From the Carthaginians to Present Day – A Gem!
I must admit, before I read Patrick O’Brien’s nautical adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I had never heard of the tiny Balearic islands off the coast of Spain. Ibiza, Mallorca, and Menorca are rarely named in American text books let alone American travel brochures. But after devouring the entire twenty book series, the third time, I set the goal of visiting as many ports from the books as possible. Of course, doing so in a tall ship is still a dream, but I have managed to get to a few of their far flung destinations by modern means. The most recent, and perhaps one of the most important, ports we visited was on the island of Menorca–Port Mahón (Maó in Catalan).
We had taken the ferry from Mallorca to Menorca, rented a van, and spent the morning and early afternoon driving the short distance from Ciudada to Mahón while exploring a few archeological sites along the way. As we got closer to this old port city we noticed the tightly packed in stone buildings, mansions, and church towers glowing golden in the sun. Our GPS knew the way to our guest house so we entered the warren of narrow maze-like streets of the old town with confidence. Unfortunately, our GPS didn’t have the latest one-way street patterns that had apparently changed over the last few years and we were soon driving in circles around where I was sure the hotel could be found. Finally we just unloaded at a corner at the end of the street and I drove off, alone, to park the car and return to the group on foot.
This turned out to be the best strategy for getting around Mahón. There’s very little you can drive to anyway; almost everything you want to visit or see is within the confines of the old city and easy walking. With everything sorted out we checked in to our recently converted stone mansion and set out to explore the town at night.
Mahón at night is quiet and chilly in April. I’m sure it warms up nicely and becomes much more active in the summer months but for now we had the town almost to ourselves. We had gotten a later start then we should have for finding dinner. Most of the few open restaurants were finishing up service (earlier than expected for Spain) and we had a hard time finding anything, but we managed to find Santa Rita, a quirky tapas bar on the Plaça Bastió, where the chef owners were turning out small plate after small plate of the most delicious Spanish fusion food. The two women here were masters in their tiny kitchen working with little more than a two burner stove and an oven. All in all it was a fitting introduction to the city and we walked back to our hotel talking about the strange and interesting influences we found in the tapas that combined the flavors and styles of French, Spanish, British, American, Japanese, and Indian cooking (to name only a few)!
It should be no surprise to find such a mix of flavors here. The Balearic Islands are located in a strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea and have themselves been influenced by a number of different regional powers. The Carthaginians, Moors, Ottomans, British, French, and, of course, Spanish have all laid claimed to the Islands at some point in time. In fact, the French and British both held and lost the port of Mahón several times to each during the eighteenth century. Not surprising, since it’s port is one of the largest natural harbors in the world and perfectly situated to control that part of the Med. You can still find the influences of all of these different world powers in the architecture and flavors of the city as you walk through the cobbled lanes, alleyways, and streets of the town.
Walking along the harbor you can still see the warehouse and piers of the old British Naval yard, most of which is still in use by the Spanish navy. Farther out towards the seaward end of the bay you’ll find the old navy hospital island and the quarantine island where ships and crew would have to sit idly for weeks when they came in from some far off plague-ridden port. And at the end of the harbor, well worth a day trip out of the town, lies the defensive bastion of La Mola. The construction of this massive fortress was started by the British during the early 18th century but never finished. They chose instead to focus the defensive works for the harbor mouth on the south side at the Castle of San Felipe. Today little remains of that mighty castle because once Spain regained control of the island Spanish and British relations were never strong, and La Mola was built to protect the port from further British aggression. Now you can easily spend a few hours exploring the gun batteries, casemates, underground galleries, walls, and barracks of the sprawling fortress.
There are regular flights daily to Menorca airport (MAH) out of Mallorca, Barcelona, Madrid, London, Glasgow, and Rome. From the airport it is a short bus ride (â‚¬2.50) into town. To arrive by ferry, you can take the Alcúdia-Ciudadela ship daily and then drive or bus down the island to Mahon about two hours away. Or, and this is my plan for our next trip to the island, take the daily ferry out of Barcelona directly into the port of Mahon and arrive by sea just as Jack and Stephen would have done in those adventurous days of the 18th century British Navy.
Of course, there are a variety of places to stay; hostels, inns, hotels, self-catered flats or houses all can be found but may be difficult to book last minute during high season and many are closed in the off season. Plan accordingly. We stayed at the small and pleasant Petit Mao ran by a welcoming and informative hostess offering delicious breakfasts.