Phyllis Filiberti Butler
Author / Journalist / Editor
San Jose Mercury Apr 05, 2002
Posted on Sun, Mar. 31, 2002
Revelers latest wave in island's salty history

By Phyllis Butler Special to the Mercury News

FORMENTERA, Spain   -   When my Roman friend Jeffrey calls with an adventure, I listen. He knows all the best undiscovered places in Europe. Two years ago, it was a fine adventure in Sicily. Last spring it was Formentera, one of Spain's Balearic Islands. ``Come over for the Festival of the Moon,'' he said. ``It'll be great!''

I'd never heard of Formentera, but I knew the Balearics off the east coast of Spain were ancient isles where the current rave set hangs out -- and where Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and other exotic tribes once roamed. A pagan moon festival sounded too good to resist.

Jeffrey said we could just take a ferry from Barcelona, no problema. Turns out the ferry takes eight to 10 hours and we'd have to go first to Ibiza and then on to Formentera by boat the following day. Since it costs about the same, about $75, we decided to go by plane that night.

I had a deja-vu, early-days-in-Mexico feeling as our noisy two-engine plane took off, with the pilots in view of our single-aisle seats. The plane was full -- all the other passengers were European, most of them French. Ibiza looked so tiny as we circled the island's barely lighted airport. Ah, well, I was looking for an adventure. We landed with expert Latin bravado.

That night we stayed at the attractive and reasonably priced Hotel Montesol near Ibiza city's harbor. We had time to eat a fine breakfast at the hotel's popular sidewalk cafe -- the best, sweet, buttery croissants ever and rich Italian-roast coffee -- before boarding the jet-ferry for Formentera.

There were only a dozen people on board for the 25-minute trip. One of them, a charming Englishman, Paul Wenham, turned out to be the official (off-duty) representative of the Formentera Tourist Office. He escorted us to the harbor-front office, which is open only a few hours a day, less than that during the off-season.

Wenham, who has lived in Formentera for more than 20 years and obviously loves the place, loaded us down with informative brochures extolling the little-known pleasures of the 40-square-mile island. The coastal lagoons of Ibiza and Formentera, part of a nature reserve, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of their significant wildlife and vegetation. Especially notable are ``oceanic Posidonia'' -- the native sea-grasses that support a multitude of marine life.

Posters admonished us in Spanish and English to ``Try not to leave your mark where the centuries have not left theirs!''

The people of both Ibiza and Formentera once owed their livelihood to these ancient salt flats, which attracted Carthaginians, Romans and Barbary pirates to these shores over thousands of years. Salt was literally the staff of life; today, it's tourism.

Wenham recommended we stay at the newly refurbished Hostal Bellavista in the center of the port town of La Savina. It's open year-round; many of the hotels over in the island's only tourist resort, Es Pujols, are open only during high season.

We found the small town and its modern Mediterranean look surprisingly attractive. The ocean vistas, white-washed cubic houses and sand-colored images engulf you, while the stark landscape and architecture reminds you that Africa is only 150 miles away, closer than Barcelona.

We walked about the harbor filled with small sailboats and caught a bus into the so-called capital town of San Francisco Xavier -- ``Sant Francesc'' in the local Catalan dialect. It's a charming little village with a pleasant central plaza, Placa de la Constitucio, amid a maze of winding streets. On the plaza is a fortresslike 18th-century church and nearby are a health food store, a proper supermarket and several shops along the main road. We asked about the moon festival. Nobody knew a thing about it.

We wandered the streets looking for the Cafe Marinal, where a friend of Jeffrey's runs a sort-of coffeehouse/sandwich shop. The town is sparkling clean and surprisingly upscale considering its age and size. We stopped in a well-stocked women's boutique and an attractive tourist shop filled with Formentera paraphernalia. A postcard with a Carthaginian motif showed an elephant in front of the fortress church. When I asked where the elephants were kept, the proprietor laughingly told me that there are no elephants -- the one in the picture was from a circus sent over by boat a few years ago. Still, it seemed apt for this very North African setting.

On the way into Sant Francesc, we passed the Estuary Pudent, where a Bronze Age stone burial mound was excavated in the 1970s. This remarkably preserved megalithic tomb was found to hold the remains of at least eight people, as well as beautifully carved jewelry and ceramics from 2000-1600 B.C. Remnants of wooden artifacts indicate the island was once covered with dense pine woods. The entire island of Formentera is said to be scattered with such sites, most unmarked and unrecorded, and Ibiza is even more replete with important archaeological sites.

