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Es Castell (Villacarlos)

Of the eight municipalities that comprise Minorca, Es Castell—or Villacarlos, in Spanish—is the smallest. It is also the easternmost municipality not only of Minorca, but of the whole of Spain—which causes its inhabitants (or castellencos, as they are known) to say, with a mixture of humour and pride, that Es Castell is the first place to see the sun rise each day. Not least of Es Castell’s claims to fame is the fact that it is one of the towns in which Minorca’s British past is most palpable, through its fascinating history and its well preserved architectural legacy.

Jutting out from the southern shore of the Port of Mahón—one of the largest natural harbours in the world—the area covered by Es Castell has, from time immemorial, been coveted by the main European powers because of its significant strategic value. The town’s ancient centre, just a few kilometres from the current one, dates from the sixteenth century, when the castle of San Felipe (little of which now remains) was built by order of Philip II in order to repel attacks by Ottoman pirates. Around the castle there grew up what was known as s’Arrabal de Sant Felip, a settlement housing the families of the soldiers responsible for the defence of the castle.

During the British domination of the island in the eighteenth century, this settlement was demolished, as it was considered to be too close to the castle walls, and its population was relocated a few kilometres to the north, between Cales Fonts and Cala Corb. There the town of Georgetown was constructed, with an orthogonal layout and a spacious Plaza de Armas [parade ground]. The town was later renamed Villacarlos, after the Spanish permanently regained control of the square in 1802. It was not until 1985 that the town acquired its current name, Es Castell.

As we have already mentioned, nowadays the town of Es Castell offers visitors a host of glimpses of its British past. Within the military-style layout of straight streets can be found a large number of white houses with Victorian architectural features, such as sash windows and boinders [from the English ‘bow window’]—covered balconies enclosed on three sides by stained-glass windows. The Plaça de s’Esplanada, situated in the very centre of the town on the shore of Cala Corb, boasts typical colonial buildings such as the Town Hall and the Military Museum. The latter has an enormous range of objects from Minorca’s military history in its collection. All these buildings are painted in “English red”—in imitation of the colour of typical English brick—which gives Es Castell a distinctive touch. It is worth noting the Roser church, which dates from the end of the seventeenth-century.

The rest of the municipality boasts a number of tourist attractions. In addition to the afore-mentioned San Felipe castle (of which only the batteries and the ruins of a few towers remain), there are other former military fortifications dotted around the shores of the Port of Mahón—the La Mola fortress, the Marlborough fort, and the Torre d’en Penjat. The municipality also includes two islets with a long and rich history: the Isla del Rey, the site of a former British military hospital, and the Isla de la Cuarentena [Quarantine Island], which acquired its name in the latter years of the fifteenth century because the clothes from the crews of any infected boats were disposed of there.

Finally, the municipality of Es Castell also includes the delightful fishing harbour of Cales Fonts. An ancient district of fishing quays and markets, today this little bay—which is part of Es Castell—is one of the municipality’s liveliest spots. Bars and restaurants serving traditional dishes set the tone here throughout the day.

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