Short break: Formentera, Spain
The Balaeric isle is best known for white sands and laid-back vibes, but wild trails and hippy tales make for a truly thrilling two-wheeled escape, writes Gareth Clark
The Balaeric Isles are known more for their white sands than adventurous thrills, which makes the wild cycle trails, twinkling waters and ancient caves of Formentera an underrated joy
Dani, our guide, ducked beneath the threadbare prayer flags nailed over the cave mouth and smiled, pointing at an old mattress slid between two stalagmites: “Hippies!” he chuckled, “I pulled a whole kitchen out of one of these caves.”
But relics of Formentera’s psychedelic age – a time when Bob Dylan was said to have wintered here in a windmill – were few as we scrambled the cliffs of La Mola. The sun dimmed and we slid through another gash in the rock. Inside, my torch beam dwindled in the vast black, then splashed across a huge stalactite shelf hanging from the ceiling, stretched out like a pale, empty banqueting table.
“It takes 100 years for 1cm of stalactite to form,” whispered Dani. Civilisations had come and gone in its making, I thought, as we emerged to the red glow now bathing the cliff. We’d scrambled through megalithic burial sites, hippy dens and geological glories. It was a far cry from my idea of the Balaerics.
Formentera is tiny, just 19km from tip to tip, and its reputation as a quiet beach escape, away from the chaos of Ibiza (30 mins by ferry), is more likely to attract the odd celeb than hardy travellers. Most visitors just find a sandy spot, strip buck naked and let the sun do its work. But they’re missing a trick.
Some 32 cycling and walking trails web the little island, weaving old Roman roads, rose-pink salt pans etched with flamingos (Aug–oct), sun-lit fig orchards and 18th-century torres (towers) built to spot the Turkish/barbary pirates that once ravaged this region. Even today, Dani is the only walking guide to set up here, and it’s easy to explore its fringes in isolation. Then there’s the coast…
The next day, I pedalled to Es Pujols in the north. Off its sands lie the planet’s oldest living organism: posidonia, an ancient seagrass endemic to the Mediterranean shallows and some 200,000 years old. It acts like coral, helping to stop erosion, and its Unesco-listed meadows are home to myriad fish.
After a snorkel, I joined my catamaran co-captain, Alessandro, and we made our way to S’espalmador, a slip of sand and scrub off Formentera and part of Las Salinas Natural Park. It was for sale at £19.5m a few years ago, but visitors still drift into its bays. We made for the far north, where few venture.
“People say the house here belonged to one of Franco’s brothers,” said Alex – it made sense; El Generalissimo used Formentera as a prison in the 1940s. But S’espalmador’s interior is off-limits, so we pulled into a near-empty bay under a black-andwhite lighthouse. I splashed ashore and scrambled to the old torre, its ancient walls baking in the sun.
On my final day I cycled into Formentera’s west. Bumping past ruins and down dirt roads without any shade, I emerged breathless and hot at Cap de Barbaria’s lighthouse as the light fled. Romans, pirates, fascists, hippies – all have laid a claim here. Travellers are just the latest invaders. But, as Dylan might say, the times they are a-changin’.