Spain is noted for matadors, mountains, and the Mediterranean.
But it’s also famous for stone walls – literally thousands of miles of dry stone walls criss-cross the countryside.
As you fly towards the larger island of Mallorca (Meyjorka) you glance down upon ‘ringed’ mountains. The bus trip to the hotel winds through these mountains and the ‘rings’ turn out to be a terracing of dry laid stone walls, often eight, nine, or more levels high.
Even to someone from a rural area, where as kids we were all subjected to picking stones from the fields, it’s obvious our efforts pale in comparison to what landowners of this island endure. This is all rock!
To have any sort of agricultural land, the slopes of the mountainsides had to be cleared and the land leveled. Marges (retaining walls) create a horizontal surface for cultivation purposes. There is written evidence that these elements were in place before the 13th century. The stone terracing makes it possible for the inhabitants of the rugged areas of the island to farm the land.
Incorporated into some walls are small stone buildings used as a temporary shelter in bad weather and also to store tools, food and the working animals (usually donkeys).
One of the original crops was olive oil production. The olive branch is a symbol of peace and hope, and these trees live to an age of several hundred, often thousands, of years.
The Olive tree is one of the few trees that can still flourish and produce fruit even from rocky and unproductive land. Most of the ancient terraces are filled with olive trees. These old growth trees add beauty and grace to the landscape. The olive tree was popular because of its rich produce of expensive oil.
The trees, which begin to bear between five and eight years, have their best production after 40 or 50 years. Green olives have a slightly bitter tang and are harvested in September and October while the black ones are simply black by virtue of having been left on the tree till the November harvesting. For hundreds of years this was the main source of income for numerous estates (now it’s oranges, lemons and almonds). Nature has sculptured the trunks of olive trees transforming them into genuine works of art.
But I digress, it was stonework we journeyed to experience.
Mallorca is noted for its remarkable stone work spanning 4,000 years. Some of the island’s finest dry stone walls are found in the Village of Deia (where we stayed) and neighboring town of Soller. Both are nested in the Traumantana Mountains which are honeycombed with stone paths, hiking trails and mule cart roads.
The walls have many roles – property lines, defining field crops, enclosing estates, sheep/cattle pens etc. Every boundary line is a high stone wall. The entire system demonstrates the ingenuity of the ancient Mallorcans. Everywhere are examples of traditional dry stone engineering which is now listed as cultural heritage and protected by the Heritage Act of 1994.
Mallorcan dry stone walls are not laid in courses trying to maintain the same height level each layer, but rather use a random pattern of five or six-sided stones of varying sizes. As a result, when you stop and study a wall you can often see a daisy flower or arches in the pattern. It would be much more difficult to do this type of shaping and placing than normal flat coursed work. The bonding would be much stronger however, as each stone has more surfaces on which to lock.
Our first hike on, beside, and through this amazing network was a mere eight kilometre trek to the nearest town. Signs (sarcastic) on the trails are listed in time rather than distance, and we usually far superseded the suggested hours. After all, we were not a young athletic training team. Most in our group were over 60, the eldest 81. Last year during a British Isles mountaineering trip I regarded the hiking poles for wimps, but this year after purchasing a walking stick for myself I found it saved my neck on several occasions.
When we came to the town of Soller, the streets were scary narrow, but often opened up into a market square with many outdoor restaurants. Our early morning two-hour (according to the sign) trek had lasted till noon! Our guides (but only some of our gang) wanted to go forward to the next town. This led to even more amazing scenery. Parts of the trail bisected the fields and we were able to walk through the terracing, the narrow strips of cultivated turf, and row upon row of the old olive trees. There were stone bridges, catwalks, and even an original laundromat where water flowed from the hills into a large open stone trough with rubbing rocks around the edges to act as the washboard.
On our return to town (almost sundown) our guides treated us to the island beverage – “Mallorcan Herbal”, a very pleasant anise liqueur.
The following day we hiked through a scenic mountain canyon to where some native margers (wallers) were laying down a new path through the treacherous terrain. The original plan was to work with, and learn from, them. However, the hill was steep and there was no room for 12 extra workers, so we were content to watch without leaving our mark on the island.
A three-day stint, with our living quarters at a Monastery, branched out into sampling the unique flavours of this beautiful island – cuisine, botanical gardens, more stone walls, and of course more hiking. The trickiest was a 20 km challenge up through and over the mountains. High up among sheer rock and cliffs were still miles and miles of ancient but well constructed stone walls, seemingly without reason for being there.
At one juncture, on a relatively smooth section of trail, pressure-treated lumber a raised edging along the base of the wall. It was along this stretch that there were abundant ‘discovery signs’ showing the flora of the area – beautiful pictures with embossed and raised plant parts. In the bottom corner was the explanation in Braille. The pressure treated edging was for white cane users.
Narrow paved vehicle roads circle the mountains while the hiking trails go more or less vertical and therefore often cross the roads. That allows entry to the trails from several starting points. It was good to see that some parts of the footpath route had been made accessible.
A ferry ride took us to the smaller island of Menorca. This historic island has much archeological significance as the ways of the ancient people have been unearthed.
A tour stop had been planned for the Lithica Stone Quarry. Here the old adage of “being in the right place at the right time” awarded us a surprising acknowledgement, and a terrific personalized tour. One of our leaders was wearing his association t-shirt with Dry Stone Walling Across Canada emblazoned on his chest. A female worker, who was just leaving, read John’s shirt and came to an abrupt halt. Dry Stone? Canada? English? She was of Belgian descent but had been working as a waller in Menorca for 30 years. Fedrika had been on her way to the bank but it didn’t take much talking to persuade her to show us around and give an explanation of how the stone had been quarried by hand in the early years, and then by machinery until it ceased in 1994. Fedrika is now responsible for constructing safety walls around the perimeter, making steps etc. The quarry has been turned into wonderful botanical sunken gardens.
With a nominal donation from each one of us we were able to secure Fedrika’s services for the following day and she took us to stone wonder spots which would not normally be visited by the public because they are on private lands.
There were Navetas (prehistoric funeral mausoleums), and natural caves used as multi-family housing units during the second millennium B.C. We explored Talayots (round houses from the 4th century B.C.) These watchtowers were part of the defence system for the villages. And then there were the Megaliths! One wonders how much is buried below the ground that storms and earthquakes have never moved them. More puzzling – how did the ancient civilizations erect these monuments?
But the barracas caused the most
discussion with their perplexing construction. These dot the farming landscape and there’s one in nearly every field – and every field is bordered by a stone wall. The ancient barraca is a beehive shaped structure with five foot thick stone walls tiered like a wedding cake. Even our two master craftsmen were in awe as they took measurements of the inside and tried to determine the formula and schematics of laying the stone to meet at the high domed top.
And to think these were only sheep pens! There was but one door and no windows. It was like touring an old barnyard – the barraca would be the barn, there were other rectangular stone out buildings with sod tops, walls with mangers for feeding the animals, a cistern water system with huge stone troughs, and stone-wall-lined lanes to drive the sheep from one field to another.
There was the opportunity to climb, and from the top of the structure one could see walls and farms for miles – and there literally were barracas in their back yards.