This is not an easy month to be a Spaniard. The vaunted national soccer team, which won the last two major international tournaments, just suffered an ignominious first-round ouster from the World Cup. The royal family is in turmoil as well: public support is at a nadir, with the princess facing legal troubles and the king having just abdicated.
But Spain still has Menorca. The second-largest island of the Balearic archipelago, Menorca is the favored summer retreat for Catalans, who share a language, a culture and a proudly autonomous history distinct from the rest of Spain. When the affairs of Madrid — not to mention the heat — become too much to take, Menorca’s turquoise coves and wild Mediterranean landscapes are the perfect antidote.
Locals know Menorca has the best beaches, the prettiest coves and the least spoiled nature of any Spanish island. (Birdwatchers in particular flock here.) UNESCO noticed this too, and named the entire isle a protected biosphere — which means it can never be despoiled by the kind of flashy, high-rise development that has blighted Ibiza, Mallorca and much of the mainland coast.
To appreciate what makes Menorca special, you have to leave the cities behind and explore. Silvery olive trees, fragrant pines and abundant fruit and flowers perfume the countryside, which is dotted with the sunbaked ruins of Roman walls, old forts and crumbling castles.
Traverse the island’s periphery by car or bike to stumble upon coves (calas in local lingo) that are deserted even in high season. A short ramble through summer thickets rewards you with perfect swimming in limpid, sun-warmed water.
Menorca may feel remote, but getting there is easy these days. From mainland Spain, there are frequent flights on Vueling, the Spanish discount airline; ferries also serve the islands from the port of Barcelona, though the trip takes most of a day in each direction. In warm weather, Menorca makes a lovely side trip from Barcelona, but it’s also easy to island-hop by boat between Menorca, Ibiza and Mallorca.
Once on terra firma, to wander these shores is to walk in the footsteps of those who tread here in centuries past: Turks, Romans, Aragonese, Moors, French, British, and not a small number of Jews. Like the rest of the Balearics, Menorca was heavily Jewish in ancient times, before waves of forced conversions and expulsions gradually winnowed the population. But a Jewish imprint is still apparent in surnames like Jorda and Vidal, in Ladino words that have insinuated themselves into local dialects, and in the artifacts on view at Ciutadella’s history museum.
Much more evident is the British influence. The English Crown controlled Menorca for most of the 18th century, during which time it built many of the structures in the eastern port city of Mahón. Two hundred years after the British finally left for good, Mahón can still feel like a British colony in summer — albeit a more genteel one than neighboring Mallorca, where discos and resorts prevail. To Americans, Mahón is probably best known as the home of its eponymous cheese.
Those in search of Menorca’s magic should head instead to Ciutadella. On the island’s western coast, Ciutadella — “citadel” — is more Catalan in feel than Mahón, and though no longer the capital, it feels like the heart of Menorca. The city’s medieval core dates to Carthaginian times, with fortified promontories and damp passageways redolent of epochs past. In the rustic little bars with names starting with “es” and “sa,” the language of choice is Menorquín, a dialect of Catalan still very much in use.
From the 13th-century Moorish-style cathedral to the Latinate architecture of its later buildings, Ciutadella shimmers with a golden patina by day and a rosy glow by evening, when the setting sun dips into the harbor. Two bulwarks against erstwhile invaders — the Torre d’en Quart and the Castell de Sant Nicolau — loom over the urban landscape, their imposing, windowless forms a testament to maritime defense.
The British may have left, but two quintessential Menorcan tastes seem very British indeed: mayonnaise, thought to have originated in Mahón, and gin. Gin-tonics, as the Spanish call them, have been all the rage in Madrid and Barcelona for the past several years. But they never went out of style in Menorca. So while sangría may be the quaff of choice elsewhere in Spain, wind down in Menorca with a proper cocktail — and a toast to the Spanish island that, unlike the soccer team, never disappoints.