The Water In Menorca…

Last week I returned from a two-week holiday in Menorca.  I know what you are thinking.  Sun, sea, sand, sangria and seagull shit?  That was exactly what I expected anyway.  Let me put my hands up right now and say Menorca was more than I imagined.  I think I better explain.

When people think of Menorca they imagine overcrowded beaches, sweaty tourists, sangrias and siestas.  What they don’t realise is that exactly that image is a baseless stereotype.  Most people are unaware (including myself before this trip) that in 1993 UNESCO declared the island of Menorca a biosphere reserve.  Essentially, it means that the local government is compelled to protect both the historical sites on the island as well as the natural species which reside there.  Since 2004 the coastline of Menorca has been protected from construction.  Simply put,  the Menorcan administration is attempting an incredible balancing act.  They are trying to protect nature while profiting from it.  It’s a stance which I think is admirable, and at least from what I witnessed, working marvelously well.

Of course Menorca does contain it’s fair share of beaches.  Around 120 to be precise, which is more than Majorca and Ibiza combined.  They are a strange mixture of busy, isolated, stoney and sandy beaches.  In truth some of the more remote wild beaches were breathtaking.  The most surprising thing of all was that it didn’t matter where we went on the island we never once had the sense that it was overcrowded.

Wherever I travel, I do my up most to learn a little something about the local people.  Around the Mediterranean it tends to be  easier than in most countries due to the culture of fiestas.  For those of you who don’t know what a fiesta is – simply put it’s a local street party organised to celebrate a saint.  We managed to visit two on our trip.  The first was in the town called Es Mercadal and the second was in Fornells.  In both cases we witnessed very similar festivities.  The first thing I’ve learned is that Menorcans love their gin.  There were hundreds of people drinking a local gin called Xoriguer, with lemon.  For the price of a cheeseburger, you could buy a glass of gin which would knock out an elephant.  The second thing Menorcans love is music.  In both towns they had bandstands containing brass bands which were blasting out the same song.  And the third and slightly more interesting fact is that they love horses, especially their own breed of Menorcan horse.  As the music blared out, and the Pomada (how the locals call Xoriguer gin with lemon) flowed, a number of men and women rode through the crowds on horses and at the crowds urging, forced the horses to rear on their back legs.  In the middle of a crowd of thousands of people.  It was bedlam.  The weirdest moment of all was towards the end of the fiesta in Es Mercadal.  During a break in proceedings the band struck up a different tune and everyone in the town started jumping and singing.  The atmosphere was electric.  A horseman entered the crowd to a heroes welcome and started making the horse walk on its back legs.  Unbelievably it was the local priest.

Someone clever once said that you should never judge a book by its cover.  It’s pretty good advice.  Unless you are talking about a book.  Menorca is not what you expect.  The combination of natural beauty and tourist amenities means that it almost ticks every box.  However that only scrapes the surface.  If you dig a little deeper you can find an abundance of history, both prehistoric and British colonial, a culture which is unique even by Spanish standards and an island which reaps the rewards of caring about its appearance.  As a destination it repays you for the effort you invest in it.  However if you are looking to plonk your bum on a beach for a fortnight – don’t bother.  Save your place for someone who would appreciate it.

The Water In Malta Don’t Taste Like It Ought Ta

I recently spent two weeks on holiday on the island of Malta.  I left with a tan, food poisoning and an overwhelming feeling that Malta’s uniqueness stems from experiencing it rather than its geographic location or natural beauty.

When I arrived in Malta I didn’t know what to expect.  I had absolutely no preconceptions.  I knew that it had been Britifyied, that it was in the Mediterranean and that it was small.  I was surprised to discover that Malta is the biggest island in an archipelago, the most bombed area of land during the Second World War and also the only country to ever receive a George Cross.  Quite possibly the only country in the world to receive a medal from another one.

The Maltese Islands are essentially a clump of rocks both geographically blessed and cursed.  Located in the Mediterranean Sea, they have a warm climate and beautiful blue seas.  Unfortunately their strategic location between North Africa and Europe has led to them being attacked many times through history.  On top of that the lack of natural water means that they have had to develop methods to use seawater whenever possible.

Situated around the islands you can find a number of prehistoric temples bizarrely devoted to fat women.  Historians are at a loss to explain why, which makes it infinitely more interesting.  It was while on a tour of the fore mentioned sites that I learnt that the Maltese Islands, like Britain were once connected to the mainland. In those times Malta was inhabited by elephants and hippos.  When Malta was finally cut off from the mainland these large animals were trapped.  Later remains of these animals showed that over time they had suffered from a form of island evolutionary dwarfism.  The concept being that large animals living in an area so small, over time actually begin to shrink.  This was fascinating for me.  As the concept rattled away in my brain my eyes were drawn to the souvenir shop.  The woman behind the counter was about 5 foot 4.  I resolved that I would keep my eyes open.  A few days later I realized that the people of Malta also appear to be suffering from a form of evolutionary dwarfism as the vast majority of the people we met were really rather short.

A wonderful example of the clash of British and Mediterranean culture can be found in their new bus service.  A few weeks ago a British company called Arriva bought the state owned Bus Company.  Overnight the shaky ancient buses which were as much a part of Maltese folklore as being under siege were gone.  They were swiftly replaced by modern air conditioned buses running a new schedule which fewer drivers.  The buses ran to a strict timetable which was rendered in valid by several factors.  First of all if a bus is full it doesn’t stop at a bus stop. Second a number of these buses are long bendy things.  The Maltese islands contain some of the tightest hills known to man; it was bad enough trying to get up some of them in a minibus.  And thirdly in the first weeks the new drivers didn’t know the routes.  The important and British thing was that they have a system which is vital as we all know its better to have a system which fails than no system as all.  The Mediterranean aspect was that many people would get annoyed by a once working public transport system suddenly not working and more often than not would voice their complaints.  The responses they received included shouting, swearing and in some cases violence.  It was absolute chaos albeit slightly organized chaos.

During my holiday I experience the best and worst of visiting a country which is dependent on tourism.  The worst example of the tourist trap was the Blue Lagoon. Everywhere we went we met sales reps urging us to buy tickets to visit the peaceful tranquility of the Blue Lagoon.  Eventually we relented and bought tickets for a boat trip.  When we arrived there, we were greeted by the sight of about 17 boats and 5 thousand people fighting for a place on a beach which was less than 50 square meters.  Needless to say it was near on impossible to find the peace and tranquility which everyone kept telling us about.  The best example was a random trip to a small town for a ‘Festa’.  It was a celebration of a Saint (in Malta they have about 3 months of these celebrations for different saints in different towns every weekend.) unlike anything I had ever seen before.  It was a five hour show of fireworks, music and drinking; culminating in the most impressive ground firework display I have ever seen in my life.  I felt like I had been transported to Mexico City.  The most impressive thing at all is that in two weeks on Malta I never met a single sales rep who tried to sell me tickets to a ‘Festa’.

Would I recommend visiting Malta?  Yes.  It’s not the place for a beach holiday as most of the beaches are rocky and rough.  There are a few sandy beaches to be found which are lovely.  There are a number of interesting places to visit and many things to do.  As a holiday destination it is probably the most cosmopolitan I have ever visited.  The people are welcoming, the beer is cheap, the sun is hot and the wealth of history is incredible.