Ibiza: Somewhere beyond the sea

To glimpse the soul of Ibiza leave the throbbing coastal strips and head inland, where hamlets nestle unnoticed between fig trees and citrus groves, and fine wines are savoured in preference to cocktails

Published 20 Feb 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:01 BST
Tourists exploring the streets of Ibiza Town

Tourists exploring the streets of Ibiza Town

Photograph by Getty Images

Juan Riera plonks the glasses onto the table in a mildly ungainly fashion. Somehow, he has six stems wedged between the fingers and thumb of one hand; the other is clutching a bottle of Sa Cova 9, his most popular mid-priced red, and there's a clang and thud of glass bases on wood as he sets everything down. He spreads them out, reaches for the corkscrew, then stops and tuts. One of the vessels is wearing a thin layer of dust from its winter hibernation at the back of a cupboard. He mutters a frustrated volley of under-the-breath Spanish, grabs the offending item, clomps back into the lodge, and sources a replacement.

Fifteen miles to the south of the island, the same scene is, perhaps, playing out in one or two of the stylish bars flanking the sands of Platya d'en Bossa. Except that there — I imagine — the moment is being accessorised by a flurry of expensive cocktails and over-effusive apologies, skittering rhythms and pounding beats.

When Riera re-emerges through the unlit door of the near-windowless building, he does so brushing his hands on the back of his jeans. The new glass is deposited without a word or any great need for performance, and the unhurried process of tasting his wine starts again.

Huddled up a rutted track in the north of Ibiza, roughly between the village of Sant Mateu d'Albarca and the fabled party town of Sant Antoni (San Antonio), Sa Cova winery is an an echo of the toil and soil that dominated life on this Mediterranean outcrop until the hippy dream of the 1960s and the tourism boom of the 1970s dragged focus onto the 130 miles of coastline where six million holidaymakers chase the sun every year.

Riera is a happy relic of this yesterday. His business began in 1993 as a hobby, a simple way of concocting unfussy table wine for family weddings and friends' parties. His was the first commercial winery on the island, and even now, there are only five. Twenty-four years on, he produces around 25,000 bottles per annum to be distributed around Ibiza and exported to Germany. But Sa Cova remains an unpretentious affair, open to visitors to its out-of-the-way address, yet unlikely to fall into a panic if, for weeks on end, nobody wanders in for a tour.

"The first year was quite difficult," Riera muses, filling the glasses with a crisp white that splices historic malvasia and macabeo grapes. "On Ibiza, you couldn't buy a cork, you couldn't buy a bottle." He shrugs.

"The personality of the land is the personality of the wine," he says, waving his arm airily to the left, towards Plat Albarca, the valley sheltering his 12 hectares of vineyards. "The vine is a strong plant. It survives with little water. And we have good climate, good soil."

I leave with two bottles of Sa Cova 9 and one of Riera's signature Clot D'Albarca, which works miracles with the monastrell grape, as he retreats into the diminutive lodge with its small clusters of barrels — an emperor with no real urge to widen his empire. 

What lies within

Sa Cova is out of step with the image of Ibiza as a hedonistic haven, but it's very much part of a version of island life that's oddly easy to encounter. It's there again at Can Lluc, an agroturismo hotel within the vicinity of the capital Eivissa (Ibiza Town), an oasis where olive trees murmur around a tranche of villas and whisper to the day-beds by the pool, before further rows of grape vines take up the chorus to the rear. Squint at the latter and you might make out the Ibiza that existed in the ancient world, the one settled by Phoenician navigators in 654BC, ruled from Africa by Carthage (modern-day Tunis) in 5BC, and gradually absorbed into the Roman realm during 2BC — it was this last set of incomers who knew a thing or two about wine cultivation on gentle hillsides.

The foundations remain. At Sa Caleta, in the south-west of the island, a peninsula protects the Asentamiento Fenicio, remnants of stone structures crafted by those first Phoenicians. These low lines of brick, right angles in orange dirt, were uncovered by archaeological excavation in the early 1990s and given UNESCO World Heritage status by the end of that decade — a Balearic Pompeii hidden by time rather than anything as gaudily dramatic as volcanic fury.

The Mediterranean gleams on each side, and those original residents' ingenuity becomes clear, their choice of site providing access to both the sea and Ibiza's salt marshes — Ses Salines — whose minerals were such a desirable commodity for traders.

It's a beautiful setting, and therefore, I decide, just a little obvious. Ibiza is renowned for its wave whoosh and shoreline sparkle. But to devote oneself to the coast is to ignore the meat of an island which, at 221 sq miles in area, is the third biggest of the Balearics; it's small enough to explore, yet big enough to be dissected over the course of a week.

