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Donkin on Travel

1998, Menorca


It had rained the day before we arrived in Minorca and the reappearance of the sun was greeted with a celebration of colour and aromatic fragrance in the fields and lanes. Cream-coloured dry stone walls shone against the lush greenery and there was a clarity and crispness about the Mediterranean air.

The spell was broken the next evening as we drove into Sant Tomas to hear a 1970s-style club singer on an outdoor stage murdering "My Way" in a well-meant but terribly executed tribute to Frank Sinatra.

The next night there was a feeble magic show and the night after that we witnessed the wholesale slaughter of a clutch of familiar pop songs sung in broken English. The children liked Sant Tomas. We bought a dinghy, looked in the Lladro shop and played crazy golf. The pool side was like a regional map of the UK with one common language. Everyone seemed to be fluent in football.

A trip to Mahon, the Minorcan capital, brought back memories of an earlier visit many years ago when we had sailed in to the harbour on a yacht built from scratch by a fireman from Huddersfield who had welded the hull together from sheet steel.

We were newly weds, sharing the charter with a family from Wakefield. The father wore white socks and the mother had brought her sombrero because she burnt easily. It was a holiday from hell with days and nights travelling to southern Spain in a clapped-out post office van.

Sailing to Minorca, we had come across the body of a man in the sea. He was wearing a red shirt and a hat. We left the body floating there because the skipper didn't want any paperwork. It didn't seem right. He must have had a mum.

Mahon looked much more attractive the second time around. Prized for its deep water port, the island was under British control for two periods during the 18th and 19th centuries. Mahon was lost to the French briefly by Admiral Byng, who was shot for his lapse "pour encourager les autres" , as Voltaire put it.

But the British were there long enough to put their stamp on the architecture. Mahon, with its Georgian sash windows and dark red houses - originally coated in primer paint from admiralty stores - is quite different in character from Ciutadella, the former capital where the architectural styles draw on Moorish and French influences.

I had brought along a Patrick O'Brian novel to capture the spirit of the times. Nelson came here briefly and disembarked for all of six hours and vice-admiral Collingwood's house retains an imposing presence on the hill; but it is the adventures of O'Brian's fictitious characters Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin that succeed most effectively in bringing to life those ghosts of Britain's naval past.

Back at the pool side in Sant Tomas I read Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby and the children began to speak estuary English like violinist Nigel Kennedy. They had little interest in the megalithic remains from Minorca's talaiot culture, so-called because of their Taulas, large stones with jointed lintels creating a T-shape. Some 300 sites are dotted around the island, although only eight stones retain their lintels. The Romans used many of them as sarcophagi.

Some of the sites are barely accessible. Landowners put up privado signs everywhere and have erected gates across the roads. But if you ignore the signs and go through the gates, you can usually find your spot. Most of the archaeological finds from the sites are displayed in a fine new museum in Mahon.

The exhibits include a bronze statue of Imhotep, the Egyptian god of medicine found at Torre d'en Gaumes, the largest bronze age settlement on the island. I explained this to the children, who were showing signs of restlessness. They wanted to swap Sainsbury's World Cup medallions with their new-found friends in Sant Tomas. Imhotep was not Alan Shearer.

They certainly weren't interested in walking or birds. But for those who are, the landscape has a profusion of wildlife. A short walk along the coast from Sant Tomas brings you to an area of marsh land with reed beds behind Son Bou beach. Little egrets and purple heron were standing by the ponds like sentinels, while a red kite glided in the thermals. A woodchat shrike swayed on the tip of a reed seeking a vantage point in its search for food.

The beach itself is the finest on the island, popular with naturists as we discovered when stopping for a swim. I stripped to the buff and felt instantly cosmopolitan. My son told me I looked ridiculous. "Mind you don't burn," said my wife. They both had a point. It was the briefest of exposures. A man needs his shorts.

Farther over towards Son Bou, the builders, with their fork-lift trucks and diggers, were erecting holiday apartments to the very edge of the marsh. Minorca's population doubles in the summer. Its economy is dominated by tourism and this year it is adding 5,000 beds. Two ugly hotel blocks at one end of the Son Bou beach reveal the folly of previous tourism policy. There was once permission to build 14 such hotels that would have wrecked the marsh entirely.

Some modern developments such as the fake fishing village of Binibeca, though lifeless, have a sense of scale but the island would be making a grave mistake to allow much further building. Today, Minorca calls itself a biosphere reserve although after seeing the development at Son Bou I'm not sure what this means.

As it is, there remains enough of rural Minorca to attract those who like the quiet life. It's not so quiet in Sant Tomas. Other people were having fun. My children were having fun; but a 10-year stretch in suburban Surrey, commuting to work, and solitary confinement among mute neighbours has ruined my social skills. I couldn't go the full Monty; I didn't know the Arsenal offside trap. Instead, I felt like the socially inadequate bank manager in Mary Poppins when everyone wanted Dick Van Dyke.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved