Jonathan Cook samples a two-day section of the Camí de Cavalls, a 186km long-distance route round the coast of Menorca, the smallest of the Balearic Islands.
At the mention of a week in Menorca my initial reaction, if I’m truly honest, had not been overly enthusiastic. Menorca, or Sa Roqueta (‘the little rock’), is the smallest of the three Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea: it’s a fifth of the size of its larger and arguably more developed neighbour, Mallorca. On initial inspection the island appears predominantly flat, with the highest point being Monte Toro at 358m. But closer examination reveals many small hills and steep sided valleys with a vast network of footpaths and bridleways. This, and its year-round warm temperatures, make it an ideal walking destination.
I was intrigued to learn that it is possible to make a complete circuit of the island on foot via the Camí de Cavalls, also known as the GR223, an ancient path which hugs the majority of the island’s 200km-plus of coastline. So with a little effort I convinced my girlfriend Paloma that there would be no better way to discover some of the more secluded, less populated calas (coves) and beaches than by following several stages over the course of two days of our holiday.
The Camí de Cavalls’ origins are lost in the mists of time but it is widely accepted that it was built in order to connect watchtowers and fortresses constructed along the coastline and patrolled by soldiers on horseback – ‘Cavalls’ meaning ‘horses’ in Catalan, which is widely spoken on the island. A major restoration of the circuit was finished in 2011, and it is now possible to walk around the island in around ten days, split into 20 stages.
Menorca is also home to some 2,000 prehistoric sites, including a number of prehistoric caves, which makes the island a kind of open-air museum. The most famous site is the Naveta des Tudons, a bronze age burial chamber which is the oldest roofed building in Spain.
We based ourselves in the picturesque Ciutadella de Menorca, on the west of the island, for the week, but our first weekend coincided with La Verge del Gracia, a 3-day festival celebrating the islands patron saint, Our Lady of Grace, at Mahón, on the east of the island. The festival features street parties, firework displays and donkey racing, not to mention a good helping of the traditional local aperitif pomada – a Menorquina gin mixed with lemonade. We also made time to look around the old town and impressive port, home to the second deepest natural harbour in the world.
We'd chosen to walk what looked likely to be several of the most interesting stages, starting in Es Grau in the northeast of the island. The following day we parked in Es Grau before setting off on what is officially Stage 2. If things went well we hoped to cover 18km, finishing in Port d’Addaia. We started by taking a walkway crossing the Sa Gola Canal: this bridge guards the entrance to a large lagoon inside the Natural Park of Albufera des Grau, which is the main centre of Menorca’s Unesco Biosphere Reserve. I was struck how green and wet this area was, and as it’s home to many bird species I could well imagine that it is paradise for bird lovers.
After crossing the quiet beach of Es Grau we crested a small natural balcony giving views of the coastline far into the distance, including one of the day’s targets, the lighthouse at the tip of Cap de Favaritx. I was really enjoying myself, as the excellent path undulated without being arduous and you never knew what lay around the next corner as we passed numerous small unspoilt uninhabited and irresistible sandy beaches with crystal clear water.
It didn't take us long in the morning heat to succumb to a swim in what was essentially our own private swimming pool.
After passing a headland – home to the Torre de Rambla – the path moved away from the coastline, turning into more of a bridle path and passing through pleasant agriculture pastures before rejoining the coastline as the now not-so-distant lighthouse grew closer. Before reaching Cap de Favaritx we passed Cala Tortuga and Cala Prescili, arguably two of the most picturesque beaches on the island and worth a visit in their own right.
After devouring our sandwiches at the tip of Cap de Favaritx, where I imagined waves crashing against the strange rock formations in bleaker weather, we set off towards Port d'Addaia. Again the path traversed inland before entering another wetland area called Salines de Mongofra, where despite the dry climate there were several marshy areas to negotiate before the path rose sharply, giving views of the Illes (islands) d'Addaia. After passing through several gates and climbing a few final steps we entered the picturesquely urbanised Port d'Addaia through a gap in a stone wall.
Although wild camping is prohibited you are allowed to pass the night under a detachable awning, so we found a quiet secluded spot and bivvied for the night without problem.
On leaving the small town the following morning we persuaded ourselves that there would be no better way to start the day than with a swim in the transparent waters of the beach at Arenal d'en Castell. After drying off we were treated to a splendid hour and a half’s walk along irregular crags of limestone slabs to the sand dunes at Arenal de Son Sauna and the heavenly Cala Prudent.
Continuing through several kilometres of pine woods, which offered a welcome break from the midday heat, this flatter section then rises, with the roof of Monte Toro looming in the background. Here we found time for a detour to inspect the ruins of an early Christian Basilica before joining the road and following the final, less impressive kilometres to Fornells.
Before taking the bus back to collect the car we had to sample the Caldereta Langosta (lobster stew) for which Fornells is famed.
In 31km we had passed through wetlands, sand dunes and sampled the best unspoilt beaches I've ever seen. Sitting in the afternoon sun we reflected that we couldn't remember two more enjoyable, interesting and varied days’ hiking.
The best time of year to walk this route is in spring and autumn (avoiding July and August when the island can become crowded and too hot). We walked at the beginning of September and it was still pushing 30°C every day.
Most parts of the island are served by fairly regular bus services. We used without problem the number 41 to return from Fornells to Mahón, and later the number 21 to return to Es Grau to collect our car. Timetables and tariffs can be found at http://menorca.tib.org/portal/es/autobus.
It makes more sense to organise your excursion around days, rather than the 20 official stages, as some stages are very short and not all of them are served via public transport or finish at a town or village. Note that water supplies are sparse, particularly on the northern section of the route, so be sure to carry plenty.
The GR223 can also be done by mountain bike, as well as on horseback, but beware that some parts are fairly technical. If you don't fancy walking a complete stage, parts of the route can be undertaken from most beaches, as the route always passes nearby. It is even possible to do organised sections by hiking, cycling or trail running. www.camidecavalls360.com.
The GR223 is extremely well signposted and marked at regular intervals by distinct wooden pillars with red indicators which show the stage number. In addition to this, the customary red and white markers of any Senderos de Gran Recorrido (GR) are also to be found on the trickier parts of the route. We found Paddy Dillon’s Cicerone guidebook Walking in Menorca to be the most useful and comprehensive.
Despite the route consisting of 20 stages it makes more sense to organise your excursion around days, rather than stages, as some of these are relatively short and not all of them are served via public transport or terminate at a settlement. Another reason for doing this is that water supplies are sparse, particularly on the northern section of the route, so be sure to carry plenty.