Indeed, you could meander through Ibiza at length, without so much as glancing at the seafront. This is not to dismiss the joys of its beaches — the decadent curve of Platja d'en Bossa, the tranquil crescent of Platja de Ses Salines, the perfect horseshoe of Cala d'en Serra. More to say that, to glimpse Ibiza's soul, you need to look inwards, to the hamlets that nestle, half unnoticed, between the fig trees and citrus groves.

So it is that, on a cautiously warm March morning, I find myself in Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, the village at the geographical heart of the island. Carrer de la Vénda des Poble, the aorta of this heart, would blush at attempts to describe it as a main square — indeed, as per its name, it's strictly a street. But it fulfils the role of central plaza nonetheless: woozy cafe drinkeries — Bar Es Canto, Bar Costa — pinned to its hem; the church on its east edge, spotlessly whitewashed, harking back to 1797, its squat belltower as much an alarm system in an era of European warfare as a siren call to the penitent and faithful. Metres away, a bronze sculpture salutes Manuel Abad y Lasierra, the bishop of Ibiza between 1783 and 1787, his unsmiling face recalling a century when stern clerics rather than David Guetta, let alone Calvin Harris and Avicii, were the isle's headline acts.

This sepia tone continues six miles to the east, where Santa Eularia des Riu has garnered a reputation as a resort town ideal for parents on holiday with young children, but betrays its medieval fear of invaders in the shape of Puig de Missa, a 170ft bluff, half a mile inland, which formed the town's 14th-century kernel. The church on its top, built in 1568, is as much a fortress as a place of prayer, scanning the horizon for ships with aggressive intent. And yet it leavens this nervousness with its attached cemetery; neat stone cabinets for urns of ashes, rising in columns, decorated with blooms.

Any of these villages can be a seductive environment for lunch. Bar Anita in Sant Carles de Peralta is so much a cog of its community that PO boxes for local residents are lined against one courtyard wall. And if you come to pick up your letters, you may as well stay for mouthfuls of tapas — hearty slabs of pan y alioli (bread with garlic mayonnaise) and oil-drenched plates of boquerones (seasoned anchovies). Elsewhere, a short hop westward, I stumble into Restaurante La Paloma, in the tiny acorn of Sant Llorenc de Balafia, and dedicate an afternoon to gloopy gazpacho and a seafood risotto that jostles with shellfish.

It would be entirely possible to drift into indolence here. But the interior also lends itself to energy. The wider municipality of Santa Eularia des Riu, one of the five administrative units into which Ibiza is divided, has just published a series of cycling routes: 12 trails which trundle the backways of this south-easterly segment of the island. Some of these are gentle jaunts for heat-haze afternoons — the nine-mile Itinerario 4 is an undemanding circumnavigation of Sant Carles which halts at the Font de Peralta, a 17th-century spring which is still the context for midsummer festivities every 29 June. Others are exercises in sweat and stamina. Itinerario 11, which drops in on Santa Gertrudis, asks 13 hard miles of its riders, including a climb of Puig d'en Valls, a crag stirring 75ft of altitude into the mix, but which rewards those who reach its 'peak' with a picturesque six-sail windmill, which first produced grain in 1797.

Then there are the mountain-bike routes which criss-cross the entire island: 21 ribbons of endeavour split — ski-run-style — into green, blue, red and black categories. Ruta 19 cuts an 18-mile circular arc through the northerly municipality of Sant Joan de Labritja, wending in and out of Sant Llorenc. Pitched affably in the blue bracket, it pulls me into its grip one overcast lunchtime, and keeps me bewitched by its spell: rich aromas and ingrained furrows of Ibizan agriculture on the road to Sant Miquel de Balansat; bursts of pine fragrance as the gradient stiffens after a turn onto a choppy track; fir trees crowding the camber, my calf muscles beginning to ache; a hairpin bend, various bangs and bounces, and a sudden from-above snapshot of the Mediterranean at Na Xamena, a bay where cliffs drop to rocky, sharp-toothed shallows. Then it's on and eastward, descending on welcome tarmac to the resort of Port de Sant Miquel, where the beach strikes seductive poses — though I resist, snaking back inland, with the isle throwing off its cloud cover as I return to Sant Llorenc under a sky of psychedelic orange.

Eternal Eivissa

If it's too much of a shock to see the sea after half a week inland, then Ibiza offers other places in which to avoid it — not least its capital. Eivissa (Ibiza Town) may be south-coast in location, but it's effectively north-facing in aspect, all but turning a cold shoulder to the Mediterranean and cocooning itself within high walls.

