The “other capital”, Ciudadela, of Menorca is equally attractive and hospitable, qualities that during the high season of the tourist calendar take it to the point of overflowing. Streets and squares are packed with people and there are not enough moorings in the port. You have to wait hours while the beaches absorb the excess of passers-by to calmly take in what is possible the rest of the year: the serenity of an old city, with a great deal of history in its streets and in the public’s memory.
It is easy to trace the layout of the old walls in the arch that currently charts three consecutive passages (Constitució, Jaume I and Capità Negrete) and which is popularly known as Sa Contramurada. It is contained by two imposing bastions, one of which is crowned by the Town Hall – previously a citadel, during Muslim rule – while the other houses the Bastió de sa Font Museum. They overlook the port and its extension, the Pla de Sant Joan, the setting for the equestrian games held during the festivals.
The medieval city, within these limits, holds many interesting buildings. Its backbone goes from Plaça Alfons III to Plaça des Born. Until reaching the Plaça Nova it goes under the name of Camí de Maó, like the old entrance road to the city, today replaced by the main road. Later it becomes Ses Voltes (Carrer Josep Mª Quadrado), whose narrow road runs between the vaulted porches of the houses.
The harmonious succession of arches is only broken by the short extension of Sa Plaça Vella, where one can see a bronze representation of the emblematic Be de Sant Joan (St. John’s lamb), a delicate sculpture by Quetglas. This is behind the cathedral church, a building where religious belief and citizen’s awareness converge, as a real and symbolic centre of this area.
Without being taller than other urban buildings, that of the Seu (See) impresses the observer due to its position and because it rises dramatically among the empty spaces surrounding it. The church of Santa Maria was built in the 14th century on the site of the old Muslim mosque, which had already been adapted to Christian worship since the arrival on the island of Alfons III; it was consecrated as a cathedral in 1795. Built according to the patterns of Catalan Gothic, it is made up of a single and wide nave, joined by several side chapels. It has been repaired and rebuilt so many times that it is no wonder that there are Baroque elements present, such as the chapel of Ses Ànimes, or neo-classical ones, such as the main facade. As the city’s main worshipping centre, it has experienced its happier moments as well as suffered its tragedies. The Turkish hordes of the pashas Mustafa and Piali looted and pillaged the city in 1558, s’any de sa desgràcia, (the tragic year), setting fire to the area.
The Palau Olivar also stands in the Pla de la Seu and its projecting facade seems to guard over the logical way forward towards Es Born. It is nevertheless a good idea to delay the march forward and take time to get lost among the neighbouring little streets. In Carrer del Bisbe is the Episcopal Palace, and in the adjoining Carrer Sant Sebastiá the Palau Squella, a Baroque building of 18th century Italian style. Further on, in Carrer Santa Clara, is the Palau Baró de Lloriac, the oldest family name of the local noblesse, forming a corner with Carrer Dormidor de ses Monges, where stands the convent of the nuns of the Order of St. Clare, so closely linked to the vicissitudes of the city. Going back towards Ses Voltes along the same street, you pass between the small church of Sant Josep and Can Salord, with the corner set back, surely for easing the entry and exit from the church.
On crossing Ses Voltes, a victim of the never-ending flow of pedestrians that pass up and down, the street takes the name of Bisbe Vila, but the Carrer del Seminari is more popular because here is the Augustine convent of Socors, in Renaissance style and headquarters of the council seminary. The cloister plays host to the Music Festival on summer nights as well as auditions for the Capella Davídica, an institution that has cultivated many famous and appreciated voices. Before, however, you will have passed in front of another small chapel, that of Sant Crist, and another palace, that of the second branch of the Saura dynasty, today occupied by bank offices. Behind the convent of Socors is a space with a life of its own: the market, in the Plaça de la Llibertat, with an architectural style – in iron, supplied by the Modernists – that provides a great leap of two centuries in the area’s appearance, although possessing the character necessary for it not to be too striking a difference.
There are more palaces in Carrer del Santíssim, those of Saura and Martorell, and the church of Roser – secularised and used as a cultural centre –, and more small, narrow streets which give off a feeling of intimacy and peace. This continues until leaving the Born area, where the Salord and Olivar mansions, by now 19th century buildings, sublimate the representative intention of these dwellings – the stately houses or palaces –, whose facades often provide a more spectacular architectural style.
The obelisk of Born can be seen as an index finger accusing, as an accusation to the heavenly powers for the abandonment suffered when faced with calamity. The monument, however, a homage to the victims of the Turkish attack, must also be interpreted as confirmation of nobility which it does not renounce. Ciudadela de Menorca is very aware of its past and the role it has had to play has not always been a kind one. The fact that the British occupation took away its character of capital, for example, has not prevented it from preserving the pride with which it bore this title.
Facing the palaces already mentioned is the Town Hall, and to the side, the Teatre des Born, alongside which the port can be reached via the steps of the Baixada Capllonch. Another way is through the Costa des Moll, which opens out between this square and the adjoining Esplanada des Pins, another setting of urban peace. If instead of going down to the port, you go along the Passeig de Sant Nicolau, you reach the entrance to the open sea and the Passeig Marítim which follows the line of Cala Degollador. In the square Almirall Farragut – an illustrious American sailor of local descent – stands the Sant Nicolau Castle, an elegant military construction from which an additional turret stands out for guard duty. Octagonal in design, and surrounded by a moat, it possessed the artillery required for repelling attacks from sea. It was planned by Spanish engineers at the end of the 17th century to replace another, from which the coat of arms it bears came from, that of the Aragonese Crown. Since its recent restoration it can be visited free of charge.
The spirit of summer materialises each year in Ciudadela with the arrival of the Sant Joan festivals, revealing the Mediterranean heart that beats beneath its venerable exterior. This spirit does not rest until the days become shorter again. The nights must be filled with people and music as much as possible, dispelling the austere fame of being a city of convents.