Tiny but Mighty, Menorca Dazzles in Every Direction

With endless vegetation, hidden coves, and an amazing new art gallery, Menorca celebrates life's quiet pleasures.



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I USUALLY HAVE to correct people when I tell them where I live. “Men-orca,” I’ll say, stressing the first syllable, as they ask if I know this expat friend or that natural wine bar in Deià or Palma — on Menorca’s sister island, Mallorca, some 20-odd nautical miles to the southwest.

But Menorca is used to being overlooked. Smallness is part of its identity, and even encoded in its name. (The islands’ English monikers, Minorca and Majorca, make the difference immediately clear.) Seen from the sea, Mallorca looms, a mountainous hulk of shadowy, undulating curves; Menorca lies flat, a skipping stone supine upon the surface of the Mediterranean. As Leonard Cohen might have noted, were he a Balearic tour guide, the minor falls, the major lifts.

How small is it? By plane, whether rising from Mahón’s delightfully tiny airport or making your final descent on the half-hour flight from Barcelona, there are moments when you can see the entire length and breadth of the island, surrounded by water on all sides, from your window seat. (With a reported surface area of 271 square miles, it’s roughly the same size as El Paso, Texas, or Macon, Georgia, but smaller than Memphis, Tennessee, or Kansas City, Missouri) One common route flies directly over my daughter’s grade school, a cluster of buildings ringed by fields and dramatic, rocky outcrops. I once looked out the plane window and picked out not only her school but also the nearby farmhouses of two families I know, all in a single glimpse. On other trips, I’ve seen my wife’s mother’s place, just beneath the flight path on the south coast; another time, more distantly, I spied our own house, built in 1895, a typical Menorcan town house situated on the very edge of Alaior, with nothing but farmland past our backyard.



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The island’s smallness has served it well. Long thought of — when people think of it at all — as a sleepy, rural place with zero nightlife and little in the way of retail or fine dining, Menorca escaped the overdevelopment of Mallorca and Ibiza. And while it hardly remains untouched by the hand of progress — there are, yes, a handful of high-rise hotels from the 1960s (bad) and a growing crop of boutique hotels and rural agriturismos (good) — the island today benefits from several key protections. Chief among them is its status since 1993 as a biosphere reserve, a UNESCO designation meant to encourage sustainable development and preserve the delicate balance of natural ecosystems and human activities. And, thanks to its more recent Starlight Reserve status, the night sky is unusually vivid here. A few years ago, we sat on the stone wall at the bottom edge of our yard, where normally we feed the neighbor’s donkey banana peels, and watched a comet pierce a hole in the blackness.

The magic of the landscape is a very real, constant presence. My friend’s house in the center of Maó, one of the island’s two main towns, is built on top of a cave that, as the story goes, was a hiding place for Barbarossa, a fearsome Ottoman pirate who sacked the city in 1535. These kinds of legends are legion and alive on Menorca; how could they not be, when you can’t throw a rock without hitting one of some 1,500 Paleolithic ruins? Even Menorca’s archaeological sites are unusually approachable. While the most famous of our dolmens and necropolises have parking lots and tour groups, others lie scattered across farmland. Armed with a sturdy pair of hiking boots and perhaps a crowd-sourced trekking app, you might find yourself wandering the rubble of our Bronze Age megaliths, known as talayots, accompanied only by some curious cattle.


I lucked into living here: My wife grew up on the island, and five years ago, when our daughter was 2 and our Barcelona lease was due to skyrocket in price, we opted to trade polluted air and dusty city parks for endless vegetation and hidden coves. (And, yes, surprisingly affordable property values, though they go up every year, particularly now that the summer demographics have shifted from British package holidays to French homebuyers.) As residents, we see things most tourists aren’t privy to: the changing of the seasons, for example, when arid summer scrub gives way to lush fields of green grazing land, then bursts into bloom with the arrival of spring’s wildflowers. We forage for wild mushrooms and asparagus and buy seasonal produce, homemade cheese, and sobrasada from unmarked fruterías. At times you feel you have stepped back half a century, to a place that no longer exists in many corners of Europe (much less the United States).

In recent years, Menorca’s secret has begun spreading. In 2021, the internationally renowned Swiss Hauser & Wirth gallery opened a space on a long-abandoned islet in the middle of Maó’s harbor, renovating a series of limestone buildings opposite an eighteenth-century military hospital and decorating the grounds with sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Joan Miró, along with landscaping by Piet Oudolf. The gallery, which is free to visit, has helped spark a local renaissance of sorts. I’ve heard anecdotal tales of numerous artists buying summer homes on the island, and there is a growing wave of new hotels, new restaurants, and new clothing and interior design shops to satisfy the more discerning tastes of the island’s latest visitors. (Best of all: the French bakery, Pigalle, makes the most delicious bread I’ve ever tasted in Spain.)

But even as Menorca moves into this next phase, its smallness remains a virtue. When we recently attended a retrospective exhibition of a local painter, a longtime resident of Alaior, it turned out that he had been a close friend of my wife’s father back in the hippie days, when a generation of countercultural Catalans descended upon the island. He reached into a glass case, pulled out one of his artworks, and sent it home with us, as a gift.


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Our Contributors

Philip Sherburne Writer

Philip Sherburne has been a contributing editor at Pitchfork since 2014. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, SPIN, Slate, and The Wire. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, he now lives in Menorca, Spain.

Salva López Photographer

Born in Barcelona, Salva López is currently based between Barcelona and Menorca. He started working in documentary photography in 2007, and his first project, "Roig 26," was widely recognized. Since then, his work has appeared in various international magazines, such as Monocle and the Wall Street Journal. He now works for magazines, mostly in the industrial design, architecture, and interior design sectors and is inspired by everyday life. His current work focuses on the photographic process as a form of contemplative practice.


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