The craft arrives at Sa Savina harbour. Time seems to slow down, there is so much space, such clear light, there’s a different feeling in the air. A new world waiting to be discovered.
As soon as we arrive on Formentera the tower and its great walls come out to meet us. The abandoned defenses of Ses Salinas salt flats, once a source of the island’s wealth.
The geography and size of the island make it ideal for cycling, taking in the multitude of scents, sights and sounds on offer.
For our first trip we take the road to Ses Salines to discover Formentera’s real treasures, its gorgeous beaches bathed by turquoise waters - Ses Illetes - and further along Es Trucadors, where the island narrows to a point and the beach forms a sandy corridor flanked by water. We choose our favourite beach of the two or just follow the sun from one side to the other.
But the real charm of this beach only reveals itself when the sea is calm. When the sun is at its highest and the sea relaxes, basking in its rays, a hidden path appears out of the sea, leading from Formetera to the small neighbouring island of L’Espalmador. It appears as if by magic under an ancient spell.
From L’Espalmador we can take a closer look at the unexpected sight of the lighthouse on the tiny island of Des Porcsy and the path to the island of the goddess Tanit in the distance.
Back at Sa Savina we can cycle round S’Estany Pudent (a lake being restored as a nesting place for flamingoes) and stop for a moment at Ca Na Costa, a megalithic site dating from sometime between 1800 and 1700 BC.
One wouldn’t think that such a small island had been home to more than a handful of different cultures, but it has in fact been a stopping off point for a whole host of seafaring civilisations.
At the site, various artefacts, including buttons, mortar bombs and bracelets, have been discovered and have helped trace the history of the area.
As we continue round the lake, and before returning back to the harbour, we come across a smaller haven, windsurf sails and small boats busy in its blue waters.
Named S’Estany des Peixes (‘fish pond’) because of the great quantities of fish that used to swim in it, this charming shallow lake has a small outlet to the sea and is the perfect spot to rest and recharge our batteries.
But only for a while, for the rest of this island’s treasures beckon.
A pleasant way to round off our day is to take a walk out to the Punta de Sa Pedrera and wait for the light to start to fade and the colours to change as night draws in, a breathtaking show with the Es Vedrà island and the distant horizon taking cente stage.
A trip to Formentera is not complete without a visit to Sant Francesc, the tiny capital of this tiny island.
The main square has a special charm, with its pretty buildings and restful airs.
The feature that makes this place so very special is not far away: the magnificent church, standing out above everything else, not because it is flamboyant and overelaborate, but precisely because it is not.
The most striking characteristic of the church on Formentera is its austerity and refined lines. It looks more like a castle about to open fire on its enemies.
The church was built in the 18th century, fortified and armed with canons. Its design is totally original - nowadays we would call it minimalist.
But is was not designed as a fashion statement, rather in response to the island’s turbulent history – For many years the island was uninhabited because of the scarce agricultural resources, disease and in particular the attacks by pirates from North Africa.
Formentera was a tiny pawn in a game of strategy, with the winner taking control of the Mediterraean.
In 1697 a resettlement charter was granted to Marc Ferrer, bringing with it the building of defence towers along the coast, some of them with artillery stores, and the church, where the people took shelter and defended themselves when the island was under attack.
Staying in the miniscule capital we can visit other interesting sites including the ethnological museum.
Here we can learn about the island’s traditional trades and ways of life, most of which have disappeared or will probably disappear before long. There are displays of artefacts and skilfully designed tools, dating back long before the industrial revolution.
Two of the most interesting exhibits are a working model of a windmill – there are still a number of windmills on the island – and a machine for salt extraction, very useful in the days when Formentera exported cargoes of salt to Catalunya and Valencia.
If we fancy a bit of shopping we can leave our bike aside and wander around the city centre. Here we can pick up lovely handmade jumpers, skillfully knitted from local wool, and t-shirts with eye-catching designs of sargantanes wall lizards, a species unique to the island.
We can pop into the Joieria D’E Mayoral jewellers, and look at their creative modern designs based on traditional ideas. If we are around on Wednesday or Sunday afternoon there is also a craft market.
Three kilometres away is the island’s second ‘city’, Sant Ferran. Here is the legendary Fonda Pepe, a hippy meeting place, which caused quite a stir among the locals at the end of the sixities and the start of the seventies.
It is still the same now as it was 40 years ago, opening as a restaurant during the day and a bar in the evening.
Once inside we let our minds drift back to that time when the hippy movement was as popular as the Beatles’ latest hit. Some 700 hippies arrived in Formentera in 1968 and by the summer of 1969 there were already 1,300, almost one for every 2.5 islanders.
They didn’t stay all year round but were usually university students spending their holidays on the island.
In 1970, Franco’s regime threw all 3,000 of them off Ibiza and Formentera. According to the regime, the hippies gave the place a bad name, but the islanders didn’t agree – for them the hippies were simply tourists.
