Over the last twenty-five years in Menorca, Mahon has experienced a series of urban improvements which have renovated the city. Of all these improvements, the restoration of many public and private buildings deserves a very special mention. Mahon is reconciled with its past and offers it to its visitors with justifiable pride. With the new millennium hardly under way, the buildings that marked its growth from the 18th century onwards shine out again like beacons, adapted with total naturalness to the new times and recovering their importance in the modernised centre.
Of the Mahon prior to the Catalan-Aragonese conquest, only the occasional references we can come across in books and museums have survived. Between that year of 1287, when Alfons III decided on the consolidation of the existing fortification, and the entry of Barbarossa in 1535, there had been an expansion in the medieval centre that forced the defences to a second wall; after 1600 this boundary would also be moved. It was, however, British domination, by making it the capital, which produced many of the changes that can still be identified today, two centuries later. On any city tour we embark on, we inevitably come across the stamp of that period.
A fine place to start would be the Pla del Monestir in order to visit the church and cloister of Sant Francesc, which today houses the Museum of Menorca. Firstly it was a convent, and the church was built throughout the 18th century, which would explain its Baroque decoration over an out-of-phase Gothic approach, useful, nevertheless, for building in stages. Once the architecture and contents have been seen, it is a good idea to do a tour of the remodelled exterior in order to take in a view of the port, the driving force behind the previously mentioned transformations, and the Dalt Vilanova district to the west.
From there, the route continues along the Carrer Isabel II, with the stately homes and hanging galleries (the lansdcape that dominates the Levante wharf), and the Cas General, the residence chosen by Kane and which today is the military headquarters. It ends at the convent of the Conception-ists, leading to the neo-classical facade of the Town Hall. To see it from the front you have to go into the Pla de sa Parròquia, Plaça de la Constitució. This area, invaded every day by vehicles who have to park somewhere, awaits the annual festivities whose noise is as deafening as that of the traffic, but far more vibrant. Also in the square stands a military building, the Principal de Guàrdia, and the church of Santa Maria, the construction of which began in 1848 where there had previously been a church of the same name that Alfons III had ordered to be erected. On the outside, only the bell tower, built a century later, alleviates a little the heaviness of the disproportionate monument. The inside, however, is embellished by the angelic appearance of the enormous organ. Built by the German masters Otter and Kirburz and fitted with 3,210 pipes and four keyboards, it bedazzles anyone who comes to listen to the concerts given by famous international artists; it is even considered to be one of the reasons why the people of Mahon have such a passionate love of music. The Pla de sa Parròquia leads to the Plaça de la Conquesta through the narrow alley dedicated to Alfons III, of whom there is also an effigy in the square. So much repetition is inevitable in the very heart of the castle, the fortress where the Muslims surrendered and which produced medieval Mahon. The palace of Can Mercadal, turned into the Public Library, and the viewpoint beyond this building, make the visit to this part well worthwhile.
On leaving the square by the opposite corner to the entrance we come across the Ses Voltes coastline, the main entrance point to the city from the sea. From here a descending walk spreads out towards the wharves, a park-cum-archipelago of leafy islets that seem to have emerged from among the meanders of the grey asphalt river. For those having to ascend the successive sections of steps, the viewpoint changes. The gradient and the walls of the cliff-side are quite impressive, along with the very concept of the original project (1951, Josep Claret), but the latest interventions in this space – also known as Parc Rochina – have softened the intimidating effect.
The buildings overlooking this garden, the Casa Mir, inspired by Modernism, and the Peixeteria, the working fish market are all the work of the architect Francesc Femenías. The author of many original houses, warehouses and factories, he was also responsible for important civil works in his role as municipal architect.
Leaving a visit to the port as a specific tour in itself, the next stage has to be, due to its closeness, the series of buildings known as El Carme. The convent that housed the Carmelite order, later a courthouse and prison, has been transformed into a series of spaces for cultural purposes, among which features the building housing the archives of the Fundació Hernández Mora. The cloister remains the home of the meat, fruit and vegetable market, which had previously occupied this space for more than a century, and below the central courtyard a new commercial area has been created, connected to the underground car park of the Plaça Miranda. This square has another splendid view across the port, and from the adjacent Plaça del Príncep and Carrer Anunciavay one can reach the pedestrian centre that includes the streets of S’Arravaleta and Nou, the steep slopes of Deià and Hannover and the Plaça Colom, with the small streets that extend from it. This area, full of shops, gives you an idea of how the tourist season is doing by simply observing the flow of people in and around it.
Just on entering the Deià slope you come across the gateway-passage to the Parc des Freginal, a garden area of modern design and heir to the bygone divisions of communal orchards. The Deià slope culminates at the Teatre Principal, opened originally in 1829 to house opera performances (it is even older than the Liceu in Barcelona), and another mainstay of the local love for theatre and music. A short distance away, in the Plaça Bastió, the towers of the Arc de Sant Roc are the last standing witnesses to the second ring of defensive walls.
We must make a detour on the route, however, by placing ourselves in another street of longstanding tradition, that of Doctor Orfila or Carrer de ses Moreres, from which start Carrer Cifuentes and Carrer del Cós de Gràcia. In the latter, an old path to the hermitage of the Verge de Gràcia, patron saint of the city, is where the spectacular equestrian competitions of the annual festivals are held. One of the notable buildings of the Cós is the church of the Concepció, built as an orthodox temple by the Greek colony that arrived in the city… also in the 18th century. If one takes into account the fact that there was also a Jewish synagogue and that the other large temples are from the same period, one can deduce that there was great prosperity and that the abolition of the Inquisition by Kane gave rise to religious freedom enjoyed by many denominations.
The Carrer Cifuentes (or Sa Rovellada de Dalt) has been mentioned before: here is the Scientific, Literary and Artistic Ateneo, or Society. This society, which continues to promote numerous cultural events, houses an important collection of algae and fossils.
S’Esplanada could end this basic circuit of the historical part of the city… and similarly may be the starting point, since it is kilometre zero as regards communication between Mahon and the rest of the island. There is a new bus station where there was once the British barracks and over what was once the parade square pigeons now flutter. Young people make dates, the elderly stroll and the clothes and handicrafts market attract crowds twice a week. Despite the fact that here the uses and spaces have been reorganised with specific projects, the vitality generated continues to nourish daily life. It is the perfect spot for giving your feet a rest and taking in the route covered so far.
We must, however, move on, because that described so far does not mark the end of the long list of interesting things to see. Streets such as S’Arraval, Camí des Castell, Gràcia or San Fernando are centres of other possible routes in order to discover, adjacent to the industrial estate, a modern, entertaining and didactic area, the Parc Rubió i Tudurí, throws light on local plant life. Therefore, depending on the time you have available, don’t hesitate to “lose yourself” by turning in any direction: it will be well worth it.