Archaeologists believe the first human settlements in the Balearic Islands date from around 5000 BC and the islands were later regular ports of call for Phoenician traders. The Carthaginians followed and founded Ibiza City in 654 BC, making it one of the Mediterranean’s major trading ports. Next came the Romans, who, in turn, were overwhelmed by the Visigoths.
Three centuries of Muslim domination ended with the Christian Reconquista, led by Jaume I of Catalonia and Aragón, who took Palma de Mallorca in 1229 and sponsored the invasion of Ibiza in 1235. Menorca was the last to fall: Alfonso III took it in 1287 in a nasty Vietnam-style campaign, completing the islands’ incorporation into the Catalan world.
After their initial boom as trading centres and Catalan colonies, the islands had fallen on hard times by the 15th century. Isolation from the mainland, famines and frequent raids by pirates contributed to their decline. During the 16th century Menorca’s two major towns were virtually destroyed by Turkish forces and Ibiza City’s fortified walls were built. After a succession of bloody raids, Formentera was abandoned.
After backing the Habsburgs in the Spanish War of Succession, Mallorca and Ibiza were occupied by the victorious Bourbon monarchy in 1715. Menorca was granted to the British along with Gibraltar in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht. British rule lasted until 1802, with the exception of the Seven Years War (1756–63), during which the French moved in, and a brief Spanish reconquest after that. In the Spanish Civil War, Menorca was the last of the islands to succumb to Franco’s forces.
Tourism since the 1950s has brought considerable wealth. The islanders now enjoy – by some estimates – the highest standard of living in Spain, but 80% of their economy is based on tourism. This has led to thoughtless (and continuing) construction on the islands (the term balearización has been coined to illustrate this short-termism and wanton destruction of the area’s prime resource – its beautiful coastlines) and leads to Balearics-wide anxiety attacks whenever a season doesn’t meet expectations.
The islands’ foreign admirers seem to have their preferences. If the Germans have set their sights on Mallorca, Formentera becomes Little Italy in July and August. The Brits are numerous in Mallorca, but have a special affection for Menorca. Ibiza’s clubs, on the other hand, attract an international brigade of hedonists.
Place names and addresses here are in Catalan, the main language spoken (with regional variations). The major exceptions are Ibiza and Ibiza City – both are called Eivissa in Catalan but we use the better-known Spanish rendition.