Lito of much of the island’s protected areas. “I don’t want any more urbanisation,” he continued, gazing out at the dark, glassy cove he’s called home for his entire life. “It’s fine the way it is.”

It was hard to disagree—I’d been enjoying my escape from urbanity immensely. Yet by my final day on the island, I was craving a little civilisation, and I found it on Menorca’s most westerly point. 

While Mahon may be the port of arrival for visitors today, the cobbled streets of Ciutadella are more often the destination. Founded by the Carthaginians and already the seat of a bishop by the fourth century AD, the city was the capital of the island until 1722, when British conquerors moved it to Mahon. There are no cars allowed in the centre, so I strolled with other Saturday wanderers past the 13th-century Gothic cathedral and a smaller but no less splendid Baroque church. 

Shops offered a range of local treats: impossibly light and flakey Ensaimada pastries, wheels of tangy Mahon cheese and Menorcan ice cream in novel flavours. By the water, the town’s port was lazily upscale. Brits dined at pricey seafood spots, happy to bask in the afternoon sun.


Agroturismo: A Rural Hotel

That evening, I made my way by bike to Morvedra Nou, a 17-room agroturismo four miles out of town. These handsome rural hotels dot the island, often housed in farms and manors that blend seamlessly with the landscape. Mine had a pool, an elegant restaurant and a splendid room with doors opening to a private terrace. 

Retreating there solo with a glass of wine, I realised it was a Saturday night, and that I couldn’t have been more alone. As I was gazing upwards, a flash of bright white flittered across the darkness. At first alarmed, I swung around, straining my eyes at the starlit sky. Was it a bird? Suddenly it made another low pass: an enormous owl, ivory wings spread, two round, searching eyes gazing down at me, through me. And then the night creature was gone, disappeared into the cool darkness. 

I leaned back in my chair and soaked in the odd, magical quality of the island, where I was so free of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and yet in such spectacular company. 

Binibequer Vell

Binibequer Vell