Europe is littered with quaint, cobbled medieval towns but there’s something about Dalt Vila, Ibiza’s old town, that feels a little different. Romance abounds as you wander its labyrinthine lanes but just under the veneer of Instagramable corners is a mood that sits somewhere between menace and intrigue. A city that was founded 2,500 years ago is bound to have some salacious secrets and one of the best ways to reveal them is through architecture.
Incessant attacks from Turks, Barbarians, pirates and marauders of all stripes convinced Kings Carlos l and then Felipe ll to modernise Ibiza’s coastal defences. In 1555, the Spanish Crown commissioned the Italian military engineer Giovanni Battista Calvi to refortify the walls that were first built by the Phoenicians and renovated by the Moors. Building continued into the 16th century and it’s Calvi’s impressive walls that enclose the whole of Puig de Vila (Capital Hill) and loom over the port. The area extends across 10 hectares and contains seven bulwarks angled to achieve a 360º vista. There’s lots of information available regarding the ramparts, cathedral and other notable structures within the walls of Dalt Vila and you can even take a dramatised tour through the winding streets but for interest’s sake, let’s take a look at three of the lesser-known secrets of the old town.
The Convent of Sant Cristòfal
Located at the end of Carrer de Joan Roman, which is a continuation of Carrer del Pere Tur (if you manage to map Dalt Vila and not get lost then you are a genius), this convent was founded in 1599, making it the oldest in Ibiza. The building was badly damaged during the Civil War and the current incarnation was built in 1961, keeping true to the original design. Luckily, all the precious reliquaries, relics and artworks were preserved and are still on display. The hand-carved gilt altarpiece is a standout, dated 1685 and attributed to the artist Pere Serra. Along with other historic pieces, there are two 17th century canvases of Italian origin, a work from the 17th century Valencian School and a baroque holy water font.
Known as the Monges Tancadas in Catalan, which loosely translates as Locked Up Nuns, these Augustine sisters follow a cloistered life of poverty, obedience and chastity spending much of their day in liturgical prayer and song – you can sometimes hear their voices echo through the laneways. They are known for their sweet pastries and their sense of humour. In May 2020, the nuns of Sant Cristòfal uploaded a video to their social media an a cappella performance of ‘I Will Follow Him’ from the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie, Sister Act – it’s worth a watch!
The Town Hall
The Town Hall is located in a former Dominican monastery. It was one of the last founded by the Dominicans in the Balearic Islands, which may account for its failure to thrive. In 1588, the Universitat (as the local government was then known) took over the contract to build the monastery but by 1674 the cloisters were still unfinished and the monks had nowhere to sleep. Many Ibiza homeowners will recognise this governmental dynamic. The community was finally dissolved in 1835 and the building became City Hall and prison until 1984.
No doubt there were many infamous inmates incarcerated over the years yet it’s most colourful was the famous art forger and consummate liar Elmyr de Hory. Legend has it he was locked up for a few months in 1968 and would chat casually with friends sitting in the downstairs bar from the prison balcony. It was known as Hotel Naranjo (Hotel Orange) by the locals perhaps because of the orange painted church next door (itself an architectural marvel), the orange tree in the patio or the general physical shape of the single guard who was known to let the prisoners out during the day and yell at them to come back in the evening.
Carrer dels Jueus or Street of the Jews
There is some contention between the two historians who have taken it upon themselves to study the existence of an ancient Jewish community in Ibiza. However, the fact remains that there is a street called Street of the Jews and many notations in the archives of Jewish names and conversions. During the Inquisition, the Jews of Mallorca were persecuted horrifically and yet it seems the Jewish communities of Ibiza and Formentera were a little more protected by the locals – perhaps another indication of the famous Ibicenco tolerance. Suffice to say that when the Vicars General of the Inquisition came to the islands, they left feeling assured that ‘no one practiced the laws of Moses or Mohomet’.
The late historian Gloria Mound uncovered documentation of property transfers between Jewish families between 1394 and 1423 and again in 1577 and 1685 with all of the houses located on the Street of the Jews meaning the inquisitors were definitely deceived and probably lubricated into a good mood via the luxury country homes they were provided and endless amphoras of wine. Today the Carrer dels Jueus is partly submerged and not that easy to locate. There are rumours of an ancient synagogue in the bowels of the Cathedral, but no archaeological evidence has surfaced. In 2003, the Periodico de Ibiza reported the discovery of an ancient Hebrew poem carved into the walls under the Sant Jaume bastion although no further information can be found. We think it’s a mystery too good to leave unsolved – watch this space for more news as it’s uncovered.