Originally published in Real Travel
As far as England is concerned there seem to be two Ibizas – both equally unfit for ordinary, human habitation. The first is Ibiza Uncovered territory: a Gomorrah of boorish binge-drinkers, off their heads on E or X or K or Y, stumbling from one swiftly-forgotten grope or vomitous party to the next. The other is an achingly pristine, white-walled, hippie-lux haven replete with infinity pools, yoga retreats and yachts dripping with rich, honey-coloured celeb aristocracy.
A summer visitor to Ibiza for several years now, I’ve always felt there is more to the island than meets the eye – or makes the pages of British broadsheets. With work in crisis mode and my ex-boyfriend swanning around town with his new love I need an excuse to get away. This, I promise myself, will be a reconnaissance mission. No clubbing, crazy nights or other clichés, but a chance to discover an authentic Ibiza.
First, though, I have to find my hotel. Which is somewhere in the centre of the concentric swirl of cobbled streets that make up Dalt Vila, the medieval fortress at the heart of the Ibiza Town. With only faint starlight overhead and a few skulking cats for company I feel eerily removed from the 21st century as I trudge past whitewashed walls picked out with brightly painted wooden doorways and wrought-iron balconies. By the time I hone in on my destination, the El Corsario, I am grateful for sensible shoes and a regular fitness regime. The reception area was clearly once an open courtyard – the floor is alluringly patterned stone and arched stairways beckon upwards. Three flights later I am welcomed by Nadiha, who shows me to my room and kindly insists on leaving her mobile number “in case you need anything.” Perched on a four-poster bed in the simple, homey room, with the lights of the town and marina twinkling beneath me it is hard to imagine I could need anything else.
My friend Dan is staying on the opposite side of town at the swish Art Deco Ocean Drive hotel (which would be easily visible from my aerie, if I had a pair of binoculars) so we meet halfway to get dinner. Contrary to rumour there are plenty of bars and restaurants open, “off season” or not, and we end up in El Zaguan, a reassuringly busy, smoky, neighbourhood hang out in the centre of town. Forget menus: this is an authentic tapas joint – glass cases on the bar are filled with everything from seafood-stuffed pimentos, to anchovies, to thick slices of Iberian sausage, to delicious local cheeses, all neatly skewered with toothpicks. We grab plates and stock up before realising there is also a stream of hot goodies (battered prawns, croquettes, spicy chicken wings, empanadas) being circulated by the wait staff. A bottle of red wine, a delectable salad and 24 tapas later (they tot up the toothpick count on your bill, so you can judge just how greedy you’ve been) we roll out the door in search of a nightcap.
One of our waiters suggests Teatro Pereyra, a five minute walk away. Sliding through the red velvet curtains we can’t help but grin. The place drips high-camp class. “Shall we get a bottle of wine?” Dan suggests, innocently. Time turns as warm and squishy as the velvet furniture as we plow through a good rioja. Another bottle arrives at our table, unbidden, and we crack into it while a band (Pereyra has hosted live music ever night for 20 years), led by a vocalist who looks like a hardboiled Teutonic version of Sting, belts out Prince covers. By the end of the evening not even the bill and the realisation the wine we’ve been cavalierly guzzling is €50 a pop can shake us out of our cosy, boozy fuzz.
The following midday we reconvene at Croissant Show, a Francophile café at the foot of Dalt Vila, wearing our hangovers with pride. I’ve blown my budget and Dan’s wondering aloud if he can finagle his share of the vino on expenses, but we can’t help giggling about it. A recovery brunch of huevos hervidos (boiled eggs with toast soldiers) is a snip at €2.65 and Andrea, the voluble proprietor (and owner of the finest handlebar ‘tache I’ve ever seen) suggests we try Vichy Catalan. Not, as I first guessed, an obscure form of government, but mineral-laden fizzy spring water that’s been drunk as a tonic in the region for 800-odd years. It soothes our headaches and inadvertently puts us on the path to unravelling one of the intricacies of travel in Ibiza: a little matter of language.
I can’t work out how the nearby Calle de Virgen (in summer, the fabulously hectic heart of Ibiza’s gay scene) has become Carrer de Mare de Deu. Catalan, it turns out, is the key to more than hangover cures. Ibiza, like the other Balearic Islands, is historically Catalan (as are the neighbouring mainland provinces of Valencia and Catalonia). Suppressed during Franco’s rule in favour of Castilian (Spanish), Catalan has been restored to official language status (though Castilian and English are universally spoken). Schools now teach in Catalan and in the course of the last couple of years all road signs, street names and the like have been changed, which explains the baffling changeover. Apparently, if you ask to go to Sant Josep and your taxi driver offers to take you to San Jose you shouldn’t panic, it’s the same place.
Curiosity piqued I head into Dalt Vila in search of more culture. Simply walking around the fortress is an education. Plaques dotted around the walls explain key historical features in Spanish, English and Catalan, like the 24-pound cannon (named for the weight of their ammunition) which gaze blankly towards evergreen hills. Opposite, the sea sweeps towards the horizon, broken by the low, dim line of neighbouring Formentera (collectively, the two islands are called the Pitiüses – a reference to their ubiquitous pine trees). Half-hypnotised by the spring sun and the murmur of waves below it is hard to imagine anything bad ever happening here. However, the impressive fortifications at my feet and a round tower lying on a tip of land in the distance tell another tale.
