The four principal and numerous smaller islands that fly the Spanish flag in the western Mediterranean belong to the Balearic archipelago, a name given them long ago by the earliest Greek explorers. ‘Balearic’ refers to the sling, a weapon the islanders used with such skill that when Hannibal crossed the Alps, he had not only elephants for tanks, but Balearic clingers for storm troopers. When the Romans invaded the islands, their major defence was to cover their ships with tough hides to repel the killer pellets.
Today five million tourists invade the Balearic islands every year. Many come to have their hides tanned on beautiful sandy beaches and to lead the idyllic sort of life unique to the package tourist, of hotel, beach, restaurant and nightclub, with all (or more) of the amenities of home, all neatly arranged and decided six months before the plane takes off. Majorca, the largest of the islands, is often referred to as ‘Europe’s playground’ with its ‘Golden Mile’ and beach after beach of high rise hotels. It is particularly easy to lead an indolent life of blissful self-indulgence. The coasts of Minorca and Ibiza, the second and third largest islands respectively, have hastened to catch up and have many grand developments as well. Even little Formentera has a piece of the action. Although stretches of lonely sand may still be found, a good many beaches have been ‘spoiled’ by entrepreneurs who make a living from spoiling people who need a break from the industrial world. Tourists are happy to spend money on pleasurable activities instead of on taxes and heating bills, so the locals make money.
The sun and fun aspects of the Balearic islands have received so much attention in the past few years that the other features of this very original, very diverse archipelago have been overshadowed.
Anyone fortunate enough to visit the four islands cannot help but be struck by how different they are from each other, in language, politics, culture, cuisine, history and land. Minorca (spelled Menorca in Spanish) owned by Britain for a hundred years and prosperous before the first hotel was even built, is quite literally an outdoor archaeology museum of the mysterious talayot culture’. Its landscape is dotted with giant stone T’s, towers and boat-shaped tombs called navetas. On either side of the island are rival towns: Mahon, is situated at the end of one of the world’s greatest harbours and lined with 18th century Georgian homes, whilst Ciudadela, in the west is very medieval in tone.
On Majorca (spelled Mallorca in Spanish) age old agricultural techniques, windmills pumping water, exist side by side with some of the largest international resorts in Europe. An immense mountain range dominates the island’s northwest coast, to form one of the most awesome shorelines on earth. The capital city of Palma, with its enormous Gothic cathedral and castle, is one of the finest and most cosmopolitan centres in the Mediterranean. Hilly Ibiza and flat Formentera, originally the `Pityussae’ or pine islands of the Greeks, have retained much of their Moorish character in architecture and dress. Ibiza, an important Carthaginian colony for 500 years, has recently become one of the most fashionable places in Europe to spend a holiday, with its ‘ad-lib’ clothing and casual way of life in the beautiful setting, that first attracted the counter-culture in the 1960s. Formentera remains rural, primitive and charming and has some of the longest strips of undeveloped beach on the islands. Cabrera, the fifth island in size, lacks any tourist amenities whatsoever, but boasts a crystal clear sea and a cave in the same league as the Blue Grotto of Capri.