A chime of bells marks the beginning. Then comes a beating of drums. A barely perceptible breeze carries the smell of hay. Collectively, a crowd of thousands hold their breath, shoulder to shoulder in the main square. Among them, standing, a single rider, in a frock coat on a shiny black stallion. He is the first caix (horseman) leading a cavalcade that will dance through the streets of the village in a vein shape, as the more daring members of the crowd – hype on local Xoriguer gin and Fanta limón (pomada) – touch the hearts of horses for luck. It’s the jaleo. It is Menorca.
The scene takes place all summer along the most oriental and sleepy Balearics, more discreet and less crowded than Mallorca and Ibiza. It is also the greenest island, in cautious growth, a Unesco biosphere reserve for almost 30 years. But beneath Menorca’s slow, dazed surface lies a more keenly felt intensity at its parties.
From west to east, from June to September, the towns of the island host a week of celebrations of the saints, starting with Sant Joan in Cuitadella and ending in the capital, Mahón (known locally as Maó), with Festivals of Gràcia. There are horses, fireworks, salsitx (sausages) and churros, drinks and dancing. Menorca and its festivals are inextricable. But since most things depended on large crowds in small places, they were on hiatus.
After two years apart, I’m back, and in many other ways, the island seems unchanged. It still looks like softly hooting owls, rustling palm trees, timeless roosters, and church bells. It still tastes like sangria and salt and pa amboli (olive oil bread). They still look like geckos soaring through the cracks in the dry stone walls, beige against a blue sky. And it’s always ridiculously good to be here. Menorca is my happy place. Its sleepy, dusty, blackberry-lined roads, whitewashed farms and bursts of bougainvillea are as much a part of me as the red buses of my native London.
This is where my grandparents – who bought the facade and then the back of a whitewashed farmhouse in Sant Lluís, Maó, in 1967 – became outcasts for painting their shutters sun yellow. (The front set is now regulation green, the rear still provocative gold.)
This is where my mom and uncle spent their training summers, driving from England on their £ 50 ‘overseas travel allowance’, which was carefully rationed at the Binibeca beach bar. And that’s where my uncle spent a night in a cell next to the church for insulting Franco at the Guardia Civil.
This is also where I spent my summers of training, running between the tables of tapas bars, menorquinas (frozen ice cream in a hollowed out fruit). Came here after exams, after breakups and after a festival in Valencia when I flew with a live chicken in the seat next door. I lived here alone one summer and ate so much cheese that the deli señora from the supermarket always greets me warmly, unpacking in a hurry formatting cabra.
So arriving in the warm morning air is as much like coming home as going on vacation. This year I’m bringing a fresh outlook with me – taking a newcomer to the island to my all-time favorite places. It’s partly a return tour, partly a tasting menu.
We hit the venerable tapas restaurant La Rueda in Sant Lluís for escalivada (roasted vegetables) and squid a la planxa. Then in the star garden of the country house La Caraba, we eat fresh interpretations of traditional dishes: caldereta, the local lobster stew, and torrijas, a sort of Spanish French toast.
We have crispy cava and pintxos To Mercat de Peix, the old fish market of Maó, anchovy hunt and tapenade on bread with fig pastries from the bakery the next door. We eat, on several occasions, in a quaint cellar and restaurant Binifadet (if Menorca is my happy place, Binifadet is 16 € a bottle espumoso is my happy drink).
There are people who are eyeing Bar Chèspir on the picturesque port of Cales Fonts (at the end is the the gate of Eos, the first point where the light of dawn hits Spain). There is a euphoric concert at Es Claustre, the courtyard of Maó Cathedral transformed into a concert hall. And there is snorkelling in the caves and coves around Binidalí.
We hike parts of the Camí de Cavalls, the coastal path that goes around the island, to the Stone of the Bronze Age talaiots and along the cobbled streets of Binibeca Vell. And we return on foot, counting the shooting stars of the Perseids. Showing old places to new eyes makes them especially special: the walls whiter, the sun brighter, and the pan con tomato more tomatoes.
There are also a lot of new things. I take the boat from Maó harbor to Illa del Rei, which houses an 18th century hospital and now the brand new Hauser & Wirth gallery. This is great news: an international art name is settling in the quieter Balearic Islands, its galleries filled with Marc Bradford, its gardens designed by Piet Oudolf (from New York High Line), its restaurant run by Binifadet. Its local initiatives include courses in astronomy.
It also evokes a larger trend, a revival. “Bringing new life to historic sites,” as Hauser & Wirth Menorca’s Mar Rescalvo puts it. Like many, Rescalvo, born in Menorca, left the island to find work. Now she’s back, part of the new wave. “There is a growing demand, reinforced by the pandemic, for spaces immersed in nature, aligned with the values of conservation and sustainability of Menorca,” she says.
She draws up a list: the island’s first cohabitation space, Add LiVitum; Cayón Gallery in an old maó cinema; and contemporary gallery Loac to Alaior. Es Claustre “is a historic site that hosts live music”, while chefs such as David de Coca at Sa Llagosta and Silvia Anglada at Es Tast de na Sílvia reinvent Menorcan cuisine. As a visitor, I would like to have more time to play; “As a Minorcan it’s definitely exciting to watch,” says Rescalvo.
There is still a big comeback kid: the Bucaneros chiringuito (beach bar) in Binibeca. Known widely as Santiago from the name of the man who ruled it, he is an icon of Menorca. There are pictures of my grandparents here with Santiago; shots of me wearing only ice cream, brown legs swinging on brown rocks. Everyone here has a connection, so when the bar closed, the family behind Binifadet revived it.
“It ties in with the spirit of the island,” explains Patricia Menéndez, whose father-in-law founded Binifadet. “Part of the childhood memories of locals and tourists, it is a symbol of Binibeca.” Bucaneros reopened this summer: same sunny spot, new elevated map.
This is where we are heading pomada sunsets after days in, over or under the sea. Maybe in other years I would expect to drink my gin in a jaleo, or the party. But here this year – with an iced glass and a few mussels, watching pedalos go by and kids playing Frisbee as the heat fades and Menorca goes into party mode – the beach bar seems like a pretty good deal. good place to toast a comeback.
Where to stay
Rural Hotel Biniarroca is a traditional farmhouse in Sant Lluís, near Binifadet (from 120 € per night B&B)). In the center of Mahón, Ses Bruixes Garden has a magnificent restaurant in the courtyard and an excellent breakfast (from 160 € per night in bed and breakfast).
From coves to caves: three ways to explore the island
From handle to handle
Take a boat trip to a cove with Faralmar, going up the east coast of Mahón through Sa Mesquida beach to the famous Favàritx lighthouse, or south through the quiet coves, caves and cliffs around Ses Olles, Caló Blanc and the Binis. From 430 € for a half-day (four people), with skipper, paddles, snorkels, snacks and beers.
To go to the night club
Hit the sunset sessions at Cova d’en Xoroi, a south coast bar and club carved into the cliff. There are day tours and DJs until dawn, but the ambient evening in between turns into a spectacular sunset, with a drink, music, and a clifftop view for 20. €, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Take a walk on the 186 km of the Camí de Cavalls, the old path that runs along the coast; stroll through the megaliths of talayot (Menorca has the highest concentration of prehistoric monuments in the world, so you won’t miss them); and up to Monte Toro at sunset – the still visible highest point of Menorca, topped by a chapel steeped in legend and a spectacular bar.