Port Mahón, Menorca
Menorca, the northernmost Balearic Island, is a knobby, cliff-bound plateau with a single central hill-El Toro-from whose 1,100-foot summit you can see the whole island. Prehistoric monuments-taulas (huge stone T-shapes), talayots (spiral stone cones), and navetes (stone structures shaped like overturned boats)-left by the first Neolithic settlers are everywhere on the island, rising up out of a landscape of small, tidy fields bounded by hedgerows and drystone walls. Tourism came late to Menorca, but having sat out the early Balearic boom, Menorca has avoided many of the other islands' industrialization troubles: there are no high-rise hotels, and the herringbone road system, with a single central highway, means that each resort is small and separate.
Established as the island's capital in 1722, when the British began their nearly 80-year occupation, Mahón stills bears the stamp of its former rulers. The streets nearest the port are lined with four-story Georgian town houses in various states of repair; the Mahónese still nurse a craving for Chippendale furniture, and drink gin. You'll notice as you travel around the town and island that Menorcans use both Catalan and Castillian names in signage, Catalon most often by the people themselves. So you may hear Mahón called, simply, Maó by the locals, and will also see this on signs.
Ajuntament. From here, walk up Carrer Alfons III and turn right at the Ajuntament to Carrer Isabel II, a street lined with many Georgian homes. Pl. de la Constitució 1.
La Verge del Carme. This church has a fine painted and gilded altarpiece. Adjoining the church are the cloisters, now a market, with stalls selling fresh produce and a variety of local specialties such as cheeses and sausages. The central courtyard is a venue for a variety of cultural events throughout the year. Pl. del Carme.
Plaça de la Conquesta. Behind the church of Santa María, the Plaça de la Conquesta has a statue of Alfons III of Aragón, who wrested the island from the Moors in 1287.
Puerta de San Roque. At the end of Carrer Rector Mort, this massive gate is the only surviving portion of the 14th-century city walls. They were rebuilt in 1587 to protect the city from the pirate Barbarossa (Redbeard).
Santa María. Dating from the 13th century, this church was rebuilt during the British occupation and restored after being sacked during the civil war. The church's pride is its 3,200-pipe baroque organ, imported from Austria in 1810. From May or June through September, midday concerts are held here 11:30 to 12:30 every day except Sunday. Pl. de la Constitució.
Teatre Principal. Built in 1824 as an opera house-the oldest in Spain-the Teatre Principal has five tiers of boxes, red plush seats, and gilded woodwork: a La Scala in miniature. Lovingly restored, it still hosts a brief opera season. If you're visiting in the first week of December or June, buy tickets well in advance. Carrer Costa Deià 40.
Elsewhere in Menorca
Formells. The first fortifications built here to defend the Bay of Fornells from pirates date to 1625. A little village (full-time population: 500) of whitewashed houses with red tile roofs. The bay-Menorca's second largest and its deepest-offers ideal conditions for windsurfing, sailing, and scuba diving. The real draw of Fornells is its restaurants. This is the best place on the island to try Menorca's specialty, Es Pla caldereta de langosta (lobster stew).
Ciutadella. This was Menorca's capital before the British settled in Mahón, and its history is richer. As you arrive via the ME1, the main artery across the island from Mahón, turn left at the second roundabout and follow the ring road to the Passeig Maritim; at the end, near the Castell de Sant Nicolau watchtower (visits daily, June-October 10-1 and 5-10) is a monument to David Glasgow Farragut, the first admiral of the U.S. Navy, whose father emigrated from Ciutadella to the United States. From here, take Passeig de Sant Nicolau to the Plaça de s'Esplanada, and park near the Plaça d'es Born.
Ajuntament. From a passage on the left side of Ciutadella's columned and crenellated Ajuntament, on the west side of the Born, steps lead up to the Mirador d'es Port, a lookout from which you can survey the harbor. Pl. d'Es Born.
Catedral. Carrer Major leads to the Gothic Catedral, which has some beautifully carved choir stalls. The side chapel has round Moorish arches, remnants of the mosque that once stood on this site; the bell tower is a converted minaret. Pl. de la Catedral at Pl. Píus XII, Ciutadella.
Convento de Santa Clara. Carrer del Seminari is lined on the west side with some of the city's most impressive historic buildings. Among them is the 17th-century Convento de Santa Clara, which hosts Ciutadella's summer festival of classical music. Carrer del Seminari at Carrer Obispo Vila.
Museu Municipal. The museum houses artifacts of Minorca's prehistoric, Roman, and medieval past, including records of land grants made by Alfons III to the local nobility after defeating the Moors. It occupies an ancient defense tower, the Bastió de Sa Font (Bastion of the Fountain), at the east end of the harbor. Pl. de Sa Font s/n. Admission charged.
Palau Salort. On Carrer Major des Born, this is the only noble home open to the public-though at unpredictable times. The coats of arms on the ceiling are those of the families Salort (sal and ort, a salt pit and a garden) and Martorell (a marten). Carrer Major des Born. Admission charged.
Palau Torresaura. The blocklong 19th-century Palau Torresaura was built by the Baron of Torresaura, one of the noble families from Aragón and Catalonia that moved to Minorca after it was captured from the Moors in the 13th century. The interesting facade faces the plaza, though the entrance is on the side street. It is not open to the public. Carrer Major del Born 8.
Port. Ciutadella's port is accessible from steps that lead down from Carrer Sant Sebastià. The waterfront here is lined with seafood restaurants, some of which burrow into caverns far under the Born.
Menorca is known for shoes and leather, cheese, gin (introduced during British rule)-and recently, wine. The fine supple quality of the leather here serves high-class couturiers around the world, the surplus being sold in island factory shops. The streets of the compact center of Mahón are excellent for shopping.
Jaime Mascaro. The showroom here, on the main highway from Alaior to Cuitadella, features not only shoes and bags but fine leather coats and belts for men and women. Poligon Industrial s/n, Ferreries.
Marks. In Mahón, buy leather goods at Marks. Sa Ravaleta 18, Mahón.
Pons Quintana. In Alaior, this showroom has a full-length window overlooking the factory where its ultrachic women's shoes are made. It's closed weekends. Calle San Antonio 120, Alaior.
Xoriguer. One gastronomic legacy of the British occupation was gin. Visit the distillery for Xoriguer, on Mahón's quayside near the ferry terminal, where you can take a guided tour, sample various types of gin, and buy some to take home. Anden de Poniente 91, Mahón.
Several miles long and a mile wide, but with a narrow entrance to the sea and virtually no waves, the Bay of Fornells gives the windsurfing and sailing beginner a feeling of security and the expert plenty of excitement.