The little river, more a stream really, flowed by soundlessly, its water a dark cyan, shimmering as it caught pinpoints of sunlight that escaped the canopy of shady trees lining the tiled path alongside. The midday sun was bright but it was cool on the path and the electric mountain bike slid along silently. An occasional duck fluttered and cackled as it settled on the water, muted conversations of passing pedestrians floated by.
Abruptly, the stream ended, into a rocky patch with puddles of water and a tiny cascade underneath an ancient Roman stone bridge. In the distance, the brilliant white mid-16th century Church of Santa Eularia stood on a hillock, overlooking the stream and bridge. Everything looked bucolic and blissful, until a passer-by remarked, “Beware of goblins.”
The remark threw me for a second—but just a second. Turns out, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, stories of mythical creatures, extraterrestrial beings, magic and mystery are all par for the course. And not without reason. The 572 sq. km island in the Mediterranean Sea is part of the Balearic island quartet, along with Mallorca, Menorca and Formentera. Its strategic location, between North Africa and Europe, has been irresistible to every invading army, resulting in a tumultuous history of over 2,400 years that saw Phoenicians, Punics, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors and, finally, Christians arriving on its shores. Each brought their culture and heritage, and their stories, myths and legends, all of which are woven inextricably into the folklore of Ibiza.
Such as that of the disappearing river, or, more fantastically, of fameliars, or goblins. Earlier that morning, as we walked in the Santa Eularia church, dedicated to the third century Saint Eulalia, beneath wooden rafters and beams from ancient cypress and olive trees, my guide Carlos Espin said, in an amused tone: “The fameliars are ugly creatures. But you can collect them and make them work for you.” Outside, he pointed to the Roman bridge and talked about the disappearing river (it just dries up in summer, he remarked as an aside), simply called Riu (river) de Santa Eularia.
The goblins were more compelling, however. “On the night of the feast of St Juan (23 June), a magic herb blooms under the bridge. No one knows what it looks like; only that you will know it when you see it,” Carlos deadpanned. “You pluck the blooms and the herb and put it in a blackened bottle. When opened, a fameliar will jump out and work hard for you. But if you don’t give it work, it will gobble everything in sight and eat you out of your home.” The twinkle in his eye showed how much he enjoyed narrating the yarn.
The story kept playing in my head as I got off the bike and stared intently at the rocky outcrop around the bridge. It was overgrown with plants and shrubs and it was tempting to think I might have spied the magic herb. Except it was the wrong time of the year.
So I continued cycling around Santa Eularia town, along the marina filled with gleaming boats and yachts, shady wooded areas with pine trees, gardens with lemon and orange trees, and an undulating coastline washed by gentle turquoise blue waves. In the middle of town, I finally laid eyes on the elusive imps: Metallic interpretations of the fameliars were scattered at Els Fameliars, along Passeig de s’Alamera, a long strip with fountains and benches. They were ugly all right, with pointed ears and chin, vacant eyes and a sinister expression, but strangely adorable.
No matter which part of the island, though, there was always a story waiting to be told. Ibiza’s very name stems from a legend. When the Phoenicians discovered the island in seventh century BCE, it was not only pristine but didn’t have snakes (they have been introduced subsequently), so they named it after the Egyptian god Bes, a protective deity, in the belief that he had blessed it. Bes was also the god of good spirits, known for his affinity for good times. He is also believed to be a relative of Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine and pleasure in Greek and Roman mythology, respectively. In a circuitous way, it probably explains Ibiza’s overarching reputation as a hedonistic outpost.
The untold stories were even more fascinating. Dalt Vila, the upper part of town that sits on a hillock, its medieval castle with Renaissance walls and bastions still intact, was best accessed through the imposing and arched Portal de ses Taules entrance. The castle had a warren of tunnels and basements, cool and damp, the paths shrouded in patches of deep gloom and silence. It felt eerily like ghosts of centuries hid in the shadows and the stones were brimming with tales of things they had witnessed.
Emerging from the tunnels felt good and we wandered around a labyrinth of gently sloping and winding narrow cobbled lanes and alleys. Frequently, the lanes would open suddenly into little squares or monuments such as the Ibiza Cathedral (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows), which once doubled as a defence lookout. Ahead, the Mediterranean spread out in breathtaking shades of turquoise. Other than Formentera, which was a hazy blip, it was a panorama of thalassic wilderness.
The most numerous and fantastic stories were at Es Vedrà, a towering, uninhabited islet of limestone off the south-western coast. That it is off limits for humans was in itself alluring. The first sight of it, from the edge of a steep promontory near Mirador, had me spellbound. A mix of deep green vegetation and brown craggy rock surfaces rose almost 400m from the turquoise waters, its sides nearly perpendicular. It was both ruggedly beautiful and ominous.
After allowing us a few minutes to absorb the sight, Carlos softly launched into a string of stories. The oldest fable went back to Greek mythology and Homer’s Odyssey; Es Vedrà, home to beguiling sirens and sea nymphs, tried to entice Odysseus from his ship with their seductive songs but he reportedly chained himself to the vessel’s mast to escape them. The Phoenicians who followed considered it sacred and magical, dedicating it to their patron saint Tanit and offering sacrifices on full-moon nights. More recently, in the 18th century, a banished monk spent time on the island, experienced otherworldly events, and wrote about it.
Other stories spanned the gamut from unbelievable to fantasy. Like the one that claims whoever climbs the summit will find themselves turned into the opposite gender on descent. Or the one that insists Es Vedrà is full of magnetic energy, ensuring that everything, from boats to birds, loses their sense of direction. Then there is the story of an alien base underneath it, with people reporting UFO sightings, strange flickering lights and alien beings around the island. More esoterically, the island is said to have healing powers, an irresistible magnet for wellness junkies who vouch that it opens up their chakras. Near us, in fact, a woman lay perfectly still at the edge facing the island, arms and legs flung out, unmindful of everything.
The sun inched towards the horizon. The Mediterranean had turned into a rippling mass of golden red. Es Vedrà caught the light from the setting sun and almost glowed, its hidden side cloaked in mysterious shadows. The light from the sun and the light reflecting off the water danced and skidded off the islet’s rocky surfaces in a surreal, eerie show. Faint snatches of a haunting melody floated in the air, familiar, yet out of grasp. Together, the light and sound seemed to give life to many of the legends—perhaps Es Vedrà had just ensnared me!
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.