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This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 21: The Islands Issue
It’s been an unusually cloudy day on the northern fringes of Menorca, and after chasing the patches of blue sky along the coast we settle into two wicker armchairs in a café in Ferreries, a sun-bleached town folded into acres of pine tree-covered hills. With drizzle awaiting us in London, we tip our heads back and wait desperately for the sun to tear through the clouds. It was only in that moment that I heard it: silence. No background hum of conversation. No murmur of traffic. Not so much as a bicycle bell or a faraway radio. Complete, utter silence, broken momentarily by the cartoon-like tweet of a bird overhead.
While many tourists flock to nearby Ibiza for its nightlife or Mallorca for its coastline, Menorca remains the quieter, lesser-known island of the mighty Balearic archipelago. It is still largely astonishingly untouched, deliciously stuck in a past of unmarked beaches, chiming church bells and rugged farmland pocked with crumbling shepherd’s huts.
You feel yourself slow down almost as soon as you make contact with the ground here. The pace is, at times, laughably unhurried. Mealtimes happen at any time between 8PM and midnight, and even the centre of the capital comes to a halt at siesta time. The island was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in the Nineties, protecting it from the growing tourist developments that have scarred Ibiza and Mallorca. It takes only a few hours — with a loosening of the shoulders and a few sips of local wine — to adjust to its woozy, unfussy mindset.
Locals have a strong, instinctual sense of the land. The island is full of artisans — dairy farmers, painters and cobblers — using methods handed down by their grandparents. They use the resources surrounding them, from baskets made with woven palms to cheese, olive oil and wine all infused with the sun-drenched taste of the earth. They eat freshly-caught fish, buy their meat from local farms, and cook with whatever produce the land has to offer. Monika Linton, the founder of the Spanish restaurant Brindisa, cherishes this quality. “For nine months of the year it is the agricultural rhythms of life that permeate the island,” she says. This resourcefulness, coupled with a healthy disrespect for the pace of modern living, gives Menorca such a strong sense of identity that you can touch, smell and taste it – and never, even for a moment, mistake it for anywhere else.
The car bumping over the ground like a fairground cart, we approached Binigaus Vell’s front door on a long farm track flanked by crumbling dry-stone walls and towering cacti. Situated half a mile from the sleepy town of Es Migjorn Gran, the hotel is a converted 400-year-old cattle farm overlooking the glimmering southern coast. It is a sprawling collection of old sculleries and outhouses, with an opulent main house at its heart. Seconds after learning that they ran their own stables, we had booked ourselves a horse ride for the next morning.
As it turns out, there are more suitable things to wear on a hack through an ancient coastal pathway than a polyester-blend jumpsuit. Following our guide, we rode for two hours uphill, past chalky cliffs, red clay valleys and tangles of perfumed pine trees, the tips glittering with raindrops. The small detail of being dragged through low-hanging brambles and needly bushes was easily ignorable on account of all this natural beauty – even when we popped out on to an empty, wind-whipped beach and I realised my clothes looked like they had been through a shredder.
Ciutadella is a city wedged between the past and the future. Townhouses are flaking and boarded up, and locals sit at their front doors watching the world go by. Here, weekdays and weekends blur together with little distinction. The buildings are the colour of a fruit bowl — tangerine, banana, peach — and shaded by palm and pomegranate trees. The narrow streets are filled with sleepy old leather shops, tapas bars and tabacarias, as well as video stores and cigarette machines, and the windows are shielded from the sun by handmade crochet curtains.
Taking the advice of a local, we headed straight to the fish market. This vaulted hall crawls with activity all day, with women in blue aprons sharing jokes and hacking away at freshly caught fish. We bought flaming red prawns and a whole squid and took them next door to Bar Ulisses, where they were cooked up for us with garlic and lemon. We ordered two glasses of vermouth with a side of croquetas de jamón and watched the butchers, hauling carcasses out of a delivery van, who then stopped to chat with their friends in the square with half a cow propped up on their shoulders.
