The richness of Menorca culture stems from the pivotal position the island has in the heart of the western Mediterranean. Literally at the crossroads of the beginnings of civilisation in the European continent it has been settled, invaded, and colonised ever since human beings first travelled along the shores of the Mediterranean.
Tome Olives - Culture
"People who come here should remember that it’s not only the tourist clichés of sun, sea and beaches but that there’s also a fascinating cultural heritage to discover."
The first inhabitants are thought to have been from the Spanish mainland in the Neolithic era. Their descendants built the megalithic structures which can be found all around the island (Menorca has one of the largest concentrations of such structures in the world) and studies of artefacts from the period suggest a peaceful agrarian culture. Successive waves of invasion followed, as the island became an important trading centre, first used by the Phoenicians as they expanded westward and then falling under the rule of the Carthaginians, Roman and Byzantine empires respectively. In 707 AD the first Arab traders appeared on Menorcan shores, and for the next 300 years the island prospered under Muslim rule.
Religious tolerance was practised, the population increased, and the importance of Menorca as a cultural and commercial centre grew, with its reputation extending throughout the Mediterranean. In the early part of the 12th century the island was occupied by Norman forces and from then until the end of the Middle Ages, with the population considerably reduced by the plague, invasions by the Catalans and Turks, Menorca experienced a considerable decline, so much so that at one time its inhabitants were seriously considering abandoning the island for ever. In the early 18th century the British occupied the island, and from then on its fortunes turned. Occupied in turn over the next hundred years by the French and finally the Spanish, living conditions slowly improved, the population grew, and Menorca evolved into the rich and complex society it is today.
The language, a dialect of Catalan, has words which stem from Arab, French and British influences. Its architecture is strongly Moorish, with white painted houses and intricate irrigation systems and cisterns fed by ingenious channels of roof tiles.
The strong Menorcan equestrian traditions began originally with the Berber horses introduced to the island under Arab rule, to be reinforced by the Norman knights in the 12th century. Today, the cross of the Knights of Malta is an important emblem during the feast of St Joan celebrated in Ciutadella in midsummer.
The equestrian tradition on the island which dates back to the days when landowners had to maintain horses which could be ready to defend the island from invaders. The Menorcan breed, a spirited powerful glossy black horse, has a strong Moorish influence, but its introduction to the island cannot be dated with exactitude.
Famed for its beauty, spirit and speed, the Menorcan horses have their own particular form of dressage – in which the animals are trained to rear up on their hind legs in a manoeuvre called the ‘bot’.
This can best be seen when the horses are put through their paces at the horse fairs and shows held throughout the summer months, and at the fiestas in all the towns of the island. The annual festivals always feature dressage competitions, with riders often dressed in black frock coats and the tricorn hats of the 18th century gentry on the island. Trotting races too are a popular pastime, with weekly race events happening in Ciutadella and Maó.
Menorca food and drink
Yvonne Keller - Menorcan Horse
"The Menorcan horse is a very special breed – it’s very spirited and a spectacular horse – the breed has its origins in the Arabs, French and British who have lived here."
The island’s cuisine too, is very different from that of mainland Spain or even its close neighbours in the Balearic Islands. The extensive use of diary products, in particular butter and cheese owes much to the British occupation, as does the island’s very own gin, first distilled in Maó to satisfy the needs of thirsty British sailors based in the port.
Evidence of the various cultures and civilizations and the most important events of the island's history can be viewed in the collections of the Museu de Menorca, located in Maó's spacious Franciscan monastery. The Museu Municipal del Bastió de sa Font in Ciutadella, in one of the five bastions of the city walls has exhibitions relating to the military history of the island. At Fort Marlborough, the British built fortress guarding the entrance to Port Maó , an excellent recreation of the long sieges withstood by the garrison in the 18th century vividly depicts the horrors of 18th century warfare.
Festivals & the arts
Roberto Jiménez - Alvarques Sandal Maker
"The royal family wear alvarques in the summer when they come here – and so they’re very popular – the white ones sell out every year because of that."
In summer, there are festivals and concerts of all kinds throughout the island, with an opera week where performances by international stars regularly sell out. The major churches on the island have excellent choirs, from the lovely old cathedral in Ciutadella which has the Capella Davídica, to the Orfeón Mahonés in the capital. The singing tradition on the island is, according to researchers, one of the strongest of the Balearic Islands, and today old melodies are being recorded and saved before they disappear forever. The Santa Maria church in Maó has one of the largest organs in the Mediterranean, with more than three thousand pipes.
Built between 1807 and 1810 by Swiss organ builders the organ is said to be one of the best in the Mediterranean and in summer regular lunchtime concerts are given by resident and visiting top international organists.
For those drawn to more contemporary arts, the island has a rich cultural life, a thriving opera company, and a very popular tradition of choral singing – most towns and villages boast their own choir and standards are high. Despite its small size, the Menorcan passion for all things cultural ensures that throughout the summer season there are always enough high quality concerts, theatrical productions and other events to satisfy the most ardent fan of the arts.
Tome Olives - Organist
"The organ of the Santa Maria church we have in Maó is one of the best in the Mediterranean."
Read our top 10 tips for things to see and do in Menorca