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
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.
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
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.