It’s easy to imagine that Fornells, the whitewashed fishing village on Menorca’s Northern coast, has always been as quiet as it is today. But you would be wrong. This little town 30km from this island’s old capial, Ciutadella, and the new, Mahon, has a history full of naval battles and folk legends as told to Gusto Guides by our local host, Catalina, who has lived in the village since childhood and happens to run local restaurant S’Ancora.
In recent times, Fornells has seen a certain degree of development (like much of the Mediterranean), but still maintains its rural character. Walking down the town’s delicious Calle Mayor, the visitor gets a real sense of a traditional Menorquin village. Around 10 fishermen ply their trade from this harbour as have their forefathers for centuries – that is, when the notorious Tramontana winds allow it.
One such fisherman is Toni Garriga, also known as Tony Tano. Now 87, he spends more time mending his son’s nets than fishing. As he works, he tells us how difficult times were in Menorca in the postwar period. ‘I used to ride my bike through the countryside exchanging fish for potatoes.’ He also tells us with a twinkle in his eye how much better things are for fishermen now: when Tony was a young man, he used to row 5 or 6 kilometres out to sea, sometimes with one companion but more often than not alone. Back then, caldereta de langosta (now a famous specialty of the island, and a favourite of the king), was a poor man’s dish.
Standing testimony to the risk that fishermen take every day is the Ermita de Lourdes, high on the headland above the town, where fishermen and their families go to pray. One of the most important days of the year is the fiesta of La Virgen Del Carmen, the Saint who is said to watch over fishermen. The festival is celebrated ever year on the weekend closest to the 16th July, and there is a procession with the Virgin, as well as a parade of decorated fishing boats that make their way from the open sea and up the broad inlet that leads to the town of Fornells. The townspeople all gather along the headland to watch.
Testament to the military history of Fornells is the castle of San Antonio. Today, only a small part of the original structure – a large British fortress dating from the 18th century – is visible. The English saw the strategic value of this beautiful bay and had the fortress built to protect against raids by pirates and other nautical powers including the French, who also left their mark on the island. The fortification must have been a sore point to the Spanish, for when the island was returned to them in 1802, they lost little time in demolishing the whole thing.
The fortress is in the very centre of the village. Setting out from here on foot, you can get to the Tower of Fornells (Torre de Fornells) – another legacy of the English – in about 10 minutes. This tower thankfully escaped demolition, and it’s well worth the walk – views of the northern part of the island are beautiful and stretch all the way to the Faro de Cavalleria and the national park beyond. Fornells has been an important strategic point for the military until very recently – visitors can also see a Civil War-era bunker, from the 1936-1939 conflict that consumed the whole of the country and during which Menorca decided to side with the Republic.
Round off your visit with some wonderful views over the port, a plate of local seafood or by sitting on the harbour and dipping your feet into the warm water of the creek.