“People don’t always mean to stay in Menorca. But it happens nonetheless.”
Alberto has lived on the island for over forty years. He must be in his seventies, this white-haired Einstein lookalike – and he tells us the history of Menorca, quietly intertwined with his own personal story.
The way he arrived one summer to explore the island and somehow, seemingly against his initial will, never managed to leave.
What am I doing in Menorca?
I’ve come to Menorca with a group of bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers — or ‘social media influencers’, as we’ve been collectively christened. I wonder what Alberto thinks of us, and whether he uses all the social media channels we do.
It doesn’t seem to matter.
Each morning, after patiently waiting for us to board a bus outside the Salgar hotel, he strides purposefully through the streets of Mahon, the island’s capital. And every few minutes he doubles back when he realises most of his insatiable brood have lost themselves somewhere, forever in search of photo opportunities.
Alberto is our guide during a week of Menorcan exploration – but aside from the blue lanyard around his neck, the light grey suit and his single silver stud earring hints at something different. Something more.
Menorca’s hidden histories
Our first morning in Menorca, Alberto kneels on his seat at the front of the bus to point out a set of old ruins which flash past through the window. He tells us how Menorca was constantly attacked by pirates in the 1500s, so they brought convicts from Valencia to repopulate the island because they were the only people suitable to live somewhere so dangerous.
It makes me think Alberto must have something of the pirate in him; that all islanders living here must feel the same indescribable tug to a place renowned for its isolation.
Of course, life in Menorca nowadays is anything but dangerous.
This little Spanish island is stunning: it boasts two hundred kilometres of coastline surrounded by startlingly blue Mediterranean sea, along with all the favourite travel-writer-cliches of cobblestones, colourfully crooked buildings and skies so bright that they seem to have been painted on by a very excitable artist.
Yet over the course of the week, I feel like Alberto is quietly challenging us to see his adopted home through a historical lens.
He leads us through the old curved tunnels of Fort Marlborough and the archways of Mahon, and when we duck our heads to walk inside an old monastery (now converted into a fruit and vegetable market) I suddenly realise how alive the history is on this tiny island.
Moreover, I can clearly see Alberto’s passion for explaining that history to us.
At the century-old Favàritx lighthouse Alberto strides out ahead of us, alone for once while our industrious group set up drone cameras and practice our Instagram poses.
We’re a different generation, and our style of gadget-documented travel seems barely comparable to the way he first experienced this island in the 1960s.
And yet when we reach Lazareto island, a tiny spit of land across the bay from Mahon harbour, all sixty bloggers congregate to hear what Alberto has to say.
We stand stock-still in the evening breeze while he explains the heartbreaking history of Lazareto: how sailors and seaborne passengers who’d contracted cholera, bubonic plague and yellow fever were quarantined here in the 1800s. For the century that the complex was operational, over a million people stayed here – and many thousands died and were buried in the island’s cemetery.
Today, Lazareto’s buildings sit empty and abandoned, awaiting either renovation or an eventual reclamation by the elements.
Why are these Menorcan stories so important?
Alberto’s choice of locations have a lot in common. During the brief time we spend in each place, I can practically feel the ghosts: troops of gun-touting soldiers, boatloads of hard working fishermen, and listless cholera patients waiting for their illnesses to heal.
Though it may not be the prettiest of impressions for a little Spanish island to provide, it’s hard-hitting in a way that feels much more important. Indirectly, Alberto’s been showing us remnants of the countless lives which have played out across Menorca’s landscapes.
It’s admirable that Menorca has embraced its rocky history, and is converting that into something attractive to tourists.
Whether it’s allowing a group of rowdy social media folk to run rampant around an old island hospital, or carving a bar inside the cliffs of an old pirate hideout, that’s the beauty of regeneration: we make use of what we have, and repurpose it for another audience.
And it’s even better that someone like Alberto is bridging the gap, and communicating the history which gives these places more meaning.
We’re all constantly hunting for our perfect shot and our perfect story. Too often, that’s how my generation of travellers behaves: we’re fast and rushed and perhaps not fair on the place itself.
But people like Alberto really live those stories. They spend their whole lives experiencing one place, and giving it all the legitimacy its entitled to.
Travelling like clouds do
One afternoon while sailing around the coast, we ask Alberto for stories about the island. He points out the sea-carved archways in the rock, offers us beers and talks about the way the clouds move above his house on a Menorcan cliff edge.
“Clouds are like travellers,” he says. “Whenever I see them, they all move the same way – but each is isolated. They remind me that I always want to be travelling.”
Throughout my travels I’ve often been drawn to places of isolation. Places on the edge of the world; places which urge me to think. I understand why Alberto’s decided to stay here in Menorca, and I vaguely hope I’m like him when I’m older.
I’d like to feel an inexplicable pull to a place I never dreamed I’d stay in: one that won’t let me go.
Have you ever been to Menorca, or met a tour guide as passionate as Alberto?