Nestling in the western Mediterranean, halfway between the Iberian Peninsula, the south of France and the north of Africa, the Balearic archipelago is made up of a string of islands which, while obviously forming a clear geographical entity, are marked by as many points of disparity as similarity. One of the reasons for these differences is doubtless due to the historical imprint that has been left engraved on each island: Ibiza, impregnated by a lasting Carthaginian and Moorish influence; Mallorca, heir to a pronounced Roman presence; and Menorca which to this day bears the traces of long years of English occupation.
The islands’ respective topographies are at once alike and different, as are the kinds of tourism they receive. The Mallorcan summer season is, in general, a more sophisticated and less tranquil affair than that of Menorca, while in Ibiza the accent is definitely on nightlife. Although such simplistic clichés are often rather casual with the truth, the above definitions contain an undeniable basis of hard fact.
The archipelago has become a tourist industry giant and the leading holiday destination in the western Mediterranean. The islands boast an excellent combination of elegant summer resorts, coves and beaches, to say nothing of the many fascinating places hidden away in the interior.
The Balearics are made up of three major islands: Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza (Eivissa) plus Formentera, as well as numerous islets, the most notable of which is, without a shadow of a doubt, Cabrera, officially declared a Sea & Land National Park. Together, the islands cover a surface area of a little over 5,000 square kilometres and have 1,239 kilometres of coastline.
The Balearics, also formally known as Illes Balears, is an Autonomous Region with its own governing Authority. There are 17 such Autonomous Regions in Spain. The island institutions are the Balearic Regional Authority, the Balearic Parliament and the three island Councils, namely, those of Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza & Formentera.
The larger islands are interconnected by plane and ferry, and a busy schedule of direct flights links each of their airports with principal destinations around Europe. Only Mallorca has a rail service, yet each island operates a comprehensive bus and coach network that puts all points within reach of public transport. However, most visitors to the archipelago favour car rental as their chosen form of transport.
The Balearic Isles have a permanent population of over 700,000, almost half of whom live in the capital, Palma. The city is situated 132 miles from Barcelona and 140 from Valencia, with daily plane- and ferry-services covering the crossing to and from the mainland. Ibiza and Menorca have approximately 80,000 and 65,000 inhabitants respectively.
Although the islands enjoy a mild, classically Mediterranean climate, this is characterised by typically insular features, such as the high humidity. It is this factor that accounts for the marked differences in the seasonal temperature range.
Temperatures vary from an average of around 19.5ºC in spring, to 27ºC in summer, 20.5ºC in autumn and 15ºC in winter. The annual average temperature for the group as a whole is in the region of 17ºC, with negligible inter-island differences. Over the course of the calendar year, the Balearics enjoy something like 300 days of sunshine, a circumstance which makes them an especially attractive tourist destination for the inhabitants of Northern Europe, unaccustomed as they are to such conditions. Fresh water was traditionally drawn to the surface by means of windmills, which stand silhouetted against the skyline, forming a characteristic island backdrop to irrigated farmland areas, particularly on Mallorca.
This placid landscape, dotted here and there with windmills (now fallen idle), can still be seen in the Pla de Sant Jordi, Campos, Muro and sa Pobla districts.
The most developed industries in the Balearics and those having the greatest impact abroad are undoubtedly those engaged in the production of footwear, costume jewellery, furniture and cultured pearls, the latter two being chiefly concentrated in the Manacor district.
However, the revolution that has most profoundly affected the islands’ economic and social structures in the entire course of their history has come from the post-50s tourist boom. The vanguard of the current wave of tourists appeared in the 19th century, when eminent travellers, such as Georges Sand, Chopin and the Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria first visited Mallorca and, through their literary works, contributed to making the beauty of the island known to the outside world. Numerous European artists and writers were subsequently drawn to the islands and were struck by their evocative and varied scenery.
Scores of travel books and a considerable number of paintings have not only immortalised the period but have come down to us as a testimony of that time. Thanks to the clement climate, scenic beauty and special quality of light, the Balearic Isles were chosen by numerous writers, painters and artists of all kinds as the place where they could develop their art form in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. In the title he gave to one of his works, Santiago Rusiñol referred to Mallorca as, La isla de la calma (Isle of Calm). It was in the fifties and, more particularly, in the sixties when the tourist boom really took off.
Apart from the standard hotel-type accommodation on offer, a complementary range of top-quality lodging has been developed -in the form of marinas, golf courses, country cottages and the like-which holds out the possibility of relaxing well away from the main tourist centres. Despite the many buildings erected in recent decades to cater for the steady influx of tourists who arrive all year round, the Balearics preserve a rich store of traditional architecture, a legacy of their folk heritage.
Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza provide examples of an architecture which, though rooted in tradition, stems from diverse origins. Mallorca, altogether more seigneurial, presents dwellings whose layouts are reminiscent of the villas of classical Rome. Alongside these, the gleaming, whitewashed cubes of Ibiza recall the passage of the Carthaginians who, in their wake, left exotic-looking houses redolent with the feel and atmosphere of the towns and villages of North Africa.
Menorca, for its part, conserves the indelible, unmistakeable stamp of British colonial rule (1713–1782).