Often overlooked in the centre of the Mediterranean island of Menorca is a sleepy little market town that is way off the tourist trail. Es Mercadel, lying in the shadow of Monte Toro, is what the locals would probably call ‘ordinary’, but to me, it is much more than that – it’s an authentic Menorcan town, where ‘real’ people live, work and play – and is, therefore, well at least in my opinion, worthy of exploration if you are looking for something we like to described as the true Spain.
The charming nature of this unpretentious town makes it one of those places that you want to feel a part of. Instead of staying in one of the larger hotels, we chose one of the elegant townhouses that line the narrow streets around the centre, which are now stylish hotels. This way you can immerse yourself in your surroundings – enjoy a drink and tapas at a pavement café on the plaza, as the locals promenade gaily by; or choose one of several fine restaurants serving local delicacies that can be found hidden away down the narrow side streets. The main advantage of choosing Es Mercadel for your cycling holiday on Menorca, is that it makes the perfect base for a leisurely exploration of the island on two wheels.
Quiet, meandering lanes lead away from this hub, like the spokes of a bike wheel (corny eh?), eventually finding their way to isolated coves and deserted beaches; pretty fishing villages of whitewashed houses, and remote headlands of honey-coloured cliffs overlooking an azure sea. Poetic words but true sentiment.
Head north from Es Mercadel on the Camí Tramuntana and the scenery gradually begins to look rather familiar – small, flower-filled meadows lined by hedgerows and drystone walls, rolling green hills sheltering small farmsteads, and herds of black and white cattle gently grazing. Suddenly, you’re back in rural England. But no – it’s far too warm, for one thing, and the characteristic field gates are all made from twisted vine wood. Surely that’s a tortoise basking by the roadside ditch? Aren’t those bee-eaters sitting on the fence? And, up ahead, a row of palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze indicates that you’re nearing the sea.
Its gently rolling landscapes have helped make Menorca a cyclist’s paradise, with a vast network of some 3000 kilometres of paths, tracks, lanes and roads that offer attractive routes to follow, whatever your ability. Whichever direction you go, it’s not long before you leave the island’s central spine road – and all the traffic – behind as you head out into the countryside, where the tarmac gradually gives way to unpaved tracks. At Cala Pregonda on the north coast, rugged headlands of rainbow-coloured rocks protect a beach of golden sand, inviting you to tarry awhile – enjoy a welcome swim and a leisurely picnic of island delicacies. Slow down. Relax. Enjoy.
The island’s two main towns are also both within easy reach, too – though situated at opposite ends of the island – via a new cycling route that avoids the principal main road. The old capital, Ciutadella, is a delightful town of wide squares and plazas which overlook a narrow harbour lined by elegant restaurants; while the modern port of Mahón (Maó) is dominated by its massive British fortifications on both sides of what is one of the largest natural harbours in the world.
More fine restaurants line the waterfront here, too, and you simply must try that most quintessential of Menorcan fish dishes, caldereta langosta (lobster stew), a favourite of King Juan Carlos of Spain, who often holidays on the island. Accompany this with a glass or two of crisp white wine from the Ferrer de Muntpalau vineyard at Es Mercadel – the first of the island’s wines to be awarded ‘Vi de la terra Illa de Menorca’ accreditation. Indeed, on your return to the town, seek out this historic vineyard which offers guided visits around the wine cellars and vineyards, culminating in a wine-tasting session.
As you cycle along, it’s impossible to escape the sometimes overwhelming evidence of the island’s colourful and cosmopolitan past. There’s no missing the immense, brooding fortifications which once defended its strategic position in the Mediterranean; nor the many prehistoric sites dating from the Talayotic culture of the Bronze Age. Indeed, the vast number of these extraordinary monoliths, megaliths, towers (talayots) and other structures has given rise to the island being likened to an open-air museum in its entirety. Such is the importance of Menorca’s archaeological, ethnological and natural heritage, that in 1993, UNESCO declared the whole island a ‘Biosphere Reserve’, thus restricting excessive tourism and other commercial developments.
This, of course, has huge benefits for those visitors who like to explore at their own pace, either on foot or on two wheels – and has allowed for the reinstating of the historic Camí de Cavalls – a bridleway that follows the entire coastline and makes an unforgettable cycling experience. It’s 200km long, so no-one’s suggesting you attempt it in one go, but it can be accessed at many points, enabling you to reach those idyllic isolated coves of sparkling golden sand that you spent all winter dreaming about – enjoy!
Author Bio: Peter Williamson is an experienced travel writer, walker and cyclist, having spent the past five years as copywriter for specialist travel company, Inntravel, the Slow Holiday People. During this time he has travelled extensively throughout Europe, researching and writing route notes for the company’s self-guided walking and cycling holidays, as well as writing for Inntravel’s brochures and website. Prior to this, Peter was a freelance writer and author for many years, writing on a wide range of subjects across a wide range of industries. He has published a number of popular walking books, including Castle Walks in Yorkshire, highlighting his love of his home county; history (he has an MA in Historical Research) and, of course, walking.