The Spanish Balearic Islands are usually associated with Brits-abroad, lounging sunburnt in the sunshine. But see beyond the stereotype: Menorca is also a hotbed of culture.
The island is famous for its vast collection of megalithic stone monuments which communicate very early prehistoric history. There are navetas – megalithic chamber tombs which take the shape of an upturned boat; mysterious taulas – nobody knows exactly what their purpose was but the fact they all face south hints at an astronomical link. And then talaiots – another unsolved mystery. There are 274 spread across Menorca and Majorca. You’d do well to rent a car in Menorca to see as much as you can. Try easyCar for competitive rates.
Throughout history, the territory of Menorca has been in great demand by invading forces. After the Punic Wars – a series of wars between Rome and Carthage (in North Africa) – Menorca was flooded with pirates. They used the Balearic Islands as their base to raid Roman commerce. In retaliation, Rome invaded and by 121BC, Menorca was under Roman control.
In the middle ages, Menorca was in the possession of the Vandals, then the Byzantine Empire took control, next it became part of the Caliphate of Córdoboa, with many Muslim Moors emigrating here, bringing with them grand and ornate Moorish architecture.
Later, the island found itself at the centre of a European power struggle. The British invaded. Desperate to retain power of the island, which they used as a naval base, they wrestled it back from the invading French, and then later the Spanish. It was only after the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 that the island was allowed to fall permanently under Spain’s jurisdiction.
Behind it, the British Empire left sash curtains and a series of monuments, the names of which, seem very out-of-place in the Spanish landscape. There is St Philip‘s Castle and Fort Marlborough – a spectacular 18th century fortress carved into the rock. From the upper level, visitors can see astonishing views of Mao harbour.
Visit the Ciutadella de Menorca, the town on the western end of the island, which was under Moorish rule for several centuries. Although it is no longer the island’s capital, Ciutadella de Menorca remains the island’s religious centre after the Bishop refused to move. Here, you can find the cathedral – constructed on the site of an old mosque after King Alfonso III of Aragon invaded. The interior is lavish and covered in marble.
Unlike the rest of Balearic Islands, Menorca stayed loyal to the Republican Spanish Government during the Spanish Civil War. Once in power, Conservative dictator Franco punished the island for its loyalty. He allowed mass tourism to develop on near-by Mallorca but not on Menorca. Today this decision is still evident, Menorca remains un-stifled by its growing tourist trade.
This means tourists can easily access local culture without falling into a tourist bubble – easy to do on other Spanish islands. Throughout the summer, the island is alive with fiestas. Every year, each town hosts its own celebration as black stallions parade the streets and music plays for the crowd. Horses always play a central role in the island’s fiestas – either in the form of jousting or racing.
Menorca’s most famous fiesta is the Ciutadella’s three-day celebration in honour of Saint Joan, held on 23rd and 24th of June. However other celebrations trickle through the summer, ending on the 8th of September.
Music plays a big part of island life. The internationally renowned Minorca International Jazz Festival is held during the spring months with music both indoors and on the streets. The island’s Opera Week is held twice a year, in Mahon Main Theatre.
The island’s popular museums include The Military Museum and the Municipal Museum of Ciutadella des Bastio de sa Font, filled with archaeological materials. As you amble around, read the Ciutadella’s history in its architecture; from modern influences to the Islamic period and further back to prehistoric ages.
The Museu de Menorca is a former 15th century Franciscan monastery, containing the earliest history of the island. Learn more about the Roman and Byzantine eras as well as Muslim Menorca. There are also more contemporary paintings on display.
If that’s not enough to satisfy your taste for art, there are plenty of galleries scattered over the island. In Mahon, see mostly local artists at The Scientific, Artistic and Literary Centre, open since 1905. In the Cuitadella, Art I Joca gallery shows more Menorcan and Spanish artists, or for contemporary art, head to the Arantza y Cia art gallery in Alaior.