Its fortifications are not quite a match for Dubrovnik's world wonders, but they had the same defensive purpose and were strengthened between 1555 and 1585 at a juncture when the Ottoman threat was growing. With this, they sing of the 13th century, when the isle was a coveted entity for which swords were wielded and blood shed, and ruled by the North African chieftains who had swept it into their Moorish realm in the 10th century, before James I of Aragon ripped it from their educated grasp in 1235.

Come at Ibiza Town via the Porta de Ses Taules, one of its grand historic gateways, and you enter a self-contained citadel that's as much a nugget of cosmopolitan Spain as it is a portal within quick reach of the beach. You may have already ambled through Placa de la Constitucio, where the Mercat Vell (Old Market) is a Saturday feast of olive oils, herbs and cheeses. You may have strolled across Passeig de Vara de Rey, a leafy square where Galeria Blanca sells intriguing artworks and Pollock-esque swirls of paint, and the next-door restaurant Sa Brisa promises tangy seabass ceviche, delicious Segovia suckling pig and intimate conversation at dimly lit tables. You may have tripped into Teatro Pereyra, an 1898 theatre now restored as a music venue and the atmospheric option for a soft island red.

Even so, the Dalt Vila (Old Town) surprises with its cultural menu. A stride along the broad walkway Carretera Nargiso Puget brings me to the Museu d'Art Contemporani, the island's leading art institution, which stretches itself, schizophrenically, between a stone house that harks to 1727 and a heroic modern structure hewn from glass and concrete by Ibizan architect Victor Beltran Roca in 2011. Inside, temporary exhibitions reinforce a permanent collection of the obtuse and the mysterious, such as Catalan visionary Albert Porta y Munoz's Confuzeya staring discomfitingly at the observer as a cascade of disembodied eyes, and Hans Laabs' Weise Mitte confronting the viewer with its blocks of yellow and green.

The cultural landmarks continue to appear as Eivissa flows up its slope. Sala Es Polvori, a former gunpowder storehouse resculpted as a hub for rotating art shows and surreal soundscapes; the Centro de Interpretacion Madina Yabisa, a considered museum which charts Ibiza's Moorish centuries; the Museu Arqueologic, which takes a trowel to Arabic, Phoenician and Roman Ibiza with equal dexterity. The latter sits in the shadow of the Catedral de Santa Maria, another swarthy temple which looks like it knows how to fight as well as worship.

From here, I drift downhill and beyond the walls, then clamber up again, tracing increasingly narrow passageways and tight staircases, until Carrer Sa Penya reveals an offbeat jewel. Wedged into the north-east corner of town, above the port from which ferries begin the chug to Formentera, the Museu Casa Broner is a fine curiosity, the former home of Erwin Broner, a German architect who spent his closing years on Ibiza, designing to a style that was an idiosyncratic alliance of Mediterranean and Bauhaus. His ethos lingers in the futuristic house he built for his wife, Gisela, though for all its light and space, the key note is his sulky studio, squirrelled below stairs and clad in red tiles.

I follow Broner's lead, abandoning the seascape once more, and flee back to the centre of the isle, where Cas Gasi is another countryside oasis, its luxury boutique aesthetic, spa and swimming pool slotted discreetly into woodland west of Santa Gertrudis. As the evening descends, a fire crackles in the hearth in the lounge-lobby, and the bacalao gratinado, a thick cod fillet with Iberian ham, is essential fuel against the March chill. In the morning, there's dew on the grass and a ghostly mist around the tree trunks, and the idea of Ibiza as a hotspot of sun, sand and sangria seems more distant than ever. I'm not disappointed.


Getting there & around
British Airways provides regular direct flights to Ibiza from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and City. EasyJet, Norwegian, Ryanair, Flybe, Jet2.com, Monarch, Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways offer summer services from most major British cities, including Bristol, Glasgow and Belfast.

Public transport in Ibiza is limited, and it's easiest to hire a car at the airport if you plan to move around. Bike rental companies include Bicicletas Kandani and Velo Club Ibiza.  

When to go
Ibiza has a classic southern European four-season climate, and tends to hit temperatures of up to 30C in July and August, but it can also be as warm as 15C during the winter months.

More info

Guides to Ibiza's mountain bike routes can be downloaded at ibiza.travel/en/cicloturismo.php. Printed packs detailing cycle routes in Santa Eulalia des Riu can be obtained from tourist information centres.

How to do it
Love Velo is offering a guided 'Luxury Ibiza Cycling Getaway', which explores the interior of the island over five days. From £789 per person, including five-star accommodation, airport transfers, meals and bicycle rental. Excludes flights.

Inntravel offers a six-day self-guided walking tour, covering the north and north-east of the island. From £845 per person, with breakfast and some other meals. Excludes flights.

Follow @LeadbeaterChris

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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