Run by a Parisian with an exceptional eye for design, sumptuous Ses Sucreres is tucked away down a cobbled street in quiet Ferreries. The boutique hotel’s soaring, peaceful bedrooms contain white cotton sheets, cooling terracotta, and straw mats, with the windows flung open to the sound of horses clopping down the streets below. A small courtyard is laced with fluttering, soapy linen, with greenery clambering up the walls towards the scaly green paint of the building’s shutters. Losing track of time between pots of hot coffee and flaky pastries in Ses Sucreres’ sun-trap courtyard, we jumped back into the car for lunch at Binifadet, a winery in the southeastern coastal municipality of Sant Lluis. Passing through the primary-coloured seaside town of Es Castell, we reached Binifadet’s proud, whitewashed main house. Founded in 2004, it has become Menorca’s most beloved winery.
Driving us up the rutted lanes that thread through the estate’s 24 hectares of vineyards, the founder Luis Menéndez tells us that of the 100,000 bottles that are produced here every year, 80 per cent remain on the island. The land’s cool, dry conditions and tramontane (north wind) make for cleaner, lighter wines than its neighbours. At the front, a cocktail bar that wouldn’t look out of place in Barcelona served cocktails and small bites to the soundtrack of jazz and live DJs. For lunch we ate sardines on toast and silky salmon tartare underneath a canopy of vine leaves, sipping a succession of velvety chardonnays, syrahs and amber- coloured rosés.
After looping north towards the windy bay of Fornells to hop across the foamy rocks, we made our way to Mercadal. Its knotted streets are lined with fruit and vegetable shops and blacksmith’s workshops, and locals knock back cold beer in the sun. A staple of Menorca’s sweet-toothed diet is the ensaïmada, a coil of golden flaky pastry filled with homemade jam and dusted with icing sugar. We picked one up from local stalwart Cas Sucrer and ate it sitting on a white stone wall in the sun. Looking as though we’d face-planted into powder, we snaked through flat, flower-filled farmland back to Ses Sucreres, where we found the house cat curled up on the sofa and incense coiling through the air.
“Shall we just have a quick look?” I said, my nose pressed against the glass of Ca’n Doblas. The third-generation cobbler in this small shop learnt to make traditional avarcas from his father, filling the shelves with supple leather sandals in shades of clementine, olive and sandy brown. These simple shoes were originally designed to weather the lifestyles of local farmers. One pair was necessary; three pairs were purchased.
The nearby ancient quarry of Lithica is a maze of sandstone and overgrown greenery. Now a concert venue, it looks like a Mayan temple in a deep subterranean cavern of land. We stood at one of the lookout points and watched as a family attempted to navigate it, trying to keep the panic at bay. Afterwards, we bumbled back into Ciutadella for bitter espresso at the gold-dipped Bar Imperi. When the barman suggested that we try their homemade ensaïmada, we thought it would be utterly un-Menorcan to resist.
“This house is like an old lady – you have to keep her healthy and happy all the time,” laughs Beatriz Gómez, running a hand over the peeling doorway of Cas Ferrer, the restaurant that she runs with her partner, Emma Salud. After stints in some of London’s highest-profile kitchens, Bea grew weary of “using lemons from China”. The two returned to her native Menorca, where they took over this small, peaceful blacksmiths and transformed it into Ciutadella’s best restaurant. The colourful, comforting seasonal dishes and natural wine served here are made using only organic island produce. We took a seat beside the heavy stone fireplace while Bea prepared soft, flaky sardines, pastry with orange zest, and lilac-laced octopus carpaccio with buttery whipped potatoes. On our way out we kissed Emma on both cheeks and booked a table for the next evening.
Wielding a bottle of Binifadet chardonnay (bought for an unreasonably low price at a greengrocer on the corner), we climbed up the narrow ladder up to Hotel Tres Sants’s rooftop. This 18th-century former mansion has a Turkish bath, rooms with four-poster beds and painted stone floors. Up on the roof we found ourselves looking down at Ciutadella’s sea of terracotta rooftops. Washing lines flapped in the wind, the church bells chimed and the sea and sky merged into one blue mass.
