With more beaches than Majorca and Ibiza combined, it’s not surprising that Menorca is a popular Spanish holiday destination. But there is much more to this tiny island on the edge of the Balearics. With a convoluted history due to its strategic position and a Mediterranean landscape, Menorca has inspired artists, writers, photographers, artisans and other creatives to produce a treasure trove of cultural gems.
The island is strewn with archaeological remains telling the story of Bronze Age people who made simple pottery and delicate jewellery. Islamic rulers left beautiful buildings decorated with exquisite tile-work. European powers took it in turns to occupy Menorca, with Spain, France and Britain adding their own distinctive taste in architecture, art and culinary style. Religion continues to play a big part in daily life; Catholic churches and cathedrals may not have the opulence of Italian churches but are home to some very fine paintings and decoration. A relatively new phenomenon is the flourishing of quirky street art, reflecting a global recognition of this art form.
In both Ciutadella and Mahon (Mao), the old and new capitals of Menorca, there is evidence of this rich cultural mix to be seen round every corner. Magnificent palaces are home to a number of fine museums and galleries showcasing both classical artifacts and contemporary artworks.
Ciutadella – West Menorca
Castell de Sant Nicolau, an octagonal tower on the Passeig Maritim, has occasional art exhibitions, with great views of the island from its roof. Higher up in the main town, a maze of narrow streets and elegant squares including the Placa des Born, are lined with Gothic palaces, high-walled churches and shady arcades of attractive shops. Situated in a former convent, the Museu Diocesa de Menorca tells the story of the island’s history, has a collection of modern and older artworks and religious art, gold and silver (it’s very close to Ciutadella Cathedral). On a recent tour of the city, we passed Eglesia del Roser; in its entrance was a huge head woven from twigs – very striking.
If you get the chance, visit one of the palaces open to the public. Palacio Olivar, opposite the Cathedral, recreates the 18th c lifestyle of Menorcan nobility and Palacio Salort is crammed with antiques, tapestries, paintings and furniture and a grand ballroom with elaborate frescoes. On almost every street in the city centre you’ll find shops and galleries selling local art and pottery; just wander about and keep your eyes open for unusual sights.
Mahon – South East Menorca
The capital of Menorca has a wide range of options for cultural exploration. One of the newest attractions is the Centre D’art I D’historia Hernandez Sanz, which recently moved to Carrer Anuncivay 2. Within the cool, beautifully restored of the Palau Can Oliver, is an eclectic display of drawings, painting, pottery, maps, lithographs and other objects that reflect the island’s history.
Many are part of an original collection by polymath Hernandez Sanz, who published a compendium of Geography and History of Menorca in 1908. There are also prints of significant figures involved in the British occupation. In the basement is a display of archaeological finds and excavations. (Could do with some signs in English for overseas visitors.)
I loved these little etchings of Talyotic monuments that Hernandez produced on his travels around the island.
The massive walls of the 17th/18 c Franciscan Convent loom over the long harbour of Mahon. It is home to the Museum of Menorca, a relatively small, but interesting selection of the human occupation of the island. It was being renovated when I visited, but there was a small exhibition on display. Check opening times.
One of the oldest cultural centres is The Scientific, Artistic and Literary Centre (Ateneu Cientific Literari I Artistic de Mao). For over a 100 years, it has been hosting exhibitions of renowned and newer Menorcan artists as well as giving a platform for writers and scientists to share their work. Visit Xoriguer Gin Distillery, probably the oldest in the Mediterrean. Basket-weaving and shoe-making are traditional crafts; you can find plenty in the market in the Cloisters del Carmen next to the Fish Market in Mahon city centre.
Check out the Fiesta calendar for impressive horsemanship and colourful processions. The Teatro Principal, built in 1829, is the oldest opera house in Spain and regularly puts on concerts, operas and dramatic performances. During the summer months there are music recitals in Mahon Cathedral, which has one of the biggest organs in the world.
There are a great many pre-historic Talayotic sites around the island. Monuments including boat-shaped burial chambers (navetas), megalithic sepulchres, cone-shaped towers (talayots) and stone enclosures with T-shaped pillars (taules). These sites date from c 1000 BC up to the Roman conquest in 123 BC. My favourites include the Naveta d’es Tudons, Torre d’en Gaumes, Talati de Dalt and Trepuco.
British artists in Menorca includes Graham Byfield, who specialises in landscapes and architecture and has a gallery in the small town of Es Migjorn Gran, exhibiting his work and selling his books and cards.
Liz Spooner, known as ‘The Poppy Lady’ for her gorgeous big flower paintings, has outlets in both Mahon and Ciutadella.
If you like military history, Menorca has many places to visit. The most significant and impressive is La Mola. Covering over a kilometer, at the entrance to Mahon Harbour, this huge fortress was built to protect Menorca against invasion. It has Vickers guns (never fired in anger) and plenty of militaristic buildings and equipment to see.
Es Castell was founded by the British during their second occupation in the late 1700s. The main square has been renovated to give a better idea of the original army Parade Ground, surrounded by Georgian buildings, including the excellent Military Museum. It includes guns, flags, maps and a model of nearby Fort Sant Felip, which is also open to the public.
The charming Hotel del Almirante has a very personal collection of naval and local historical items, especially about Admiral Lord Collingwood, who used to live there. Once a week the owner gives a guided tour – check website for details.
Finally, Menorca is famous for its cheeses, loved by Spaniards and appreciated by connoisseurs throughout Europe. Still produced in traditional method, Hort Sant Patrici is an interesting Cheese and Wine Making Centre, near Ferrerias.
Their cheese is made from pasteurized cows’ milk, produced with rounded edges and ranges from , from a light 21 day cheese to mature cheese aged over 8-9 months. You can also see how they make their wines and in the grounds there is an exhibition of unusual sculptures amongst the vines.
Visitor Information for Menorca
To plan your holiday in Menorca visit the Menorca website and www.Spain.info or follow them on social media: Twitter @Spain_inUK | Facebook | Instagram. If you need a guide to show you the sites of Menorca, I can highly recommend Menorca Guides Luis Amella.
Thanks very much to Menorca Tourism for hosting my stay in a Travelator Media project in partnership with Spanish and Menorca Tourism.