Ciutadella, ancient capital of Menorca
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It is the arches that draw me back to Ciutadella, this most Catalan of cities. Like a spider’s web the city seems to radiate out from its ancient heart where the Moorish and Augustinian arches, though so different in age and style, blend together to give Ciutadella her unique character. Perched on the western tip of Menorca the old city has miraculously retained its medieval character in a compact and easily walkable area. At the beginning of the last century Ciuatedella’s walls were demolished and replaced by a ring road, the Contramurada, that surrounds the old city and also preserves it. Some massive sections of the walls remain above the port where you can get an idea of how strong they were. I approach the city from the east on the C-271, the main road that runs across the island from Mahon and am met by the giant bronze statue of a horse rearing up.
The statue shows the city’s love and close connection to the magnificent black horses you see in the surrounding fields and once a year, during the Festes de Sant Joan, the city takes a backward step and the horse becomes king. Driving on I eventually come to the Contramurada and turning left follow its tree lined route until I arrive at the main square of the city, the Placa des Born. Walking into the square I am struck by the 22m high obelisk that commemorates the time the Turks destroyed the city and carried the population off into slavery. Walking on the western side of the square I pass the town hall that was once the palace of the Moorish rulers and then the palace of Alfoson III, who liberated Menorca from the Arabs 1287. The view of the old port from the ramparts to the north is superb and I decide later to descend down to the harbour to take my lunch in one of the many tapas bars and seafood restaurants that line the waterside. Unlike Mahon, which boast one of the largest natural harbours n the world, Ciutadella’s harbour like the city’s streets is narrow and compact which has restricted the amount of trade that comes here and thus the growth of the city itself, preserving its ancient character. I take a while here to ponder on the rissaga a phenomena unique in the Mediterranean.
For some unknown reason probably due to a combination of the moon, atmospheric pressure and other factors the water level in the harbour sometimes starts to flow in and out. Boats can be left high and dry dangling from their moorings and just as quickly the sea floods the dockside area completely. In as many minutes the waters can rush up and down several times. On some occasions it will happen again within a few days and can be unusually violent dragging the larger vessels up to the top of the creek and sinking some of the smaller ones. The wharf side shops and restaurants can be submerged under almost two metres of water. For a supposedly tideless sea this is an amazing card for the Mediterranean to have up its sleeve. I return to the Placa des Born and admire the huge buildings that line the eastern side of the square. These are the palaces of the Menorcan nobility and are decked with balconies and turrets, indeed the streets of the old city are filled with these seventeenth and eighteenth century palaces of the aristocracy, built when they moved into the city from their country estates. Most are still owned by the original families and behind the doors are majestic courtyards with stone staircases, galleried arcades and serene courtyard gardens.
Walking between the palaces I follow the Carrer Major des Born where the bottom storey of some the palaces have been given over to shops. This street in one form or another cuts through the city until it arrives at what was once the eastern gate and the road to Mahon. I find it offers a superb starting point to plunge in to the honeycombed maze of old streets that lie either side. It is very easy to get lost in here, but I would encourage any visitor to do this as you discover so much. Menorcans love their ceramic pots and tiles, a left over from the Moorish occupation and small shops offer myriad examples with incredible colours along with jewellers and specialist pastry shops which can be found with a little patience. It matters not if I lose my bearings as I know I will eventually return either to the main east to west street or the all embracing Contramurada and I will be able to find my way again immediately. Indeed at the western end of the Carrer two quiet streets lead off from here where you can discover even more palaces, but I carry on until I arrive at the Placa de la Catedral. Normally I would tarry here to visit the cathedral built on the site of the Arab mosque, indeed the belfry is actually the original minaret that contains not steps but a spiral ramp to the top. Today however I want to visit the first of the city’s arches and I soon arrive at the narrow street at the heart of the city known as Ses Voltes. This narrow pedestrian alley is bordered on each side by Moorish arches and corridors with some interesting shops and small cafés. Ses Voltes carries on into the Placa Nova where there are more cafés and other pointed Moorish arches bordering this sophisticated square. Here the locals sit on canvas chairs and watch the world go by but I am disappointed to see the cafés have become much larger to cater for the tourists since my last visit. The bustle here is too much for me and I decide to turn right in to the quieter narrow back streets and am quickly reminded that the bicycle rules this city and most locals can be seen going about their business using them.
However the 21st century still enters here with vans making deliveries and I often have to squeeze myself against a wall to get by. I enter the Placa de la Libertat and see before me an archway that joins two houses that would lead me ever deeper into the labyrinth but here in this square I find what to me is the joy of Ciutadella. This small square is the city’s market and was once the side court of the huge Augustinian monastery Els Secors, today it’s arches serve as a shady spot for fruit and vegetable stands and cafés. On one side of the square standing on a raised verandah are some ten butcher shops framed by the rounded arches of the Moors with green and white ceramic squares picking out their pillars. I sit and take a coffee here and am amazed to watch the butchers passing between the shops to collect meat for their customers or leaving their own shops unattended whilst they chat to old friends and business rivals! The modern era soon intrudes however and I have to move my chair back as the water board van tries to negotiate the narrow thoroughfare without sending the café tables flying. I realise that they and other local drivers are experts at this, I become convinced that if there were another coat of varnish on the chairs and tables they wouldn’t last very long! In the middle of the square I find the city’s fish market and inside this squat drab building is a wealth of colour and smells. Above each stall is a sign indicating the name of the boat that caught the fish on display that very morning. On days when the weather is bad I am told that variety of fish for sale drops dramatically proving how fresh it all must be.
Refreshed I walk back to the Placa Nova and carry on down the main street which now bears the name Carrer de MaÓ. The street becomes wider here and the shops seem more sophisticated when suddenly without warming I enter the Placa de ses Palmers where the eastern gate of the city once stood. Each year on the 17th January, the youngest official of the town’s council enacts the moment when Alfons III demanded the keys to the city by striking his flagstaff three times on the ground. This explains why the square is also confusingly known as Placa Alfons III! The palm trees provide cool shade in the midday sun, as do the cafes bordering the square but my eyes are attracted to the unexpected large white building on the other side of the bustling Contramurada. The Molí des Comtes is a restored windmill well worth a visit and underneath in it old cellars I find a bar where a beer goes down very well. A winding 73 steps lead to the top of the tower from where there is a superb view of the city’s rooftops.
Now I can feel the pangs of hunger starting so I decide to walk back to the port. I take the Carrer de sa Muradeta that looks down on the terraced gardens by the port, beneath me is the ravine known as Pla de Sant Joan. Each year on the 24th of June during the Fest de Sant Joan the space fills with thousands of people shouting, clapping and cheering on riders and horses as they carry out amazing feats of horsemanship. The riders charge full gallop at a metal ring trying to spear it whilst the crowd opens to let them pass and closes behind them like the sea washing around rocks on the shore. There is no doubt that this city is a jewel in the crown of hidden Spain. There is so much to see and experience here I always enjoy coming back and discovering new treasures and it won’t be long before I return once again to soak up the wonderfully unique atmosphere of Ciutadella.
16 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.