MAHON, SPAIN- The streets of this knobby little island that juts out of the Mediterranean Sea just east of the Spanish mainland are almost deserted the afternoon we start to explore.
The siesta, it appears, is still very much a part of everyday life in this sleepy Spanish outpost that boasts the second deepest natural harbour in the world.
Because of its strategic location and its ability to accommodate the largest ships, Mahon has been a coveted prize for world powers over the centuries. It is said that whoever controls Mahon, controls the Mediterranean.
Which is probably why Britain’s Lord Nelson anchored his fleet here and why the U.S. set up a base on Mahon, aka Port Mahon, during World War II.
We see reminders of the island’s former military importance when we float past some abandoned forts aboard Silversea’s Silver Spirit. Cruise ships and the armies of tourists they carry are the only invaders here these days.
Above: Mahon was once a strategic military position and many battles were fought here.
We’re instantly impressed with the crayon-coloured homes — most owned by Spanish and British retirees — and the large majestic public buildings that crown the island’s cliffs.
The population of Mahon, a member of the Balearic Island chain, hovers around 30,000 most of the year but during peak holiday seasons that number increases dramatically. The British, in particular, favour this sun-drenched island that they once ruled.
Vikings, Arabs, the Moors and Ottomans and even Hannibal’s brother Mago Barca, occupied Mahon before the British took control in 1713 (they lost it to the French during a 1756 battle but recaptured it again in 1763. The island was finally returned to Spain in 1802). Mahon stayed loyal to the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) but was captured by Nationalist forces in 1939 and later made capital of Menorca state.
Mahon’s historic area was heavily damaged during Civil War bombing but thanks to the influx of tourist dollars, a major renovation was launched and now the historic Upper Town looks pretty much as it did during the island’s heyday.
Above: Mahon is now a tourist island popular with people from Barcelona and Britain.
Britain’s influence can still be seen in the magnificent Georgian buildings they constructed while here and an old gin distillery they built to keep their spirits up.
After leaving the cruise ship on the southern part of the island, we climb an elaborate outdoor staircase that connects Mahon’s lower and upper towns and are rewarded when we reach the summit with a spectacular view of the harbour entrance.
We follow a maze of narrow, hilly streets that weave under arches, through quaint squares and past inviting tapas restaurants, where locals are enjoying late-day refreshments, before reaching the entrance of Iglesia de Santa Maria, which was built between 1748 and 1772 on the site of a 13th century Gothic church.
Santa Maria’s rather plain exterior belies the fact that its interior is one of the loveliest in Spain. Once inside, we’re awed by its neo-Gothic design, elaborate side chapels dedicated to different saints and especially its 15-metre-high organ which dates back to 1810. The incredible instrument contains more than 3,000 pipes, 197 of which are made of wood and the rest metal.
Other than tourism, there’s very little industry on Mahon, but the cheese produced here is a coveted commodity in the upscale restaurants of Barcelona.
Above: Grand churches, lovely side streets and palatial homes dot the island.
While enjoying a glass of sangria and some tapas treats topped with Mahon cheese, we learn from a local that mayonnaise was first introduced to the culinary world at an island restaurant.
The island’s military past is well preserved in the fascinating Military Museum located near the cruise dock terminal and tours of Mahon’s two forts, La Mola and Fort Marlborough are also offered.
La Mola was built by the British on the north side of the island and a museum that covers two floors of the old barracks gives visitors insight into what life was like here in the 1800s.
Above: Sailor's graveyard, right, speaks of battles fought off Mahon.
Fort Marlborough, named after John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Winston Churchill), was constructed in the 18th century to protect the island’s southern flank. The unique seven-sided fort was built mostly underground and tours take visitors through dark, damp tunnels. Those who are claustrophobic might want to skip this museum.
Castle San Felipe is another tourist highlight on Mahon and well worth a visit, as is the small island of El Lazareto, which sits at the harbour entrance and was used as a quarantine station during times of plague. Now, the island is home to quaint shops, inns and its congress centre hosts many big European conferences.
The old gin distillery also offers lots of tours and plenty of samples … just another reason why visitors find Mahon so intoxicating.
Mahon is located on the island of Menorca. • Mayonnaise was invented in Mahonaround 1756. • The island’s official language is catalan, an ancient form of Spanish. But English is widely spoken by the locals. • Mahon is the first place to see the sun rise every day because Menorca is the easternmost island in the Balearics. • Port Mahon is the second largest natural harbour in the world. Pearl Harbour in No.1. • The best way to get to Mahon is on a cruise ship — go to www.silversea.com
to find out when their great ships dock there.