All the magic of Minorca
The gentle pleasures of a sailing holiday around the Balearic Islands
WHAT were the Phoenicians thinking? The bay looks unprotected, naked, with barely a tree along the shore. Not at all a suitable harbour away from home for a race of seafaring traders.
Ah, but the water is blue, that only-in-the-Med sort of blue.
Perhaps the Phoenicians ranked a quick getaway ahead of the comfort and the shelter of Minorca’s narrow inlets, or calas, bounded by steep cliffs.
Minorca, the most northern of the Balearic Islands, which also include Majorca and Ibiza, has seen hordes of invaders over the centuries, and the remnants of their buildings are scattered along the rugged northern coastline.
From 2000 years ago images drift to mind of billowing sails and muscled rowers labouring across the shallow bay in wooden galleys. We, however, are sitting on Mistral, a sleek 47ft Beneteau yacht, with a bird’s-eye view of the round stone watchtower built in the 1700s by a later invading force, the British. We also have a bird’s-eye view of a portly German tourist stripped in the sun beside his campervan. The romantic musings vanish. The port at Sa Nitja, just across from Cap de Cavalleria, the island’s northernmost point, had seen Phoenician and Roman settlements.
Our friends, Paul and Sandy Mander, bought Mistral — a toy discarded after the global financial crisis — in Spain earlier this year, deciding to cruise in the European summers and eventually sail back to Sydney’s Pittwater. We meet on Majorca at its historic west-coast town of Soller, where a 100-yearold train line, the Tren de Soller, takes us from the capital, Palma,
to start the two-week sailing trip. It’s peak summer and Port de Soller harbour is chock-full of boats jostling for a safe anchorage and trying desperately to avoid tangled anchor chains. The French boat owners yell at the Germans, the Germans shout at the British, the British at the Spanish, and everyone is yelling at us.
The sail south along Majorca’s coast is brisk; we pass cliffs and green hills tumbling down to the sea beside the whitewashed village of Deia, where the poet Robert Graves lived and died.
Over two days we sail up the island’s eastern coast, reaching Majorca’s northeast tip as the sun is setting. But the wind changes, so instead of anchoring for the night in one of the inviting bays scattered along the north, we press on. ‘‘It’s only a seven-hour night sail to Minorca,’’ say our hosts.
Another day’s sailing and there on Minorca’s north coast — through what looks like a break in the rocks — is Cala Morell. The crevice turns out to be a plumshaped inlet, compact, with steep cliffs, some unstable looking shale-like rock and dirt topped precariously with whitewashed houses and villas.
Halfway up the cliff is a building that looks like a restaurant; a small dinghy means some of us have to swim for our lunch.
Life on a yacht is nomadic — choose a bay and anchor for the night. Further along the northern coast, Cala d’Algaiarens may be more sheltered than Sa Nitja, but it still smacks worryingly of a Phoenician love of openness. Nearby are favourite swimming beaches with choices for both nude and swimsuited bathers.
The swell is curving around the heads and the wind is getting stronger. ‘ ‘ Let’s put out a stern anchor, to be on the safe side,’’ says our captain. It’s pitch black and the rain pours down (where did this come from in a Mediterranean summer?), and then there’s another wind change. With the boat strung tight like a big, white, unyielding hammock between the two anchors, the swell hits beam on (for non-sailors, that’s smack on the side). Bang.
We levitate off the generous queen-size bed that takes up the aft (rear) cabin. It’s all hands on deck. Let the rear anchor go, and hope the buoy we have tied to it marks its spot in the morning. As I make the tea, I thank heaven for our bottle of 18-year-old whisky.
This bay looks like the real thing. It’s long and deep and cuts inland like a bulbous river. On the shore is Fornells, a town almost at the centre of the northern coast; it thrives on tourism; nearby beaches are good and the island’s only golf course at Son Parc is close.
Minorca is only 695sq km, so the main sights can be covered in two days in a hire car — the prehistoric talayots or megaliths dating from 1400BC and the village of Es Mercadal with its good bakeries.
With the yacht anchored safely ( fingers crossed) in Fornell’s harbour, we explore Ciutadella, the island’s former capital on the western tip. At the other end of the island is Mahon, the city that has assumed the mantle. Mahon is the capital’s name in the Castilian or Spanish language; in Catalan, it’s Mao. Everything here has two names, making directions confusing. Mahon brought mayonnaise to Western palates. The cheeses from Mahon are also good, but are known as Mao cheeses.
The medieval walls encircling Mahon have nearly all been torn down; a remnant of the original wall is the stone gate of Pont de Sant Roc, which survived the Turks’ sacking of the city in 1535.
Before the Ottoman Empire, Minoans from Crete were among the earliest peoples to occupy Minorca. By the fifth century there was a large Jewish population. Minorca was also sacked by the Vandals, but experienced some stability under Roman rule. During the 18th century the island was conquered by the British, the French, the British again, the Spanish and again the Brits, before returning to Spanish rule in 1802.
Wandering through the Museum of Minorca, the silence is striking. The beautifully restored stone building is perched high above Mahon’s harbour and was once a Franciscan monastery. The quiet is not reverence for the rediscovered treasures — a small bronze bull from the third or fourth century BC, or the first Pandora bracelet. Our small party — our hosts, us, their daughter and her fiance, plus a Spanish family and a British couple — has all these treasures to itself. I wonder if we have arrived on a religious holiday. ‘‘No,’’ says the helpful attendant, ‘‘everyone is at the beach.’’
During our last few days of sailing , we find the best of the calas. At the southern tip of Colom Island, the water is so clear that the knotty imprints of anchor chains on the sandy bottom seem only a few feet away. There is a forest of seagrass on one side of the bay, an arch of beach and shallows stretching to a farther white sand bay.
I have just finished singing the praises of the Med: no sharks, no sea lice and no stingers. Then, paddling through turquoise water, it bites me. The small pink jellyfish, like many things on Minorca, is beautiful. And probably one of the few aggressors left on the island.
Paul and Sandy Mander aboard Mistral as it pulls out of the harbour at Mahon, the capital of Minorca