Time has proved Franco wrong - the image the two islands have today owes a lot to their hippy past, thanks to which Ibiza and Formentera have become known around the world as ‘heaven on earth’.
Crossing over to the other side of the island, beyond the La Mola road, takes you to Formentera’s largest beach, Platja De Migjorn.
The interesting feature of this beach is its tower, built to ward off attacks by the pirates who ravaged this coastline: Torre des Pi des Català, a constant reminder of the island’s warring past.
There are several places to go if we want spend some time on this great beach. Try the Blue Bar, around since the 60s or the Sa Platgeta and Real Playa restaurants, and the wooden beach bar Sa Pedrera.
A trip to Cap de Barbaria, the southernmost point of the island, and indeed of all the Balearics, will be one part of our visit we will never forget.
It takes its name (meaning ‘barbarian’) from the confrontations with the Barbary Coast pirates from the North African states of Morocco, Algeria, Tripolitania and Tunisia.
To get there we can take up our bike again and cycle at leisure from Sant Francesc through the Savines woods, following the island’s arteries, its low-rise dry-stone walls.
The houses on Formentera have a character of their own. They blend into the landscape as if they had always been there, growing like wild flowers out of the land.
As we cycle along we begin to feel as though we were leaving civilisation behind. The final stretch resembles a moonscape, inhospitable, untrodden by human feet. And at this point we see something that stops us in our tracks, the Des Cap de Barbaria lighthouse, as impressive from the land as it is when seen from the sea. The end of the world.
There is another island highpoint: forelorn Sa Mola, worth a visit for its lighthouse, the highest on the island rising 192 metres. It was the inspiration for Jules Verne’s 1877 fantasy space travel novel Héctor Servadac.
From Sant Ferran our bike whizzes along the main road down to Formentera’s old harbour, Es Caló, now the preserve of local fishermen. It is impossible to describe the incredible colour of the waters and sand here and the view of the nearby Sa Mola promontory – we just have to see it for ourselves.
Once summer has passed, the only sounds here are the llaüts – the pretty, traditional boats - the cries of the seagulls and the murmur of the sea.
From here we can either cycle up the road or take the footpath to the higher reaches of the island.
Once at the top, we feel as though we are soaring above Formentera.
On the meseta we’ll see the Ses Figueres amb Estalons, a fig tree with such large heavy branches that the farmers have to shore them up to keep the fruit out of reach of their animal.
Near El Pilar there is a windmill used for grinding wheat. In the swinging 60s it was home to singers Bob Dylan and Pau Riba and also featured on the cover of a Pink Floyd album.
The Far de la Mola, a white lighthouse hanging from a cliff, seems to steer the island through the waves, on to an unknown destination.
The islanders have done well to resist mass tourism, which would be a disaster for the environment. Instead, Formentera has carved itself a niche as a unique destination for tourists looking for that something different.
The history of Formentera
People have lived on Formentera since prehistoric times. The megalithic Ca Na Costa, the most important archaeological site on the Pitiüsas (the name given to Ibiza and Formentera, meaning ‘pine-covered islands’) dates from the bronze age.
Under the Romans the large Can Blai castle was built to defend the island and its agricultural and trade activity ‘under franchise from Rome’.
The Vandals conquered the Balearics in 455, ruling it from Sardinia, and in 535 it passed over to the Byzantine Empire. Agricultural activity was revived and the island also started to produce pottery.
Under Muslim rule the island was known as Faramantira. Then in 1014 it became part of the mainland Taifa de Daniya (Dénia) and it received a boost to its economic, cultural and seafaring power.
In 1235 the island was conquered by the Aragón/Catalan King Jaume I and he established the language and culture that still exist on the island today.
But bad harvests, disease and North African piracy forced people to leave the island. In 1409 King Martí l’Huma attempted to attract people back.
Yet in 1533 Formentera was still being used as a base for both Barbary Coast and Turkish pirates and it wasn’t until 1697 that Marc Ferrer managed to attract people back to the island in large numbers.
In 1715, the centralisation decree was issued (a result of the defeat in the War of Succession) and the Catalan institutions, law and language were banned by the Crown. The island’s salt flats became the property of Felipe V.
In 1887 life expectancy was 30 years. Poverty was widespread and once again there was mass emigration, which continued into the 20th century.
During the Spanish Republic the first state school opened in Sant Francesc in 1931.
In 1936 Francoists rebels took control on Formentera. They set up a concentration camp in Sa Savina which held 1,400 prisoners until 1940.
It wasn’t until 1975 that the population climbed back up to 1934 levels, when there were 3,700 people on the island.
Between 1960 and 1973 tourism hit Formentera, bringing with it big changes. Earnings went up, people stopped emigating, more towns were developed, and the majority of the islanders, who had previously been employed in subsistence farming and fishing, began to work in service industries.
In recent years there has been growing awareness of the need to control the growth of tourism. The islanders have voiced their opposition to large-scale projects such as Punta Pedrera and Estany des Peix in the 80s and Ca Marí in the 90s.