Ibiza heritage: Pirate towers and the Medieval telephone

On October 12, 1543, Salah Reis, a commander under the troublesome pirate Barbarossa – otherwise known as Redbeard – pushed his fleet of 23 ships into the estuary of the Santa Eulalia River. From there, the band of bloodthirsty pirates raped and pillaged their way through Balàfia, Atzaró and Punta Arabí, laying siege and pocketing loot along the way. It was not pretty. Back in the day, pirates were a problem here in Ibiza. A very big problem and by the time the Catalans occupied the island, the local population were certainly sick of being raped and pillaged with such frequency. Something had to be done.

The man for the job was Italian military engineer Giovanni Batista Calvi. He was recruited by the Spaniards from Italy and did wonders with walls and bastions for the Spanish Crown. He worked on the castle of San Felipe in Mahon, the walls of Ibiza’s Dalt Vila, the bastions at the Royal Shipyards in Barcelona, a few walls in Cádiz, some more in Gibraltar and a whole series of defence systems along the Spanish-French border. Calvi was a wall and bastion guy, one of the best military engineers of the 16th century and the first to design a global defence plan for the Iberian Peninsula. If you needed defensive architecture in the 1600s, Calvi was your man.

He was brought in to create a system of towers to protect the salt pans, which at the time were the island’s main industry and a decent source of income for the Crown. His concept was later extended by engineer Juan Ballester y Zafra who completed a functional early warning system around the coast and into the interior. The total number of towers that comprised Ibiza’s elaborate defence system is unconfirmed but seven of them survive today and make for an intriguing day out.

Placed in strategic spots along the coastline in sight of each other, the towers were sometimes armed with cannons and a rotation of soldiers who, on spotting a potential invader, would blow a shell horn before lighting a smoky greenwood fire if it was daytime or a huge bonfire if it was night. Each tower would respond until a chain of fiery messages circumnavigated the island, a Medieval telephone of sorts, allowing people to seek shelter in the local fortified church – under a haystack or even inside the towers themselves. When word reached town, a squadron of local corsairs (a polite way of saying legal pirate) would ship out to meet the enemy head-on. A monument to these brave and boisterous men can be seen in the Ibiza port – the only known memorial for pirates anywhere in the world.

Architecturally, the towers are fascinating. Usually made up of three levels, the entrance was in the middle and required a rope ladder – which would be pulled up out of sight – to reach. Generally, the lower floor was for supplies and the dumping of ammunition, the middle level for sleeping and shelter and the top terrace for the fires, cannon and lookout. Located on Playa d’en Bossa, Torre des Carregador, translating to ‘tower of the dockers’, was built to protect the teams of workers loading salt from the pans onto ships. It’s the largest and oldest remaining tower in Ibiza and the only known one to be built to shelter people, fitting at least 200 workers and locals should the need arise. It comes as no surprise that was used for parties in Ibiza’s hedonistic glory days, but that’s no longer recommended unless you want a run-in with some of Calvi’s military descendants.

Nearby is Torre de ses Portes – the ‘tower of the porters’, likely named for the men who carried salt from the pans in baskets – perched above the Ses Salines nature reserve between Las Salinas and Es Cavallet beaches. This one is the tallest recorded tower and was built rather late in the day during the 17th century. Its location covers the salt pans in addition to the Es Freus passage between Ibiza and Formentera. Further along the coast, perched above Cala d’Hort beach, Torre de Savinar is probably one of the most visited of the towers in Ibiza, overlooking the mysterious rock of Es Vedra. The views are outstanding, and one can only speculate what kind of dreams the soldiers might have had while manning the tower. After all, Homer located Odysseus’ temptress sirens around this coastline.

Between Cala Conta and Cala Bassa is Torre d’en Rovira. Built in 1763, it was operated by two keepers and armed with two cannons. Artist Evelio Torent Marsans bought the tower as a second home in the late 1920s. The eccentric painter and his wife transformed it into the ‘Caliphate of Es Pallaret (named for the nearby island)’. Visitors would be greeted with a flag-raising ceremony and a two-handed salute before being shown the grounds, which included a sculpture park and a restaurant for local lizards – yes, lizards. Word on the street was that it was Michelin star worthy. Later, sometime in the 1960s the tower was said to be occupied by a mysterious woman whose rare appearances allowed for all manner of wild stories to accumulate in the minds of locals.

A drive across Ibiza will also reveal several towers connected to private homes. Some of these were built in modern times as an homage to the past and others were indeed part of the defence system. Today these private towers have been converted into dining rooms, guest quarters, bathrooms or artist studios. Our architects have refurbished many old and not-so-old towers and repurposed them to fit modern lifestyles. However, we like to think that the vestiges of pirate life still lives within us even if it’s just a throaty ‘Arrrgh! Me hearties!’ shouted out (or even emailed) across the office every-so-often.

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza | Photos: Conrad White

© Copyright – Blakstad Ibiza | Photos: Conrad White