Damien Enright: I lived near Ibiza’s national park and I didn’t even know it

I lived near Ibiza’s national park and I didn’t even know it

Damien Enright: I lived near Ibiza’s national park and I didn’t even know it

I have just learned that on Ibiza, the island off the Spanish coast roughly opposite Barcelona, there’s a magnificent national park. During the years I intermittently lived there, I didn’t realise the area’s significance.

The island’s southern tip straggles away to a narrow neck, almost reaching the northern part of Formentera, the much smaller island below it. In between the two lies a shallow sea that is a veritable metropolis of marine life, edged with marshes and dunes.

The land above water is home to a host of bird species during migration, the most prominent or “emblematic” being flamingos, some of which drop in (from the skies) for a few days, as they fly south, en route to warmer climes. Some stay all winter.

Winters are not always Mediterranean in this neck of the Med; the coastal mainland gets better weather than these islands; Andalucía enjoys winters that compare with the best Irish summers. However, Ibiza has not only a crowded and fascinating history, but a legendary other-worldliness and a unique modern cachet.

It has always been a place to be seen. I recall this questionable distinction when I arrived in the early 1960s. Then, the first movie stars, music stars and famous-for-being-famous stars began to visit, and some, at least, to make homes here. I was at the raggle-taggle bohemian end of the expatriate settlement: I’d arrived when the only expats were, one and all, raggle-taggle.

We watched, salivating, as the arrivistès quaffed “gambas ajillo” (prawns sizzling in oil and garlic in a small iron pan and costing the equivalent of a day’s grub for my family of four — £6 a week at the time). Ibiza gradually became very fashionable. But it was myself and my raggle-taggle compadres who began it, albeit we were by no means the first to have adopted this unique place as a wellspring of inspiration and/or hotbed of hedonism.

The Phoenicians were here from the Levant, the Carthaginians from North Africa, the Romans from Europe, and it was a crossroads of trade from the earliest times. Moors and Berbers colonised and ruled for centuries. For Barbary pirates, it was a base from which to dominate the sea lanes.

The Carthaginians were not the first to claim a profound and transforming presence in the land itself. During their overlordship, those who could afford it moved from their Carthage on the Tunisian coast to Ibiza, there to spend their last years and there to be buried and become part of the island, which they believed to be an earthly province of heaven.

Those that could not afford to take up residence on the island — perhaps it was, relatively, as expensive then as it is now — purchased caches of Ibiza clay to be added to their graves when they died in Carthage. Such was the reverence the very soil of the island engendered: and when I first arrived here, aged 21, I felt I had been here before, and my wife felt similarly.

There was a sort-of déjà vu, and it owed nothing to psychoactive or consciousness-altering substances; we had not encountered or imbibed any at the time. Ibiza had a magic; and despite the mega developments and the spread of concrete in the more than half-century since that time, the magic still abides.

Nowhere will it abide more than in the national park landscapes of ancient saltpans stalked by pink flamingos and tall, white egrets in the island’s south, the barely submerged chain of submarine reefs dividing it from its poor relation, dry, stony, dramatic Formentera.

There, we once lived in an ancient farmhouse, with a deep, domed well of sweet water into which the children did not fall (if we had such a well in Ireland today, health-and-safety regulations might dictate an electric fence around it).

The national park is also the location of magnificent, mile-long beaches. The literature claims that the birds are not disturbed by the thousands of summer visitors. Happily, the flamingos come in October, when visitors are fewer. Sunbathing, scantily-clad birdwatchers are rare.

When I lived there for months and half-years in the early 1960s, I wouldn’t have recognised a national park if I walked into one. But the entire lands and seas of both islands were natural parks, and unremarked — even those vast, empty beaches, salt mashes, aquamarine sea pools and half-submerged islets which, happily, became valued for their ecological uniqueness and were so designated in 2001.

I recall seeing flamingos on low islands as I crossed in the daily wooden boat to Formentera, and thinking little of it, for it was simply the world, as it was then, so short a time ago.

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