by Peter Stone

Even today, when planets seem closer, global horizons are shrinking and airports tend to sprout up in the most isolated spot, Formentera, the small, sickle-shaped island just south of Ibiza, has managed to fend off jet age intrusions and maintain its unique air of secluded Mediterranean taste and tranquility.

The absence of an airport means you still have to go by boat from Ibiza harbour. 11 nautical miles of strong-currented channels run between a profusion of rocky islets. In 1960 these currents caused the ferry "Manolito" to run aground, fortunately without loss of life, and Formentera, phone-less, was cut off for several weeks.

Today the island enjoys every modern form of electronic communication and two ferry services operate several times a day bringing people, food, drink, vehicles and sometimes animals over from Ibiza. The fast service, which only takes passengers and is equipped with state of the art navigational aids, does the trip in half-an-hour - a great improvement on the two hour trip of 41 years ago - but as this vessel has an unfortunate tendency to roll in rough seas pray that a "temporal" is not blowing when you come. The slower service, in a larger and frankly more stable ferry and the one to use if you're bringing a car, takes an hour.

You arrive at the crystal-watered harbour of La Sabina, whose main commercial activity is exporting salt from nearby flats. From here the main road leads straight to capital San Francisco Javier, a mere 2 kms away. On your immediate right the Estany del Peix (Lake of Fish) opens narrowly to the sea. Occasional shoals of tuna fish used to stray in through this gap and were gratefully snapped up by the local fishing community. Then, for days afterwards, there would be a surfeit of tuna in every market and restaurant on the island. Such gastronomical bonuses, however, are virtually non-existent now as with the passing decades the Mediterranean has seen itself increasingly drained of fish. You'll find a hundred times more aquatic species at any seafood market in Madrid - where produce comes mainly from Atlantic waters - than there are on the whole island today. In fact the only place you can buy fish is the capital's main supermarket.

On your nearby left, or immediate right if you double back and circumnavigate it via causeway roads sprinkled with white quartz, is the larger Estany Pudent (or "Stinking" Lake, so-called because its sometimes odorous combination of stagnant water and decomposing algae). This is the route to the island's top resort, Es Pujols, a thirty-year-old tourist town built round one of the island's most attractive bays. Purpose-built but controlled - no edifice is higher than four storeys - it's classier than most Balearic resorts, with stylish front-line cafes and restaurants enjoying marvellous sunset views across the waters to neighbouring Ibiza. Inevitably it's expensive, with prices on average 25-50% above those on the Spanish mainland, but for most the heavenly setting is worth it.

The island's main attractions are its fine-sanded beaches and pristine waters. Some days the blue is so intense it easily rivals the Caribbean. Snorkelling, sailing and waterski-ing are popular sports at Es Pujols and at 3 mile long Mitjorn in the south. From La Sabina you can take picnic day trips out to the islet of Espalmador.

Visiting nationalities include a high percentage of German and Italian couples touting Armani and Gucci clobber. Favourite form of island transport is the scooter, though a handful of visitors hire cars or mini mokes and the more energetic opt for the bicycle or simply Shanks' Pony. In fact it's quite easy to cover this eleven by two mile island on foot following well marked trails that meander through a dusty landscape of stone-wall-bordered lanes, giant fig trees, vineyards and pine groves. Though the Romans named the island Frumentaria, or "Island of Wheat", you're not likely to see many wheatfields blowing in the breeze today. Formentera must have been more fertile then for now cereal production is meagre. Ubiquitous mini-inhabitant is the green lizard, mascot symbol of the island and fond of popping out of cracks in the walls to see who's passing. An excellent bus service also operates with surprising frequency throughout the summer, linking the main towns and even taking you to small coves like Es Caló and Cala Saona.

The island is mainly flat but rises to 850 feet at Sa Talaiassa at its eastern pinewooded end where it's possible to see the Mediterranean on three sides. There is a 200 year old windmill where Bob Dylan is said to have stayed in the sixties and a clifftop lighthouse, beyond which it's uninterrupted sea all the way to Africa. Jules Verne is said to have been inspired by this breathtaking spot while writing one of his most imaginative novels, "The Lighthouse at the Edge of the World". The area's central "town", La Mola (urban population 59), whose whitewashed Moorish-looking church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar was built by the inhabitants in 1784, is the scene for the "hippie market" held every Sunday in summer. Tiny local vineyards produce a dark red wine at just under 300 ptas a bottle: gritty, earthy, primitive and not to everyone's taste. (Changes the colour of your tongue alarmingly). This is probably how they made the stuff in Roman times. There's little else that's cheap on the island as so many goods have to be imported, especially in summer to cope with the influx of holidaymakers.

Another problem is water: many houses and apartments only have seawater in their kitchen and bathrooms, so after a shower you tend to feel as hot and sticky as you did before. Still, no one said paradise came easy. The lack of fresh water is due to a variety of reasons: low rainfall, densely porous soil, high summer temperatures and a penetrating wind that causes evaporation. All over the island you'll see small stone water tanks where locals endeavour to make use of every last drop.

If you're interested in pre-history ample evidence that Formentera was densely inhabited around 2,000 B.C. is provided by the megalithic monument of Ca Na Costa and the remains of an entire Bronze Age village at Cap Barbaria, the island's wild, barren southernmost point. Greek, Carthaginian, Roman, Norman and Catalan occupations followed and for a long period the island was so besieged by Barbary corsairs that it was totally abandoned until its final repopulation in the 18th. century. Coastal watchtowers at Punta Prima and Pi des Catala recall those unsettled times and San Francisco Javier's cube-shaped 18th century church even sported a cannon on its roof to repel pirates as recently as a hundred and fifty years ago. Today the capital's smart cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and immaculate artisan museum bear witness to the new international tourist invasion.

San Fernando, the island's second town, a couple of kilometres away, retains a nostalgic sixties feel. A handful of the hippies who made it their base then have stayed on. Bearded, pot-bellied late fifty-ish, they eke a living from paintings and artistic knick-knacks they sell near the tiny church. "Fonda Pepe" the island's oldest hostelry, is also still there, largely unchanged, welcoming guests as it has done since it opened in the fifties. The town is spare, straggling, non-trendy (apart from a couple of expensive restaurants). A good place to "chill out" for a fortnight.

Copyright © 2002 Peter Stone

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