Landing at the airport in Mahon, Menorca’s largest city, the pace of life slows down instantly. This smallest of Spain’s Balearic Islands couldn’t be less like neighboring Mallorca and Ibiza if it tried. You won’t find much in the way of resorts or nightlife, but this very much works in Menorca’s favor, so long as that’s the kind of vacation you’re seeking.
Menorca’s rural sensibility is no accident. The islanders resisted Nationalist rule during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and Franco repaid their disloyalty by depriving them of development funds for decades. This deprivation preserved much of the island as it was in its bucolic early-twentieth-century state. Towns like Alaior are endlessly charming, possessing a sense of history and pride formed from a century of resistance and making-do.
History, and a sense of continuity, permeates Menorca. Life is cyclical there, and for all Menorca has to offer, one unifying activity each day is sunset. For an hour or two, life on the island pauses in celestial reverence, as everyone gathers along the coast to watch the sun drop, turning a succession of brilliant shades of fuchsia before vanishing beneath the waves.
For an island, Menorca’s beaches are a surprising challenge. Most of its best beaches are hidden in coves along the south shore, often a strenuous hike from the road. There are exceptions, of course, including some beaches with large parking lots and restroom facilities. But to hike to a cove beach is to truly experience a unique part of the Menorcan landscape, and we were up for a challenge.
I scanned a map of the island until I found Cala de Biniparratx, a deep L-shaped cove on the island’s southeast coast just 20 minutes from our farmhouse. The dirt patch of a parking lot can’t fit more than a few cars, meaning the beach can’t host more than a dozen or so people. It is designed to be inaccessible, which was exactly what we wanted.
The hike from the car to the beach was a steep descent through scrubby trees beneath the cove’s looming cliff faces. Arriving on the sand felt like we’d discovered a hidden paradise. The sand was white and the beach wide and nearly empty. The well-protected water was impossibly clear, calm and shallow enough for us to wade at least 50 yards out. The rocky sides of the cove teemed with fish, crabs, and urchins. We swam, read books, took naps, and forgot entirely about the rigors of twenty-first century life.
Our final morning on the island, we loaded into the car early and set out for one last adventure. We drove south to Cales Coves, a two-pronged bay famous for its ancient burial chambers. Parking in the dirt lot, the first car to arrive, we were greeted by two world-weary cats who came swaggering out of the brush to writhe at our feet. We left them to guard the car and set out along the long and sloping path toward the water. From the beach, we clambered onto the cove’s high rock face, beginning our ascent to the tombs.
The climb was well-marked but difficult, rising and falling abruptly as we zigzagged our way upward. Cales Coves served as the island’s largest burial complex from roughly 1200 BCE until the arrival of the Romans on the island around 123 BCE. Dozens of tombs dot the cliff faces, most are caves which were enlarged and embellished to suit the tastes of the era and prominence of the deceased.
In the 1960s, an off-grid community began moving into the tombs, converting them into rustic homes. The Menorcan government eventually moved against them, serving notices of eviction in 2000. Babush, a tomb resident, was interviewed by a Mallorcan newspaper at the time: “We've not caused any damage and we don't bother anybody. If they throw us out, we'll end up on the streets.” While some caves appeared well-lived-in, we never encountered another human being during our whole time exploring.
We reached the top of the cliff’s face, leaving us standing among low, windswept brush, towering above the turquoise inlet below. By now, others had arrived, though none ventured up to the caves where we were. Most visitors to Cales Coves come for the isolation, swimming and sunbathing naked, far from the prying eyes of anyone but the troglodyte ghosts.
We made our way around the cove to the opposite cliff face. More cave-tombs dotted the way, some of which were extensively developed as living quarters. Heavy metal doors, entryway stairs, and even proper fireplaces showed evidence of a unique way of living now vanished.
By then the skies had begun to darken, with ominous clouds rolling in from the north. Not wanting to be stranded, we hightailed it back to the muddy beach, back uphill along the brambly path to the dirt parking lot and our trusty little rental car. Our guardian cats were nowhere to be seen.
We returned to our AirBnB, an ancient goat farm down an impossibly narrow gravel road, my windows down to smell the cool, clean air. The sky was clear for that final night, and we lingered a little longer outside than usual, finishing our bottle of Pomada and trying to spot planets and constellations among the multitude of stars above us.
The isolation of Menorca came with a heavy silence each night. It frightened me at first, the rustling tree branches and occasional cry of a goat in the darkness. But by that final night, the silence flowed through me like water, calming my city-frayed nerves. I felt capable of vulnerability and of sitting unflinchingly with my own thoughts. I felt newly connected to my partner, our hearts softened, and tongues loosened by a mixture of gin and Menorcan charm.
The next day we flew to Barcelona, where the return to urbanity was jarring. So much noise. So many lights. We checked into our hotel near the Arc de Triomf, across from Ciutadella Park. An entirely different version of myself had stayed in another hotel a block away on my first visit to Barcelona in 2012. The feeling of coming to some sort of full circle was palpable and welcomed.
My partner and I walked to dinner in the city’s Gothic Quarter, its foreboding medieval core, where buildings practically lean against each other for support across the narrow streets and alleys. The cafe Salterio served as our sanctuary for that night, its heady sangria filled us with a sense of having concluded a marvelous adventure together. Menorca put me in touch with a version of myself I either didn’t know or had forgotten existed. As we sat in that Barcelona cafe, listening to a tragic bolero picked out on the guitar of an Argentinian songstress, I felt truly at peace. I felt truly happy.