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The Jewel of the Balearics


In some lands, the history of the nation is preserved in stately museums, its relics and remnants preserved for posterity under glass and key. In other places, history consists of grandiose monuments and droning lessons to bored students. On the Balearic island of Menorca however, history can be seen everywhere in the landscape of the island itself.


The remnants of prehistory

Menorca is known as the Jewel of the Balearics and is still relatively unscathed by the hordes of pleasure-seekers from the UK and the Continent who annually overrun the neighbouring ‘party’ islands of Ibiza and Majorca. Its main town of Mahon is rather sedate in comparison, and is the most convenient place to observe the legacies of the numerous foreign invasions that have swept over the island throughout its history, of which the sun-worshipping tourists are only the latest wave.

Scholars know that the islands have been inhabited at least since the prehistoric days of the Bronze Age, for these mysterious early settlers left intriguing structures behind. There are almost 500 of these stone monuments scattered about the island, a remarkable amount for such a small land space. These are the remnants of the Talayot culture, named after the rock mounds dotted over the island. The megalithic taulas – huge stones topped with another to form a T and almost always found near a talayot – are just as puzzling.

Then there are navetas, stone resembling a dolmen. Many have false ceilings, and although you can stand up inside they were not living spaces. Despite much speculation, no one really knows why they were built. What is clear is that they aren’t defensive structures, so these early settlers must have lived in peaceful times. Such harmony was not to last however, as much of the island’s later history was filled with warfare and strife.

The beginning of warfare and turmoil


Perhaps the earliest instance of such troubles came during the Roman times. The first foreign invasion came in the year 123 BC, when Roman Consul Quintus Cecilius Metellus conquered the islands. The islanders pelted his ships with stones, but the resourceful Roman shielded his ships with leather and landed on shore. It was the Romans who gave the island the name ‘Minorca’ or little one, in comparison to the larger islands in the grouping, which they named the Balearics because of the locals’ talent in the ballistic art of stone-throwing and catapulting.

They were hardly the only Europeans to come reach Menorca however, as archaeologist have found broken pottery shards, tarnished bronze coins and other clues indicating the presence of Greek, Carthaginian, Phoenician and numerous other foreign visitors. Modern visitors can easily see why the island was attractive to these first voyagers: Menorca is blessed with beautiful beaches, deep bays, rocky hills and deep woodlands, making it an excellent naval base. This beauty and strategic position was, unfortunately, the reason for the continued interest by foreign nations.

The Romans quickly lost the islands to the Vandals, who in turn quickly lost it to the Moors, and then to the Spanish. Each succeeding wave of invaders left their mark on the towns of Menorca: there are interesting little early Christian basilicas such as Son Bou and Fornás de Torelló, left from the time of the Romans; the Moors left ruins such as the cliff top castle of Santa Agueda. Many remnants from a previous age were converted to a new use by the next invaders — perhaps a minaret converted to a bell tower, or a house turned into a shop. In fact, almost the only period that didn’t leave many overt rmemories was the Vandal occupation.


During the 16th century, Menorca was the victim of an incessant series of pirate attacks and raid. At one point, almost half the population of the island was either killed or enslaved by the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, and the unfortunate city of Mahon, which was conveniently situated by an accessible harbour, was completely destroyed. The Emperor of Spain ordered the construction of a fortress above the harbour to protect the island, and named it after his son, Felipe. It’s somewhat dubious whether the fortress was really much use, for soon afterwards the Turkish Ottoman fleet destroyed Ciutadella and carried away three thousand citizens as slaves. Many of the subsequent settlers were Spanish farmers, and they rebuilt the town in a Catalan style. Today, it is still the best example of Spanish influence on the island.


Menorca’s fortunes become tied with Spain

Unfortunately for Menorca, the 17th and 18th centuries were among the most politically turbulent the island had to endure, as the Spanish, the British and the French continually squabbled over possession of the land. Sovereignty changed hands several times. The British were able to maintain a foothold on the island for a time and left their mark in the cuisine, some words in the local dialect and most prominently, in the abundance of houses with typically Georgian bow windows, particularly in the town of Es Castell and Mohan. The French left less of themselves, but did take away a local sauce made from whipping together oil and egg yolks, which they marketed as mayonnaise. In true European tradition however, the other claimants continually harassed the islands and made a number of territory swaps, finally leaving Spain as the sovereign of the island.
Under Spanish rule yet again, the fortunes of the Menorcans fluctuated until the entire Balearics Islands was accorded the status of an autonomous region. The tourism boom, which began in the late eighties, brought another new type of architecture to the island: resorts. Unlike those of other island destinations however, these resorts were deliberately built in the local style, and for the most part, do an admirable job of blending in. Despite the Spanish traditions however, a visitor only has to look around the landscape to pick out remnants of a time when other nations and traditions held sway. It is little wonder then why many scholars are apt to call the island ‘an open-air museum’.


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