The second largest of the Balearic Islands, boomerang-shaped MENORCA is the least plagued by unsavoury development. An essentially rural island, it features rolling fields, wooded ravines and humpy hills filling out the interior in between its two main – but still notably small – towns of Maó and Ciutadella. Much of this landscape looks pretty much as it did at the turn of the twentieth century, and only around the edges of the island, and then only in parts, have its rocky coves been colonized by sprawling villa complexes. Neither is the development likely to spread: determined to protect their island from the worst excesses of the tourist industry, the Menorcans have clearly demarcated development areas and are also pushing ahead with a variety of environmental schemes – the island was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993, and over forty percent of it now enjoys official protection.
Menorca is also dotted with prehistoric monuments, weatherworn stone remains that are evidence of a sophisticated culture. Little is known of the island’s prehistory, but the monuments are thought to be linked to those of Sardinia and are classified as examples of the Talayotic culture, which is usually considered to have ended with arrival of the Romans in 123 BC. Talayots are the rock mounds found all over the island – popular belief has it that they functioned as watchtowers, but it’s a theory few experts accept. The megalithic taulas – huge stones topped with another to form a T, around 4m high and unique to Menorca – are even more puzzling. They have no obvious function, and they are almost always found alongside a talayot. Some of the best-preserved talayot and taula remains are on the edge of Maó at the Talatí de Dalt site. The third prehistoric structure of note is the naveta (dating from 1400 to 800 BC), stone-slab constructions shaped like an inverted bread tin.
MAÓ (Mahón in Castilian), the island capital, is likely to be your first port of call. Perched high above the largest natural harbour in the Mediterranean, the town’s compact centre is no more than ten minutes’ walk from one end to the other. Its architecture consists of an unusual hybrid of classical Georgian townhouses, which reflect a strong British connection, and tall Spanish apartment blocks shading the narrow streets. Port it may be, but there’s no real gritty side to Maó, and the harbour is now home to a string of slick – if rather sedate – restaurants and cafés that attract droves of tourists. Wandering the maze of alleyways and peering into the gateways of the city’s collection of handsome old mansions are its charm, rather than any specific sight, and you can explore the place thoroughly in a day.
From near the ferry terminal, set beneath the cliff that supports the remains of the city wall, a generous stone stairway, the Costa de Ses Voltes, leads up to the series of small squares that comprise the heart of the old town. The first, Plaça Espanya, offers views right across the port and bay, and houses Maó’s bustling fish market, in operation since 1927.
Maó has a place in culinary history as the eighteenth-century birthplace of mayonnaise (mahonesa). Various legends, all of them involving the French, claim to identify its inventor: take your pick from the chef of the French commander besieging Maó; a peasant woman dressing a salad for another French general; or a housekeeper disguising rancid meat from the taste buds of a French officer. The French also changed the way the Menorcans bake their bread, while the British started the dairy industry and encouraged the roasting of meat.
Like Maó, CIUTADELLA sits high above its harbour, though navigation is far more difficult here, up a narrow channel too slender for anything but the smallest of cargo ships. Despite this nautical inconvenience, Ciutadella has been the island’s capital for most of its history, the narrow, cobbled streets of its compact, fortified centre brimming with fine old palaces, hidden away behind high walls, and a set of Baroque and Gothic churches very much in the Spanish tradition.
The main plazas, accommodation and points of interest are all within a few strides of each other, on and around the main square, Plaça d’es Born, in the middle of which a soaring obelisk commemorates the town’s futile defence against the marauding Turks in 1558. To the northwest, the square is bordered by the steep harbour walls, and in the northeast lies the vast nineteenth-century Palau Torresaura. Like many of the city’s grand aristocratic mansions, it is still privately owned and off limits to visitors.
Allow at least a couple of days, more if you seek out one of the charming cove beaches within easy striking distance of town – Cala Turqueta is the pick of the bunch.