Despite being tiny (barely 40km from top to bottom) Ibiza has been a magnet for empires, pirates and a vast array of exiles for centuries. Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Catalans and Spaniards have all variously claimed the island made highly desirable by Ses Salinas, the natural salt pans that lie at its southern tip. Now a World Heritage nature reserve and home to over 200 species of birds, as well as rare mammals, Salinas attracts the beautiful people to its beach in summer. This time of year, though, you can hop on a bus in town and half an hour later be wandering through rolling meadows and along the jagged shoreline in peace and perfect isolation.
Rejuvenated, I rejoin Dan in town. A DJ, he can’t bring himself to visit Ibiza without dipping into its infamous nightlife. Though most of the large clubs are shut until May a small party scene is still thriving, if the posters dotted around are any indication. There is a techno night on at DC10, a club near the airport, and as he says, “it’d be wrong not to go.” First we stop by Lo Cura, a local dive in the best sense of the word. Everyone in this tiny boozer seems to know each other and in no time we’ve been sucked into a maelstrom of conversation. We finally arrive at DC10 at the very Spanish hour of 3AM. The heavy, white walls of the club seal in the sound of thumping kick drums and rumbling basslines; it’s like walking into a washing machine on spin cycle. Sweaty dancers gyrate around us, intent on the music. Two handsome men ooze over and strike up a conversation. “Don’t worry, we’re gay,” they assure us, leaving Dan and I wondering who’s being chatted up by whom. The no-frills atmosphere couldn’t be any more different from Teatro Pereyra, but the combination of music, vodka and high-spirited company has a similar, dizzying effect.
“Why does this always happen in Ibiza?” Dan asks wanly the next day. He’s on his way to the airport. I’m trying to get to grips with the idea of a cycle trip I’ve arranged with Ruth and Kev – a British couple based in tranquil Santa Eularia (the island’s third-largest town) who run fitness holidays and have offered to expose me to a healthier side of island life with a bike tour. Happily, they agree to reschedule for tomorrow and I stagger zombie-like through town in search of refuge. My email addiction is rearing its head, along with a double-strength hangover, so I’m insanely grateful when I happen on Chill Café. As befits an island of immigrants Ibiza is riddled with cheap, functional locutorios (internet cafés) but this one eschews plastic furniture and vending machines in favour of homemade baked goods and comfy benches where you can recover and reconnect. A cup of green tea, a huge chocolate chip cookie and a quick browse on Facebook later I feel almost human again.
Convinced a walk will finish the transformation I set off around the marina and stroll past luxurious yachts and chic bars to the Botafoch lighthouse at the end. From here, there are magnificent vistas of Dalt Vila and I perch on the rocks to watch the waves break beneath me. Watching the water turn from deep turquoise to fizzing pale green to pure, creamy spume and back is deeply cleansing. Wandering back to the centre of town I spend an enjoyable hour poking around the Fira D’Artesania, an annual arts and crafts fair. Carmen, a gregarious jeweller shows me how she makes dainty glass necklaces, then sends me to her mother’s stall opposite to pick up a lovely pottery vase. Mother and daughter hail from Buenos Aires originally but, as I’m starting to realise, everyone in Ibiza comes from somewhere else.
Over dinner at the Marino hotel and bar I ask Miguel, the proprietor and one of the few native Ibicencos I’ve met, why this is. “Because you can do whatever you want here. As long as you respect Ibiza, you can do anything,” he says with a smile. He is a paragon of hospitality and keeps my glass topped up with vino payes (the local red wine) as he tells me about the changes he’s seen since his father built the hotel in the 60s. Mostly, he says (British tabloid nonsense notwithstanding) they have been for the better, the tourism boom giving the islanders a completely new way of life. Jose, perched next to me at the bar, tells me his father grew up labouring on a small farm. A generation later and their family own one of the oldest hotels in this quarter, the Gran Sol.
The next morning I pick up a mountain bike and a few words of advice from Miguel at Mr Bike, (“Spanish drivers son locos,” he tells me, encouragingly) and meet Ruth and Kev to go in search of an even more distant past. Our destination is Es Broll, a natural spring between Sant Antoni and Sant Rafael that for centuries provided nearby villagers with water. Its antiquity is attested to by a well-preserved series of stone irrigation trenches that date from Moorish times. After roaming through the emerald oasis of Es Broll (and cursing myself for having forgotten my camera) we double back and head to Sant Rafael. This tiny village has a beautiful church whose courtyard offers magnificent views towards Ibiza Town and the sea. It is also home to two of the island’s swankiest eateries – El Ayoun and L’Elephant – but we eschew glamour in favour of shandies at a roadside café, before heading back to town. Kev and Ruth, gracious to a fault, insist on my accompanying them back to Santa Eularia, where they take me for a stroll around the beautiful church before welcoming me in for a home-cooked meal.
Sipping a glass of rose with my two new friends I can’t bear to think of leaving. In just a few days I’ve been indulged with music, history, art, nature, sunshine, sea views and boundless hospitality. Small wonder travellers from every corner of the world come to Ibiza and never return home. Perhaps I’ll join them.
Flights: Cila flew from London with British Airways connecting through Barcelona. Direct flights begin in May and from June BA is offering a new direct route from Gatwick to Ibiza.
Accommodation: Hotel Corsario, Calle Poniente 5, +34 971 30 12 48
Visa: None required for US or EU visitors.
Bike hire: Mr Bike, Av. Isidor Macabich 63-A, +34 971 392 300, email@example.com
About the writer: A freelance writer, expat and keen explorer Cila moved to London from the US six years ago and has travelled extensively in Europe. Currently she’s studying Spanish in anticipation of travelling in South America.