II walk along a sandy path through a forest above the vibrantly colored Kingfisher coast. It smells of hot pine and wild rosemary. The sound of the bells deep in the woods stops me dead. Have I finally lost my mind, after months of solo piloting through the pandemic on this little island far from home?
From between the trees walks a herd of cows, as in a picture book for children, caramel color, soft nose, watery eyes and each with a collar from which swings a big bell. Mystery solved, I get my water bottle and continue.
After leaving a job with spectacularly bad timing just before the first lockdown and ending an unsatisfying relationship right after the lockdown started, I got stranded in Menorca for complicated reasons. They involved a two-week holiday in Italy in the fall, which turned into an accidental trip across Europe as UK Covid travel regulations shifted and changed, with me choosing to stay on the move at one days of stillness, rather than going back to another lock alone in the gray of my apartment that can’t swing a cat.
The CamÃ de Cavalls was created by the Iberian King James II in 1330 to improve the defenses of Menorca. The islanders were to keep an armored horse on standby and patrol the 185 km path that encircles the coastline. The road was not of much help, however: the island was constantly attacked by pirates and then invaded several times in the 18th century by the European powers who valued its strategic position in the heart of the Mediterranean.
The CamÃ is dotted with old watchtowers of Spanish and English construction, erected by alternative powers, and disused bunkers around the beaches dug as defenses by Franco, the Spanish dictator opposed to the island. Franco liked to hold a grudge, so he refused “the minor island” access to public funds that supported the development of Ibiza and Mallorca, which had been loyal to him. In some ways this turned out to be a blessing and is part of the reason Menorca is relatively unspoiled today.
For such a small island, the geology changes dramatically as you walk around its edges. It claims to have more beaches and coves than the other Balearic Islands, and is a Unesco protected biosphere reserve. Even if you aren’t too keen on rocks or birds, you can’t help but notice them when you walk. Some still ride horses along the way, but it is mainly used by hikers and mountain bikers although usually I am alone for long periods of time when walking.
I’ve grown to love the quiet off-season vibe, shuttered restaurants, deserted beaches, and ghostly coastal villages that await summer. The first lockdown here a year ago was strict and the Balearic Islands now have Covid firmly under control. The island feels safe and relatively normal, with just a few light restrictions and a curfew in place, although tourism is the main economy and locals are worried about the summer season, which begins in May.
This walk is a sort of pilgrimage for my ailing father to the UK, or at least an attempt to “find in motion what was lost in space” to quote Tennessee Williams. The CamÃ is divided into 20 sections and marked with wooden posts. I started to walk with no particular intention, and it turned out like a project to be accomplished. Now I walk a few sections every weekend, usually five or six hours a day, including plenty of time to swim and marvel.
Most of the trail goes through the wilderness so I take everything with me. I discovered that Menorcans traditionally munch on salted sunflower seeds and fried corn during their trek. I bring pastisseur, a cookie a bit like shortbread but even better. I also check the wind direction before selecting the leg to go, heading towards the coast in the direction away from the wind to reduce my risk of jellyfish stings when I stop to swim. It was a hard-won lesson: the more I get stung, the more I pay attention to the wind.
Another day on the trail and I’m literally in shamrock: it’s pinkish red, interspersed with big, upbeat daisies, and growing around an early Christian basilica in Es Cap Des Port, nearly half of the north coast. I sit and watch the booted eagles go round and round and call their weird and thin voices, prepare their nests and chase the rabbits.
I have found swimming a tonic for these troubling times. I strike up a conversation with another cold-water junkie at Cales Coves on the south coast, where more than a hundred burial chambers are carved into the cliffs, forming a Bronze Age necropolis, a great city for them. dead which was more recently occupied by hippies. It turns out that the other swimmer lived in these caves as a child, and her mother gave birth to her last two children there with “just my dad and the neighbor with a knife.”
Mitjana beach, about 30 km further, is a more traditional swimming spot. Here you can cut through the emerald water to reach its little sister, the tiny Mijaneta. For something more spectacular, head east to Cala Rafalet, where high cliffs cradle the sea and the path to reach it seems like a secret. The small path winds through dark green forest to a deep ravine, one of the most remarkable places for swimming on the island. The sand on the beaches ranges from silky Caribbean in the south to a pinkish honey color in the wilder north, and there are plenty of unnamed little rocky coves if you’re looking for your own private beach for nude swimming.
To the west, the landscape changes: no pine forests or holm oaks; instead, it’s austere, rugged, and windswept, just boulders, long rows of drystone walls, and stone sheep huts. I stop to tie my sweater over my ears to protect them from the tramontana which has shaped this landscape. On the other hand, when the path cuts to the south, it crosses small valleys of stone walls which mosaic tiny fields and skirt flowered meadows, pastures with grazing horses, orchards and plots of wild olive trees.
On one of the southern sections, I take a detour via the CamÃ to visit Torre d’en GalmÃ©s, a Talayotic site. This culture is unique to the Balearics. You can pray in the honey well that lights up the corner of the temple remains and secretly mourn for your father whom you haven’t seen for almost eight months, then remember you are British and gather together to explore the ruined city.
In the wetland behind the long Son Bou beach on the south coast, I watch through binoculars a swamp hawk prowl for a distracted duck to pounce on. Javier, the ornithological hiking guide I hired to accompany me on sections of the trek, name each of the birds in English, Spanish and Catalan which, frankly, is far too informative. I stop him when he tries to tell me their Latin names as well.
Menorca has 200 species of birds and it’s the smaller ones that fascinate me the most, moving through the air like musical notes, folding their wings in mid-flight to fall and bounce. I love the Sardinian warbler, all puffy and cheerful, although the hoopoe is more iconic, a rebellious spirit in this period of confinement, with its mohican punk-rock and its looping butterfly flight.
Turns out Javier is also good at “catching” the thin stalks of wild asparagus, and after a long day of hiking, I cook them and savor the intense, almost spicy taste of the woods. Soon, he tells me, the scent of chamomile blossoms will pervade the air along the path and the luminous bee-eaters will return from Africa, accompanied by flamingos and other migrating birds, to feast on mosquitoes all summer long.
The need to explore, tour, map and map has long been a part of human nature and it is especially important to be on the move in this static time, to have a project to accomplish. Who knows what this quicksand world will bring next. For now, the air is thick with birdsong and the sun is pouring out through the trees. I stop to watch, to float a flower in the sea, an offering for my father. Then I return to the path, because, to quote the poet Robert Frost, âI have promises to keep / And miles to cover before I sleep.