Charge! And don't spare the pedestrians

The Sant Joan festival is one of the most important - and dangerous - celebrations in Menorca's calendar. Maurice Geller reports

Picture this. It's hot and dark. An awesome rider in black frock-coat, white breeches and high black boots, with a black tricorn in his hand is rearing up on a superb black horse in the medieval town square at Alayor, towering over an insane throng of people.

Picture this. It's hot and dark. An awesome rider in black frock-coat, white breeches and high black boots, with a black tricorn in his hand is rearing up on a superb black horse in the medieval town square at Alayor, towering over an insane throng of people.

The air is thick with horses and men, sweat, gin, gunpowder and manure. Bands of youths charge about; they have been drinking pomada - gin and lemon - all afternoon. Then, on the edge of the town, in the early evening, a string of local grandees mount up. Maybe two dozen of them, all brilliantly turned out - the men the women amazing with their luminously glossy black hair back tight or great blonde corkscrews flying. And the rippling black steeds, the Menorquin breed, groomed in festival livery. And then it starts - they ride into the crowd, and rear up on their hind legs for the longest time while this dense raving mob is shouting "Jaleo! Jaleo!" and trying to turn them upside down. (Allegedly, they're trying to hold them up, but we know better.)

And so it goes on for hours: they ride into the crowd, round and round the town, down narrow lanes and shuttered streets, half-a-ton of muscle and blood threatening to crush anyone not nimble enough, while constantly baited by marauding gangs. Later there'll be music, food, dancing and fireworks to rock the town half the night. It's a thrilling combination of épater les bourgeois and pagan horse cult - and a vivid taste of the mysteries that vibrate below the surface of this supposedly mild holiday island.

Fifteen years later, I'm in a narrow street called Jeronimo while an ancient caixer (rider) is spinning round like a chopper blade and threatening to splatter me against Bishop Marroig's 17th-century palace, before pouring into a sea of people in the majestic Pla de Born, the aristocratic heart of Ciudadela. Welcome to Sant Joan - for many the finest festival in the Mediterranean. I'm in a crowd of 10,000 people and 100 horsemen, I don't hear a British voice or even a Spanish one - it's not just lip service and road signs here: they all speak Menorquin. It's a wonderful rush, swaying with the pack, hearing a random roar erupt from another quarter.

Except, of course, it's not random at all - this whole Midsummer week is bound by hundreds of years of protocol and the mystical streak that pulses beneath it. It begins with the appearance on the Sunday before 24 June of the Hom de Be, a man in sheepskins, carrying a sheep - John the Baptist, it seems, with the Lamb of God, the towering figures whose festivals mark midsummer and midwinter. Then the various caixers representing the different estates, visit the hilltop church of Sant Joan on Midsummer Eve - the one day of the year that it opens - before parading into the town, which parties all day and most of the night.

Then come the jaleos and caragols - cavalcades - again throughout 24 June itself, climaxing as the whole town descends to the waterfront, where the harbour leads into the field of engagement, the Pla de Sant Joan, for what they call the juegos peligrosos - the dangerous games. Right in the middle of the crowd there is racing, jousting, peg sticking with lances at full pelt and on into the night. And the final evening of 25 June is marked with superb fireworks - focs esplenderos - on land and water. Sant Joan is the spectacular opening of the season, and from there on a procession of festivals moves across the face of the island. Every village has its own week of saints and celebrations, music and fireworks and jaleos, culminating in the capital, Mahon, in September.

Menorca sits dead centre of the western Mediterranean. Marseille is to the north, Algiers to the south. West is Valencia and east, Sardinia. Its size and location means it's wet and windy during the winter. In summer it is green and gorgeous. It's hot, but not harsh. The sky is suffused with a golden-yellow glow and the wind that rocks the palms blows away the heaviness of the day. But its position also means that every era and culture has left its trace.

The island is covered with stones. There are navetas, grand Bronze Age chambers like upturned stone boats: in Tudons they found remains of at least 100 bodies, arms encircled with bronze bracelets. There are the talyots, elaborate mounds, often chambered, 30ft high or more, some visible for miles. And the exceptional taulas, unique to Menorca, whacking great limestone blocks formed in giant T-shapes suggestingritual star-gazing. It's the greatest concentration of prehistoric monuments in the world - more than 1,000 of them by some counts.

The Phoenicians were here, the great merchant adventurers, and their heirs, the Carthaginians, who enlisted the lethal Balearic slingshot artists in the Punic wars against Rome. But they lost, the Romans took Menorca, then came Vandals and Byzantines, Moors - for 300 fruitful years - then Aragon ruled (Turkish pirates permitting) - until the British arrived. It was the harbour that was the attraction - a superb long, deep, clear channel, with the grand clifftop town towering above it. Admiral Byng said there were three safe havens in the Mediterranean: July, August and Mahon. Not that it did him much good. As Macauly put it: "The Duke of Richelieu, an old fop who had passed his life from 16 to 60 in seducing women for whom he cared not one straw, landed on the island, and succeeded in reducing it." Byng failed to engage the enemy, sailed back to England - and was shot. But the British returned for another 50 years.

From much of the island, you can look across to its sacred centre, Monte Toro. Make this an early mission. Take Cami d'en Kane, the old road from Mahon, which immerses you in deep country (the whole island is a Unesco biosphere). Then comes the thrill of the first close-up of Toro, as it risesfrom a pattern of numinous green pyramidical hills. At the top is a chapel; legend says a bull hewed a statue of the Virgin out of rock and the mountain was named after the miracle. In fact, it comes from "tor" - like Glastonbury's (it's Arabic for mountain); besides, horses rule here not bulls. And the views? The whole island, almost, is laid out beneath you. To the south is Es Gran Migjorn. To the north is the harbour of Fornells, where the yachties hold up - Menorca offers great sailing - and King Juan Carlos eats caldereta of lobster while the tramuntana whips the windsurfers across the bay. To the west is the peak of Santa Agueda, topped by Roman and Moorish remains. On Toro, sit on the bar's terrace and soak up the vista east and south, out to sea and over Mahon.

And that's where I'll be in September, in the vital, ancient cliff-top city towering above its buzzy harbour, for theMare de Déu de Gràcia - the fiesta of the Virgin, Our Lady of Grace, Mahon's patron saint, which precedes the autumn equinox. It's four days of action centred on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. All the streets are jammed for the jaleo and more dazzling equestrian displays: the ensortilla, testing balance and aim; the rompre ses carotes, or jousting; and the trickiest, and most dangerous, where two riders lock arms and belt down the street together, through the crowds, hoping the horses don't separate. There are sea-going processions up and down the port - and, naturally, rocking all night in the squares and bars. It's a brilliant climax to this extraordinary, curious and, outside the island, all but unknown series of festivals.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Monarch Scheduled (08700 4063 00; www.flymonarch.com) offers return flights from Luton to Menorca from £150.

Doncars (0034 9713 60467; www.doncars.com) offers a week's car hire from €133 (£91).

Where to stay

The Hesperia Patricia (00 34 971 38 5511; www.hesperia-patricia.com), Paseo San Nicolas, Ciutadella de Menorca, offers double rooms from €92 (£63) per night with breakfast.

Further information

Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info) and www.illesbalears.es

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star