Travel Right
My Menorca
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My Menorca

by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

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    She was an enchanted island, lost in
    the midst of the sea.
    Her people lived their lives wedded
    to their tasks, knowing nothing
    of other lands or other skies
    or other seas.
    Because for them there was no other
    world beyond their own.

From “A Menorcan Romance” by Gumersindo Riera

Travel Right
In the swirl of European summer travel, Menorca is the calm eye of the storm. It is not a jet-set haven or the playground of young, swinging Europe; rather, it is an island that attracts visitors who love the sea and sand and quiet nights.
     From the air, Menorca lies open like one’s palm, smooth and pink, and crisscrossed with twisting and narrow roads that look like so many lifelines. The island, one also sees from the air, crowds its coasts. High-rises hotel complexes and sprawling urbanizations hem in rocky coves and patches of Mediterranean sand, leaving the interior landscape to a few towns, miles of low, rock walls, and isolated whitewashed farmhouses.
     When I first visited the island in 1968, (coming home from Ethiopia) Menorca was still building its jet airport and high-rise beach hotels. There were only a handful of telephones on the island, no television, and I was able to rent a two bedroom apartment for $1 a day.
     Now everyone in Menorca has a phone. In fact, on my last visit it seemed as if everyone had a cellphone. There are package tours from England, a new golf course, wind surfing clubs, discos, crowded summer beaches, and expensive hotels. The island, like life itself, has lost some of its charm, but there are still many of the old ways to be found behind the high gloss of developments, and much of what is new, is very good.

Where in the world is Menorca?
The island of Menorca lies in the Mediterranean, 130 miles off the coast of Spain. It is the northernmost island of the Balearic archipelago. Less than 32 miles long and only nine miles wide, it has more than 100 sandy beaches, rocky coves and tiny inlets. The abundance of warm blue water beaches is the island’s greatest, but not, it’s only attraction.

The capital, Mahón, is a city of 25,000, half the island’s population. Mahón is an ancient fort-city, built by the Carthaginians high up on steep cliffs.
     The word ”Mahón” is actually a corruption of Portus Magonis, the name of Hannibal’s brother who spent the winter of 206 B.C. in Menorca. He was on his way from the Spanish mainland to Italy, where he was bringing reinforcements to the Carthaginian armies.
     (Note: Today, with the island’s language Menorquin being standard on the island, Mahón is called Maó and nearby Villacarlos is Es Castell. but for purposes of this article, I’ll use the familiar Spanish names.)

Prize of the Med
Because of its deep harbor and the island’s strategic location, Menorca has been a prize in the Mediterranean through centuries of sea warfare, and each conquering army left something behind.
     Mahón has one of the finest deep-water anchorage in the world. The U.S. maintained a naval base in the Port of Mahón from 1822 to 1847 where midshipmen trained prior to the founding of Annapolis. A number of sailors married Menorcan women and America’s first Admiral, David G. Farragut, was of Menorcan descent.
     Lord Nelson sailed into the port of Mahón in 1799, arriving with a squadron and seizing the Golden Farm, a red-brick mansion with a classical portico that overlooked the harbor. Some accounts say that Lady Hamilton was with him during the several months he spent on Menorca, but local historians have no record of her arrival. There is documentation, however, that Lord Nelson wrote part of his memoirs while on the island. The Golden Farm is still visible high on the cliffs overlooking the city.
In and around Menorca
Mahón has Georgian town houses and tight, narrow cobblestones streets that twist and turn through the hills, leading from one plaza to the next.
     And herein lies the town’s real pleasure — to wander aimlessly about, discovering accidentally the eccentric collection of historical sights. In the Plaza Generalísimo Franco, for example, is the Baroque church of Santa María, built in 1748. Farther along a cobblestone side street is the city’s most famous ruin, a section of the medieval stone fortification walls that were erected around Mahón during the reign of King Alfonso III, who conquered Menorca in 1287.

What to do in Menorca
An ordinary day

I usually start my day in Mahón with café con leche and a huge sugar-dusted pastry called an ensaimada at the American Bar in the Place Reial in the center of town, and read yesterday’s Herald Tribune while watching the small cobblestone streets fill up with British tourists.
     Then I wander off to have lunch down on the port, or drive to nearby Cala Fonts, an inlet in Villacarlos, where I can stare at the water and enjoy a meal at one of the half-dozen inexpensive seaside restaurants.
     Later in the afternoon, when the sun is less menacing, I’ll drive to the new Son Parc golf course (Club de Golf Son Parc, Apartado 634) and play a round. The course is only nine holes and not difficult, and its setting, carved out of farmland and pine groves, is lovely. Afterward, I might go for a swim at nearby Son Saura beach, a smooth arc of sand in a glorious cove.
     Returning to Mahón. I stop at sunset in Cala Fonts. There, in the mouth of the harbor, I have a drink and watch the fishing boats glide silently out into the night.
   Then I return to Mahón and head for the port, where new shops and restaurants have turned the harbor area into the center of the island’s night life. Two new bars which get started after midnight are Café Baixamar and Akelarre.
     If you can’t stay up that late, go back to Villacarlos and find Gabriel’s Bar on Cala Corb. Owner Gabriel has been singing Spanish standards and folk songs here since the Sixties. It’s a wonderful way to end an evening.

Beyond Mahón
Most of the island’s interior is farmland. The gentle, rolling hills are dominated by large red-tile-and-whitewash houses built to overlook acres of green fields. The land has been squared off with long walls of rock, cleared from the fields and built up through centuries of manual labor. These walls stretch to all horizons in checkerboard fashion, and when you drive the narrow back roads, you feel caught in an endless maze until quite suddenly bright blue water comes into view. Every road in Menorca leads eventually to the sea and the sand.

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