Joan Miro, speaking of Mallorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, said, “It still feels as fresh as if the world had just been created.” Since the artist said that in 1948, millions of tourists have enjoyed the islands off the eastern Spanish coast for their sunshine, beaches and turquoise waters. Thanks to tourism, some areas may not be quite as “fresh” as when Miro saw them, but there are still plenty of quiet corners in which to appreciate these islands’ natural beauty. The archipelago has a unique flavor, the product of its strong ties to Catalan language and culture combined with its separate geography. In addition, its many foreign visitors give it a cosmopolitan feel.
Each of the four major islands has a different personality. Mallorca is a top European holiday destination, drawing crowds from all over the continent and mainland Spain, and has something for everyone. Menorca (known as “the smaller one”) is a destination for those looking to escape the crowds of Mallorca and bask on its many isolated virgin beaches or calas virgenes. Ibiza is almost synonymous with clubbing and nightlife in a beautiful beach setting. And little Formentera offers quiet natural beauty far from the bustle of the tourist resorts. Cabrera, often included in the list of Balearic Islands is almost uninhabited due to its establishment as a national park, but it is open to day-trippers.
Little is known about the ancient inhabitants of the Balearic Islands. Still, it is apparent that they were inhabited since the Neolithic era. Menorca, in fact, still has hundreds of ancient stone constructions.
Some islands in the group were known in the ancient world as the Gymnesian Islands, a reference that means “naked ones” and may refer either to the light armor worn by their fighting men or the lack of need for clothing in the balmy Mediterranean climate. The inhabitants served as mercenaries (deadly with slingshots, so legend would have it) for the Carthaginians and later the Romans, who conquered the area in the Second century B.C.
After the Romans, the islands passed through the hands of the Vandals, the Byzantines finally the Muslim conquerors from North Africa. King Jaime I of Aragon re-conquered the islands for Christendom in the 13th century and they eventually became the Kingdom of Mallorca, independent for a while, then subservient to the Aragonese crown.
Through the years, the islands have been ruled by the Romans, attacked by the Barbary pirates of North Africa, raided by Ottomans and owned at various times by the British and the French, returning to Spanish rule in the early 1800s.
As everywhere in Spain, the islanders like their festivals. With so many international visitors, it was only a matter of time before the islands starting hosting international music festivals, and Palma is particularly known for its July jazz festival that brings together musicians from all over the world.
One of the biggest celebrations of the year is the June festival of San Juan. As is typical of festivals that have their roots in pagan solstice celebrations, bonfires are common. The Menorcan version also includes the jaleo, a chance for locals to display their skills on horseback. Riders dressed in period costume show off their moves to jubilant crowds, maneuvering their horses to the beats of the traditional local music.
If you like a little fighting with your festivities, the festivals of Soller in May, and that of Pollença, in August look to the islands’ contentious history for their celebrations, recreating battles against Moors and pirates.
Mallorca and Ibiza have large carnival celebrations, and the nighttime Semana Santa processions in the town of Sineu are known to be particularly beautiful.
The architecture of Palma de Mallorca includes many beautiful historic patios. Though normally they are closed to the public, around the time of Corpus Christi in late June, many are decorated and opened to the public for guided tours.
Moving to the Balearic Islands
Given the islands’ history of rule by so many different nations, perhaps it’s no surprise that the people who live here are known for their openness and hospitality to foreigners. And it’s good they are, because, as second-largest tourist region in the country, the islands see almost 10 million foreign tourists in the average year. A lot of visitors and immigrant residents are Germans or British, and English is widely spoken.
Of the million or so permanent inhabitants of the Islands, 21.9% are estimated to be foreign-born. Of those, about 15% are German, and about 10% are British.
One interesting side effect of all this international traffic is that there are quite a few international schools in the region. This makes the islands a good option for expats with children who would prefer an education not exclusively in Spanish.
Working in the Balearic Islands
As with other top tourist destinations, work in the hospitality industry is definitely available in high season, though you’ll have difficulty carrying yourself through the winter months. If you’re after summer work, best to go toward the end of April with a few weeks living expenses in your pocket, and then just hit the pavement every day.
Ibiza has a crazy summertime club/bar/disco work rhythm all its own. Those looking to work their way through the summer season often take on grueling bar jobs in the towns of Ibiza and San Antonio just to live in the midst of the party. Work can be long, with late hours seven nights a week. Allow a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season for going from bar to bar in person; people tend to do their hiring face to face and at the moment the season starts.
Competition for proper hotel jobs on the islands, like receptionists and concierges, will be tougher, and will definitely require a high level of Spanish.
Two other industries in which English language skills would be a boon are real estate and boating/yachting. If you’ve got the skills and experience to move houses among the many international visitors and residents of the islands, you could escape the seasonal work in hospitality and tourism. The beaches of the islands come with many harbors, so crews and guides are often needed with the language skills to cater to the many foreign pleasure-cruisers.
Living in the Balearic Islands
In an average year, the Balearic Islands enjoy 300 days of sunshine. It’s no wonder natives of grayer shores have been coming here for years. And the islands are well-prepared for foreigners. Though there is a local dialect related to Catalan, everyone speaks Spanish, many people speak English and English-language services from real estate to education aren’t too hard to find.
Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza all have international airports, though Mallorca sees the heaviest traffic of the three. Ferries connect Formentera to Ibiza and all the four major islands to each other. Roads are good, and many people like to get around on bicycles.
In terms of food, fish and meat soups and stews are typical of the islands. Seafood of all types is, of course, a local specialty, with shellfish and lobster particularly enjoyed on Menorca. A type of sobrassada, a cured pork sausage seasoned with paprika, has its roots on the islands, and the traditional autumn pig slaughter is still marked with festivities. Ensaimadas, a pastry made with pork lard, are the best-known sweet of the islands. Mahón (which gave the world mayonnaise or salsa mahonesa) makes a particularly well-known cheese. Menorca is known for its own style of gin, while Ibiza and Formentera produce an herb liqueur made with thyme called frigola.
Top 5 Sights
1) Palma de Mallorca.
2) The city of Ibiza.
3) Cabrera National Park.
4) Sailing the harbor at Port Mahón.
5) The Caves of Drach on Lake Martel on Mallorca.