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Pirates, Unesco awards and a dragon island – wonders of the Balearics

For well over 2,000 years they were invaded and occupied umpteen times, from the Phoenicians to the British. They were the hideaway haunt of pirates. The Balearic Islands are still being invaded, but now it is by tourists. Many of the attractions of the past are still relevant today. The sea, beaches, lovely Mediterranean climate and lush countryside attract more than 13 million visitors a year.  

Here are a few fascinating facts.

There are at least a dozen islands and numerous islets in this lovely Spanish archipelago that is off the eastern coast of Spain and lies roughly between Barcelona and Valencia.

Most of them are uninhabited gems and their special flora and flora are protected by law. 

More than a million people live on just four of the islands – Majorca, Ibiza, Menorca and Formentera.

There are two official languages, Catalan and Spanish. English is widely spoken.

Formentor - Majorca
Cap de Formentor, Majorca

Majorca, the largest island, has about 80 per cent of the population and about 10 million of the tourists.  The number of international visitors has increased steadily over the last decade.  

The administrative capital of the archipelago is lovely Palma, the biggest city and capital of Majorca.

The islands have four Unesco awards. World heritage status has been granted to the Serra de Tramuntana mountains in Majorca, the old fortress town of Dalt Vila in Ibiza and, on the same island, the 100,000-year-old sea meadows responsible for the turquoise colour of the water. The “environmental treasure” that is Menorca has Unesco Biosphere Reserve status.  

Although resorts stay open all day, and sometimes all night, islanders who are not involved in tourism still enjoy a traditional afternoon siesta.

Palma Cathedral
Palma's gothic cathedral

The history of the islands dates back thousands of years to the Bronze Age.  Remains of the ancient communities, watchtowers and defensive walls are on the “must see” lists for many tourists.

Legends suggest that when the Phoenicians arrived the local inhabitants didn’t wear clothes.

By the time the Romans landed the men of the islands were able to sling stones with unerring accuracy and were recruited as mercenaries.

Other invaders included the Greeks, East Germanic Vandals, Moors, the Byzantine Empire, a Swedish Viking king called Bjorn Ironside, Italian crusaders, Berbers, the French, British and Spanish.

Pirates from North Africa and Turkey were such a plague that people gave up trying to live on Formentera and fled to other islands.

Ciutadella port - Menorca
Ciutadella port in Menorca

The British Navy took over Menorca in 1713 and despite being forced out by the Spanish and French they kept returning until 1802 when Spain got the islands back.

Roman Catholic festivals are held regularly and often involve processions, music and dancing. Each town and village holds a fiesta to celebrate the patron saint’s days.

There are five nature reserves which protect wildlife and plants. One is on the islet called Dragonera, that is shaped like a dragon. It has been uninhabited since the two lighthouses went automatic and the lighthouse keepers had to leave.  

The island of Cabrera, eight miles south of Majorca and once the haunt of pirates, is an award-winning national park with its own archipelago of islets. Its status protects wildlife on land and sea. The island has a 14th century castle and an information centre. Visiting is restricted, but there are excursions.

A pirate called Barbarossa captured Cabrera in the 16th century and used it as a base for his Ottoman force which terrorised Majorca and Menorca for more than 30 years.

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