Small island, big welcome – Menorca,
Although smaller than most of its neighbours, Menorca is an island with a big heart
Looking in through the large metal door that had been left ajar, it took a moment to adjust to the light of the interior. The large workshop was shielded from the brightness and heat of the sunshine beating down on the outside street. I was motioned to come in. The placed buzzed with activity and the sounds of machines whirring and punching.
The space was filled with the woody, musky almost floral smell of leather; rolls of tanned hides of differing colours and textures were stacked on broad shelves against the walls; whilst filling a corner were hundreds of small black plastic soles, paired together with elastic bands.
I’m in Ferreries, a white washed, inland village on the small Mediterranean island of Menorca (also known as Minorca). This ancient community, almost hidden amongst the few hills found on this relatively flat island has long been the home to Menorca’s sustainable, artisan industries that make beautiful leather goods.
Menorca’s interior is easily explored; and its pastoral landscape, still defined by thousands of kilometres of dry stone walls dating back centuries, makes walking, cycling and horse riding a big draw for visitors. There is always something to see on the way, including ancient megalithic stone tombs and monuments that are found throughout the island, forming part of a complex history that has also been marked by battles and invasions.
Now though Menorca is defined by its slower pace of life, a friendly and welcoming holiday destination with a big heart. The island has maintained its Mediterranean, Balearic identity, through a distinct gastronomy, local crafts and a protected environment.
I’m having a day away from the beaches. Yet with over 200 kilometres of coastline, it is sometimes hard to pull oneself away from those postcard-perfect beaches with photogenic aquamarine waters. The south of the island offers the most popular and expansive pine tree fringed beaches including Son Bou, Cala Galdana and Cala’n Bosch, although these are developed and sometimes crowded in summer. Luckily there are plenty of small coves too, including Cala Trebalúger in the south east, and Cala de Binibèquer in the south west, for those searching for a quieter experience.
The Balearics are also about sunsets and mellow beats, so for the quintessential Menorca ‘sundowner’ get to Cova d’en Xoroi, in Cala’n Porter. It’s true that one has to pay to get into this unusual cave bar, built high into the cliff, but with such stunning views, expertly crafted cocktails and some cool tunes, it is worth the climb and the price.
Menorca’s wealthy Balearic neighbours, Mallorca and Ibiza are the faster-paced, more glamorous destinations, but Menorca, the ‘small island’ is where the big, untouched beauty lies. So to escape the well beaten summer holiday trail, and the tourists that spill out from the larger hotels, head to the island’s wild north coast. It is sometimes windier here, but for those willing to trek a little, there is an ample reward; the hidden Menorca. Here one finds off-the-beaten-track coves or ‘calas’. This is where many of the islanders themselves enjoy their free-time, with wind surfing. Off season this rugged terrain is dotted with unusual natural rain water ponds, surrounded by twisted pines and rugged rocks.
However peaceful and slow-going much of the island may be, summer is certainly party time. Menorca has just welcomed summer in a big way with the ‘Festes de Sant Joan’. These traditional festival celebrations involving dancing horses and plenty of madness, go on for days each June in the city of Ciutadella, in the west of Menorca.
The summer continues with plenty of fiestas, concerts and events and this month sees Ciutadella celebrating its 41st summer classical music festival; whilst in the east, Mahón, the island’s capital, plays host in July and August to Menorca’s biggest international music festival.
These port cities are the vibrant heart of the island’s social scene. Ciutadella, the old capital of Menorca has a real charm, with a beautiful old town, ‘Es Born’. The narrow streets are full of ancient palatial homes, and historic buildings.
Mahon was made the capital when the British invaded in the early 18th century, and still has architectural and historical elements reminiscent of the British occupation. The city has many restaurants and bars and is increasingly being recognised for its gastronomy. It may upset the French, but it is said that mayonnaise originated from Mahon, (hence ‘Mahonesa’ ) so expect some rich and tasty aioli with tapas and pintxos in the local bars. The town is also famous for its creamy cheese, ‘Queso de Mahon’ presented in large squares.
Look out too for the locally produced gin, richly flavoured with island grown juniper berries. Introduced to the island by the British, this distinctly Spanish Gin remains popular. Don’t order a ‘G&T’, as most drink it straight, or mixed instead with lemonade. This is called a ‘Pomada’ and is for many the summer flavour of the island.
Understandably one can enjoy plenty of fish and seafood too. On the north east coast is the village of Fornells. Overlooking a narrow, deep bay, this is the place to enjoy authentic cuisine in one of the waterfront seafood restaurants. The small traditional llauts, or lobster fishing boats, bring in the daily catch, so of course the dish to try is the ‘caldereta de llagosta’ or lobster stew; it’s pricey, but worth it.
For those with a sweet tooth, take a bite of an ensaimada. It’s the typical cake from Menorca, a sweet and sugary pastry that’s made with pork fat giving it a distinctive, rich flavour. It may not sound appetising, but it is surprisingly good.
Back at the Ferreries workshop, I’m seated and having my feet measured. Within minutes a hide is being stamped and the precisely cut pieces of soft leather are expertly stitched to a sole. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to see first-hand how ‘Avarcas’ are made – the elegantly simple sandal that although is unique to the island, is popular across the Balearics and internationally.
Just in time for me to step back out into the bright sunlight in search of a place for lunch I’m generously handed by very first pair of Avarcas. These hand-crafted shoes pretty well sum up this fascinating island for me; authentic, simple and beautiful.