Ten million people visit the Balearic Islands each year. In spite of that, they have managed to keep their individual personalities and their rugged beauty. There are cosmopolitan and historically rich and architecturally beautiful cities like Palma and Ciutadella in Menorca; beautiful sandy beaches, mountain walks and stunning coastal hiking trails; walled cities and citadels; a buzzing café culture, world-class night life, and – in contrast – rolling green hills, tiny fishing villages and peaceful hamlets.
One of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, the Illes Balears as they are officially known in Catalan (or Las Islas Baleares in Castellano) form an archipelago in the Mediterranean sea off the east coast of Spain’s Communidad Valenciana province. The archipelago consists of 4 large inhabited islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera) and several islets and large rocks. The capital city is Palma de Mallorca.
They are divided into 2 groups of islands – the Islas Gimnesias (Mallorca, Menorca and the uninhabited Cabrera) and Las Islas Pitiusas (Ibiza, Formentera, the privately owned Espalmador and uninhabited Espardell). The two groups include the many islets and named large rocks that surround the main islands.
The language of the islands is officially both Catalan and Castellano but they have their own languages (Mallorquin, Menorquin and Ibicenco) which, although derived from the Catalan language, are arguably languages in their own right. In 2013 parents were asked to choose in which language they preferred their children to be educated – 70% chose Catalan, allegedly a vote that was unpopular with Spain’s centralised Castellano-speaking government. All local people will speak both languages and many speak English or German due to the significant percentage of the population made up of settlers from Northern Europe.
The year-round population of the islands is approximately 1.107 million (2016) with nearly 1,700 of whom are aged between 95 and 99 years old! Mallorca is the most populated island with nearly 900,000 inhabitants, over 400,000 of whom live in the capital city of Palma de Mallorca. The percentage of foreign residents is high with an estimated 17% of the overall population of the Balearics being from other countries. The percentage is higher in Mallorca and precise numbers are almost impossible to establish.
Tourism is, and has been since the 1960s, enormous here! The islands receive approximately 10 million tourists each year and I was told in Mallorca that, in high season, even the tourists are asking where they can go to get away from the tourists! In spite of that, there is a vibrant local life which continues in spite of the huge influx of visitors. As with other parts of Spain, life is lived in the streets, in bars, in cafés, in restaurants, in parks and squares and on the beach – coffee and drinks are cheap and meeting up with friends and family for a drink and a chat is an intrinsic part of life.
I had the bright idea of flying to Ibiza and island-hopping my way across the larger of the four islands, flying home from Menorca. I did it in 8 days but it wasn’t as simple (or cheap) as I had hoped! It was a fun trip though although not nearly long enough to see everything these islands have to offer.
These are stunning islands full of natural beauty, rich in culture and local colour with something for everyone. Go early or late in the season or in the winter, hire a car to explore and avoid the school holidays at all costs!
NEXT ISLAND: I start my whirlwind tour of the Balearics in Ibiza.