Minorca / Menorca

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*Minorca – Menorca in Spanish (or Catalan) – is the second largest and the least developed of the Balearic Islands. Though it has a long tradition of tourism, particularly catering to the British market, the industry is far more restrained and less obtrusive here than on brasher Majorca and, for a variety of reasons, Minorca is notably more exclusive. Its beaches and, especially, its calas, coves, are lovely, its waters are clear and enticing, its gastronomy simple but delicious, its fiestas lively (and very horsy), and its sights range from the British colonial streets of Mahon to the weird prehistoric monuments dotted all over the island. It will appeal to those who want a trouble-free family vacation, divers and yachtsmen and women and other enthusiasts of sports wet and dry, nature lovers (the whole island has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve), and those who are looking for that ever more elusive experience – an island holiday with a genuinely Spanish flavour.

Minorca owes its name to its larger brother, Majorca: after all, nothing can be smaller unless something else is bigger (or should that be the other way around?). It is almost always described as boomerang-shaped, and in fact its map looks not unlike a squashed version of Australia, so just to be different, let’s say it resembles an arched left eyebrow. It is around 32 miles east-to-west and about 9 miles wide north-to-south in the middle. The northern part of the island is much more rugged and strikingly beautiful, while the south is flatter and more gentle. Though Minorca has two cities vying with each other, neither is large or to any significant extent industrial and the island is essentially rural, though no longer agricultural. Its capital, Mahón, is in the east of the island, while its second largest town, Ciudadela, although at the opposite end of the eyebrow or boomerang, is only a forty-minute taxi ride away. So Minorca is extremely manageable in scale, and while it is always more convenient to have your own wheels, it is far from essential.

Minorca’s winter rainfall makes it the greenest of the Balearic Islands, though it is also the windiest, which can make it uncomfortable in winter, especially when the fierce, northern Tramóntana blows. The wind shapes the landscape, particularly in the north, from the trees bent dramatically over by the wind, to the windmills found all over the island, and the dry-stone walls built not to divide up the fields but to break the wind and prevent the soil being stripped. Unfortunately, as the island’s economy has shifted towards tourism, much of the island’s farmland is no longer cultivated and neglect is having negative effects almost as threatening as wind erosion.

More positively, development on Minorca is strictly restricted, and not just because of its status as a biosphere reserve. Its permanent population of less than 70,000 tends to see its quality of life as dependent on tourism but, unlike other places in Spain, has long considered sustainability important. Minorca’s slightly elitist nature as a tourist destination has facilitated this mindset: it is easier to convince someone not to think only in terms of short-term gain when the reward for restraint is already noticeable, in this case in the form of higher prices and tourists with fatter wallets.

For such a small place, Minorca has a lot of history, going back into prehistory. The whole island is dotted with mysterious megalithic monuments, representing and giving its name to the talayotic culture dating from the second millenium BC, which were in use until the Roman invasion in the second century BC – some talayotic settlements were still populated hundreds of years later when the Arabs ruled Spain and the Balearic Islands. Navetes are large, oblong structures which were probably burial places. Talaiots or talayots, named from the Arabic word for “tower”, are locally believed to have been just that, watchtowers, and though historians doubt this, they have no more convincing explanation for their function. Taulas are weirder – massive pairs of stones placed to make a “t”. Theories about them abound, of various degrees of implausibility.

Sometimes because of its fertile land and fisheries and others for its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Minorca has been invaded over and over again throughout history, sometimes with concommitant conquest and occupation. The Carthaginians were the first to occupy the island in the 7th century BC, establishing colonies including Jamma and Magón, now Ciudadela and Mahón, which must have coexisted with the Talayot townships. They were followed successively by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors, and Catalan-Aragonese.

Most recently, the British had an influence on Minorca which is evident in various ways. Minorca was captured by the British in 1708 in the tremendously complicated War of the Spanish Succession, and they held on to it for the greater part of the eighteenth century, moving the capital from Ciudadela to Mahón because of the latter city’s deep harbour. The British legacy is most visible in the architecture of the streets of Mahón and other places but, on another level, the English also brought a part of their industrial revolution with them, giving the island something of a jump start over the rest of Spain. Minorca’s famous gin and the horses at the heart of its fiestas date from this time.

Minorca’s other municipalities are Alaior, Es Castell, Ferreries, Es Mercadel, Es Migjorn Gran, and Sant Lluís. In turn, these include gems like the lovely fishing village of Fornells and its near legendary but less than modestly priced seafood restaurants (the waterfronts of Ciudadela and Mahón can also be a little too chic for some tastes). But many of the places the visitor will enjoy most are beaches and coves with little or no human settlement, like the fabulous Binigaus, a mile of gorgeous, fine sandy beach with scarcely a soul in sight in spite of the conglomerations in the beaches to either side, or Cala en Turqueta which, even when the lack of vehicle access fails to prevent it becoming crowded with both people and yachts, is one of the most picture-book perfect spots you are ever likely to find.

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