Island offers history, cuisine and scenery

Most readers have probably never heard of Formentera, a small island off the coast of Spain in the western Mediterranean Sea.

Germans, British, French, and Americans choose to go there from their places of everyday employment in order to “get away from it all.” In the 1970s, American hippies discovered it and some still remain as residents.

Janet Schweitzer and her husband Fred told me recently of their experience there. Their daughters-in law, who live in Germany, own a house there. Janet and Fred have visited them four times over the years and say they enjoy Formentera’s culture, cuisine, the sandy beaches and the Mediterranean sunshine.

Fred spoke of his favorite aspect of the island, the cuisine. On Sundays, cooks who come over to a local restaurant from Valencia, on the mainland of Spain, set up a 6-foot diameter shallow pan over an outdoor burner and spend two-and-a-half hours preparing the dish called paella.

First they cook the meat. Always prawns, shrimp, or langouste, a variety of lobster, and then maybe chicken, rabbit, or pork. After that simmers a while, vegetables go in, green and red peppers, tomatoes, garlic and peas. Fianally, Fred said, rice seasoned with saffron is added and the stew cooks some more. Meanwhile the restaurant patrons are enjoying wine, beer or sangria in the open air of the seaside cafe. It seems that every thing on the island is associated with the sea.

Geologically, this little island came into being when, millions of years ago, the African continent to the south was pushed north by an orogeny that closed the straits of Gibraltar and separated the Mediterranean basin from the Atlantic Ocean. The area became dry, then millions of years later another orogeny separated the two continents again and waters from the Atlantic Ocean rushed in through the Gibraltar Straits and created the Mediterranean Sea. The islands we see now may be the residuals of that dry period.

Formentera is the smallest of the islands known as the Balearic Archipelago. The Schweitzers flew from Barcelona to Ibiza, the next largest island, and from there they took a ferry for a 45-minute trip to Formentera.

Formentera is only about 10 miles long and just over 4 miles across at its widest point. High limestone cliffs alternate with sandy beaches and isolated coves along the shore. In one place, there is a shallow cove with a flat bottom in which in the old days the seawater was dammed up and left to evaporate so the remaining sea salt could be harvested.

Walking on the beaches, although there are no shells to be found, and swimming, in the nude in some places, are daytime pleasures of the island’s tourists. Sights to be seen include ancient windmills and watch towers from the days of the Barberry Pirates in the late 1700s. The stucco buildings in the towns are reminiscent of the Spanish adobe buildings in the American Southwest. There is a vibrant nightlife on the island and shops catering to affluent tourists.

The Schweitzers told me about the Save Posidonia Project. According to a Formentrera publication, the shallow Balearic sea is crystal clear “thanks to Posidonia sea grass, a living being said to be 100,000 years old.” The 8 kilometer underwater “Balearic prairie of Posidonia is the largest living organism in the world. It oxygenates, shelters and nourishes sea creatures, absorbs three times as much carbon from the atmosphere as the rainforests do, and is a vital element in the fight against climate change.”

The Schweitzers join locals and tourists in support of this vital ecological project.

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