Off the Coast of Spain, a Tranquil Biosphere Reserve

MINORCA, the first place in Spain to see the sun rise, is aglow at the end of the day. As I pulled my suitcase down the cobbled, car-free lanes of Ciutadella, the island’s ancient capital, an ocher glow bloomed across the faces of residents who sat on the terraces of back-street bars, their voices echoing within a canyon of Gothic and Baroque buildings.

The facades of rose and dusty yellow stone, and the narrow streets running past them have barely changed since 1722, the year British occupiers took the title of capital away from this town on the Mediterranean island of Minorca and handed it to the port city of Mahon. Ciutadella, to this day, remains a paean to unaltered antiquity.

The rest of the island is imbued with the same timeless quality. Though only 21 miles from the crowds and hustle of its high-profile neighbor, Majorca, the difference couldn’t be more profound. Unlike Majorca, with its sprawling hotel complexes, glitzy nightclubs and yacht-filled ports, this island 250 miles east of Barcelona offers something unusual for a Mediterranean resort: tranquillity.

The entire 270-square-mile island is a Unesco biosphere reserve, a designation issued in 1993 for the rich flora and fauna that thrive in Minorca’s forests, gorges, wetlands, salt marshes and hillsides. In 2004 Unesco expanded its protective reach, including in its definition the island’s widely scattered prehistoric sites, effectively preventing the construction of high-rise condominiums and hotels. Instead, rural hotels called agrotourismos are the hotels of choice outside the towns, and roughly 120 separate beaches — more than Majorca and Ibiza (Minorca’s other Balearic island sister) combined — remain largely unsullied by development.

But there is also a cultural dimension to Minorca’s ecosystem. The island isn’t Spanish exactly, nor simply Catalan (though Menorquin, a dialect of Catalan, is the lingua franca). This pocket of old Mediterranean culture was shaped by an array of colonizers — Romans, North Africans, Spanish and, for a brief period, the Turkish. Then the island was passed back and forth for 200 years between the Spanish, the British and the French, until finally the Spanish claimed the island for good. Architecturally, the result is a legacy that includes Art Nouveau, Gothic, Baroque and even Georgian styles. Cuisine ranges from a modified version of meat pies and gin (à la England) to the potato-and-egg tortilla of Spain, to good old mayonnaise — ostensibly a twist on a local sauce championed by the Duke of Richelieu when the French (briefly) conquered Mahon.

Last June, my partner, Ian, our daughter, Orli, then 2, and my parents arrived for a week, hoping to get a sense of Minorca’s singular identity. We flew in to Mahon, the island’s biggest town, where we rented a car and then wove our way to the opposite side of the island, stopping for lunch in Fornells, a fishing village on the northern coast where old men dried manzanilla, or chamomile, in enormous piles. A few tourists strolled the old port, stopping to eat the island’s hearty lobster stew so delicious the king of Spain is rumored to sail here just for that. On that first day we quickly discovered the island’s rather basic, but effective, protection against rampant tourism: though the main highway from Mahon to Ciutadella is well paved and commodious, many of the smaller roads that swerve into the countryside are barely wide enough for one car. We persevered, and drove on, past fishing villages that dot the island’s coves like pearls — towns that are a riot of color, with magenta bougainvillea crawling up white limestone, blue-shuttered homes that overlook the sea. Between the villages, road signs tempt with directions toward hidden beaches.

Unlike Palma de Majorca, which, by early summer, is already packed with vacationers fromGermany and Britain, Minorca was still waking from its off-season slumber. At times, we couldn’t help but feel a bit like interlopers. While people we met — hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, shoemakers, dairy farmers — were certainly friendly, there was a protective feel to Minorca, a reticence, which, for us, ultimately resulted in a deeply authentic travel experience. It was clear that this was not a place that was preening itself for tourists.

The biosphere designation enhanced the feeling of protectiveness. Everywhere there were signs indicating natural parks, with careful instructions on where one could park, camp, even walk. Property demarcations between farms were not fences but layers of rocks that formed low stone walls, which have been in place since antiquity. And in the ancient city centers, there was a sense that modernity had been purposefully kept at bay.

In Ciutadella we parked at the Plaça del Born, a square marked by 19th-century buildings carved from that magnificent rose-colored sandstone. Cars are not allowed in the historic city center without a special pass, so we walked the four long blocks to our hotel, peering into the bishop’s garden and glancing up at the 13th-century Gothic cathedral.

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