All along the watchtowers in Menorca
A path around the island's coast, where soldiers once trod, has now reopened to the public. Lucy Grewcock reports
Sunday 11 September 2011
"Finally, the Cami de Cavalls is open again," beamed my riding instructor, Sarah Barford.
She, alongside hundreds of other determined locals, had campaigned to regain full access to this historic right of way, which dates back to medieval times. It fully opened in May this year. "Where the trail passed through private land, there was conflict," she explained.
The Cami de Cavalls, or "Way of Horses", circumnavigates the island of Menorca, tracing its coastline for 185km (110 miles). The path guides visitors over red-sand coves and contorted headlands on the gnarled northern coastline, golden beaches and flower-filled gorges on the smoother southern shores, and through the historic cities of Ciutadella and Mahon at the island's western and eastern extremities. It was originally intended as a bridleway, so it seemed only appropriate to experience at least one section of the trail on horseback.
It was early evening when I rode over the headland and caught my first sight of Cala Pregonda: a U-shaped sweep of sand, backed by green-haired dunes, with jade waters sheltered by weathered outcrops, and at the centre of the bay, a stegosaurus-shaped rock that looks like it's taking a bath. Until the reopening of the Cami de Cavalls, such views were restricted, because more than 40 per cent of Menorca's beaches are inaccessible by car and can be reached only by sea or this path.
Here, on the north coast, I was on one of the Cami de Cavalls' wildest tracts. I was far from the whitewashed hotels and crowded resorts of Cala Galdana and Punta Prima, with no phone reception and not a hope of a beach bar for hours. As I cantered down a concealed corridor, my head bobbed above the wild olive trees; I imagined myself as a medieval messenger, galloping to tell the next watchtower that I'd spied a pirate fleet.
Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Cami de Cavalls has been trampled by every occupying force that landed on this island; Moors, Catalans, French and English. Along this perimeter path, watchmen would courier warnings of attack. But today, the watchtowers have been replaced by sandcastles and the trail enjoys a slower pace of life, which I indulged in by continuing my passage on foot.
I trampled a new section of the path each day, meeting roaming donkeys and wild goats but rarely a fellow tourist. At every turn, I would drop into another deserted cove, or stumble across another sheltered beach. When the ancient pathway turned inland, sea salt gave way to red dust, and the sand between my toes became a carpet of pine needles that crunched beneath my sandals like Shredded Wheat. I felt like a pioneer, discovering the island for the first time – an unexpected surprise in a destination swamped by summer-holiday pilgrims.
After going solo for a few days, I spent a day walking with Ramon Fritz, whose company, Rutas Menorca, offers excursions along the Cami de Cavalls, from three-mile rambles to week-long expeditions of the entire loop.
I filled him in on the sections I'd already accomplished, only to discover that I'd bypassed several highlights. "Did you turn off the path to Cala Presili?" – No; "Did you see Hangman's Tower near Sant Esteve?" – No; "Did you snorkel in Paradise Cove?" – No. No matter, "soldiers had little time for sightseeing", teased Ramon.
Unfolding a map of Menorca with the dotted line of the Cami de Cavalls tracing its coastline, Ramon pointed to where small detours off the pathway led to hidden treasure. Come sunset, we had fed sweet-water turtles in concealed gorges, flung rocks over Menorcan llocs (traditional farmlands) with ancient slingshots, and trespassed through prehistoric burial grounds.
Right now, Menorca's "sun and sea" tourist season is winding down, but the Cami de Cavalls season is only just getting started – it's the best time to come. "In autumn and winter everywhere is green. In Easter the island's filled with flowers," said Ramon. "Outside summer, it's cooler, prettier – and cheaper."
By the end of the week, I had traversed the northern terrains and was exploring the soft curves of the south. As I rambled along a particularly forgiving stretch, a Lycra-clad bottom wiggled past me on a mountain bike. I'd been advised by Ramon that tackling the trail on two wheels wasn't for the faint-hearted. "It's pretty intrepid in parts," he had cautioned. But as bike and bottom disappeared out of sight, I scuffed at the hard-packed dirt on the path – how hard could it be?
The following morning, I was grinding my gears behind a Spanish former mountain bike champion turned cycle guide, Ruth Moll. As Ruth nipped down near-vertical shoots, hopped over boulders and carved fluid lines through jagged rock gardens, I bounced off the rutted pathway, stalled at sandy beaches and skidded down wave-cut stairways. "It's technical, eh?" Ruth called back, as I slid off a polished platform and landed in the dust.
Two hours later, at the end of our 20km (12 mile) gauntlet, I emerged saddle sore but triumphant, with a masochistic desire to do it all again. The ultimate challenge is to cycle the entire circuit in four days, for which Ruth awards her guests an esteemed Cavalls de Ferro (Iron Horses) T-shirt. I think I'll leave that way to explore the Cami de Cavalls to the experts.
How to get there
Easyjet (0845 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies to Menorca from £113 return. Walking tour companies Rutas Menorca (00 34 685 74 73 08; rutas menorca.com) and Menorca Viva (00 34 634 507 305; menorcaviva.es), horse-riding operator Menorca a Cavall (00 34 971 37 46 37; menorca acavall.com) and mountain biking specialist Cavalls de Ferro (00 34 971 38 10 56; cavallsdeferro.com) offer tailored itineraries of different durations and can arrange accommodation from about £55 per room per night.
The official Cami de Cavalls guidebook is available in all tourist offices in Menorca, price £17.50.
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