That night the guys wanted to check out some gay bars they heard about near the harbor -- Ibiza and nearby areas are one of Europe's leading gay destinations, with about 20 bars, a club and a network of gay-owned restaurants. I stayed at our neat little hotel and ate a delicious lobster dish with a butter lettuce salad and an acceptable local wine, all for about $20. The Bellavista bar was buzzing with talk of the big soccer game the next day. Every Sunday, the Ibiza team comes over by ferry to play the Formentera team.

The following day we decided to rent a car at the port, and we finally found Cafe Marinal. Sophie, the young German owner at the New Age-y shop, made us a lunch of little sandwiches and fresh fruit and juices to take with us to the beach at Es Soana, where there's a lovely cove with a nice beachfront restaurant. We ate our picnic lunch on the summer cabana terrace in the warm sun.

After lunch and a short sandy siesta we headed off to Cap de Barbaria, the closest point to Africa. It spread out before us as a vast mesa above high cliffs. Most recently a Roman encampment, the promontory is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Balearic islands. You feel like you could take a pick to the megalithic markings at your feet on this windswept plain and discover another Troy.

On our way to the lighthouse in La Mola, on Formentera's scenic far eastern shore, we stopped to buy pottery in a large store along the Carretera San Fernando -- copies of Phoenician jugs and tiny funerary urns and some typical Spanish flowered plates. Nearby is the original hippie settlement at Sant Ferran, center of the vineyard landscape. There was little sign of activity in March, but we were told in the summer it's full of counterculture kids smoking pot and reliving the '60s.

The La Mola lighthouse plateau turned out to be as spectacular, if of more recent interest, than Cap de Barbaria. It was the only place we saw other tourists, an English couple checking out the Jules Verne site marker on the edge of the cliffs, which is also a noted bird sanctuary.

Jeffrey had heard there's a nude beach near Es Arenals on the southeast end of island, and Marty was anxious to check that out. We walked the fine shoreline braced by San Francisco-like winds. Jeffrey found a sheltered spot, sat down and bared his chest. Marty disrobed, too, and laid down, stark naked, on his shirt. There were only four or five others (all dressed) on the beach. It wasn't really beach weather, I decided, and kept my clothes on.

That night we went to dinner at Es Pla, an Old World cantina that serves good Italian food in a garden setting. We asked again about the moon festival.

It turns out that the festival -- a recollection of the ancient Roman celebration to Luna, the goddess of the moon, with bonfires and torches lighting the night sky -- is observed at the full moon every month. We had missed it because the ritual is observed on Formentera only from April to October, when the weather is warm and the tourists are here.

It didn't matter. Jeffrey had been right about everything else on this island gem.

If you go

Getting there: Iberia Airlines, (800) 772-4642, and Air Europa, (888) 238-7672, fly from the U.S. to Ibiza, via connecting flights in Madrid or Barcelona. Roundtrip flights from San Francisco begin at $1,545 on Delta, in conjunction with Iberia. The cheaper fares are usually found as part of travel packages through discount travel agents, such as STA Travel, (800) 777-0112, or Unitravel, (800) 325-2222.

When to go: Tourist season is May through October. Formentera is hottest and virtually cloudless between June and late September. Average temperature in January is 59 degrees; July, 82 degrees.

Where to stay: Hostal Bellavista, Passeig de la Marina, La Savina. +34 (971) 322 255. Modern, 40-room hotel by the marina with a harborside seafood restaurant and terrace bar.

Casitas Ca Mar, Es Ca Mar, Platja de Migjorn. +34 (971) 328 180. Open May-October. Bright, pine-trimmed bungalows at the western end of Formentera's best beach.

Hotel Montesol, Avda Vara De Rey 2, Ibiza. $60 a night for a small two-bedroom suite.

Where to eat: El Mirador, La Savina-La Mola road. +34 (971) 327 037. One of the most popular restaurants in Formentera. Open April through October. Reserve ahead in July and August for a table with a stunning view.

Es Pla, Cala Saona road. +34 (971) 322 903. Best wood-fire oven pizza in Formentera.

Resources: Spanish National Tourist Office, (213) 658-7188; 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Beverley Hills, Calif., 90211;

Formentera Tourist Office, Puerto La Savina, +34 (971) 322 057. Open weekdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Next door is the Central de Reservas Formentera office, +34 (971) 323 224, www.formentera, for lodging information, including rental apartments and homes.
Phyllis Butler is a freelance writer based in Menlo Park.