Understanding that leaving Spain without having had paella would be sacrilegious, we pulled up a seat at Ciutadella’s bustling harbour-facing restaurant S’Amarador. We’d spent the day on Binimel-là, a collection of wild, grassy beach coves in the heart of the North Menorcan Marine Reserve.
The water had been glassy, cool and transparent; the sand had been the colour of burnt sugar and our fellow sunbathers had been stark naked. So, with sunburn on places that should never be sunburnt, we ate golden paella, which was studded with mussels, langoustines and squid, and tried to ignore each other’s ruddy complexions.
That evening we traced the sheer edges of the cliff path leading to Cova d’en Xoroi, an iconic 1960s bar built into the cool, echoing mouth of a cliff. Nowadays visitors flock in their white bodycon dresses to pose on the canopied bar-beds as the sunset transforms it into a dizzying scene of pink rock and cobalt-blue water. We enjoyed the views with a frosty gin and tonic, but left before a selfie stick took one of our eyes out.
Mahón, Menorca’s bohemian, art-filled capital city, slopes down towards the harbour. You’re never far from a view of this swaying inlet – the whole city seems to lean affectionately towards it, like a mother checking on a child. The pavements are dotted with olive trees and bronze sculptures, while concept stores (Kala, La Cereria) rub shoulders with sucrerias selling blousy cream cakes.
We dragged our bags (growing increasingly heavy with wine, cheese and pottery) through the cobbled centre towards Casa Ládico, a brand new, luxurious townhouse-turned-hotel washed in soft pastels, with a shimmering pool and private sun-flooded roof terraces. As is the way in Menorca, we spent the entire afternoon wandering aimlessly, moving in the general direction of Can Vermut, a stylishly ramshackle bar specialising in homemade (and lethal) fortified wine.
We dipped into the open door of a grand 19th-century townhouse on Carrer de Sant Jordi, where a local artist sat at his easel. Wiping his brush on a cloth, he shook our hands and walked us up a staircase lined with vibrant paintings of citrus fruits and almond-eyed women. Artists are at work all over this small city, from at-home studios to independent galleries. In fact, the entire city can at times resemble an old, tattered oil painting.
Mahón’s iconic fish market – found behind wrought-iron gates in the central Plaça d’Espanya – has been serving the city since the 1920s. One fisherman in particular caught our eye – a wide-grinning Italian who had sailed all over the world and ended up falling for Mahón and one of its local ladies. He stood over a clattering pile of oysters, shucking a few for us to try. “Menorca has the most beautiful oysters in the world,” he told us as we slurped the sweet flesh. “Pay me later!” he said, sending us to the other side of the market. Here we joined locals who were feasting on giant, sizzling pans of paella, steaming tortilla, newspaper cones of battered fish, pintxos, black rice and freshly carved jamón. After a lunch of octopus, cod croquetas, anchovies on toast and pan con tomate, we joined the rest of the city for a much-needed afternoon nap.
After a long walk down a dusty, sun-scorched path we reached Cala Mitjana, pitching up on the toothy rocks across the bay from the more popular sandy beach for a day of reading and watching the sailing boats slide in and out of the bay.
A ten-minute uphill stroll away from the beach, the newly opened restaurant Francesca serves modern tapas in a terrace overlooking the water, that is covered with plants. With a glass of lemon-spiked beer in hand we ate life-altering patatas bravas that had been doused in sobrassada, along with golden fried baby squid and octopus with paprika. It was only at the end of the meal (when talk turned, naturally, to dinner), that we realised we hadn’t checked the time all day, and turned to rush home. Julia, who has worked with Francesca from the beginning and had joined us for a pre-swim lunch, laughed. “Sit, sit! You’re in Menorca. We don’t run, we walk.”
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