Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

La Fiesta del Carmen
Fiesta Day Celebrated 16th July

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome to the history page. This week we are going to take a look at one of Spain's most popular holidays, 'La Fiesta del Carmen'. This religious feast day is celebrated each summer in Mediterranean lands (especially Italy and Spain) to honour the Virgin of Carmen, the protectress of fishermen and seafarers. Naturally, because of her kinship with the sea, 'el Carmen' is celebrated in several Pitiusan localities, most notably in the large harbours: La Sabina and Es Pujols in Formentera; Ibiza Town, Sant Antoni and Es Cubells in Ibiza.

Indeed, most island churches, whether coastal or inland, contain an icon of 'Nuestra Señora del Carmen' as worshippers past and present put great stock in her powers. It hasn't always been this way, however. 'El Carmen' is fundamentally an imported cult, relatively recent in its arrival to the Pitiuses. Curiously, her first port of call was Es Cubells, a tiny land's-end village where her benevolent aura is thought to radiate more powerfully than at any other spot in the islands. As usual, there is a fascinating story behind this piece of arcanum . . .

The Origins of Carmelite Worship in Ibiza

The widespread cult to Nuestra Señora del Carmen (roughly translated, 'Our Lady of the Seas') came to Ibiza in the mid-19th century through the auspices of a banished Carmelite friar. Throughout history, whenever an individual was singled out for exile, it was generally because his or her influence on society was so pervasive that it posed a threat to the powers-that-be. Such was the case with Father Francesc Palau; one of Barcelona's leading intellectuals and the founder of a successful parochial school.

Political Turmoil

Spain's new ruling faction was none too keen on the clergy - and none too sure of its own political footing. The incoming military rulers had only just succeeded in overthrowing the liberal monarchy of Isabel II and were trying to institute a far-left progressive government. Any religious personage who might prove to be a vocal and persuasive dissenter was quickly removed from the mainstream.

Palau was one of the first 'undesirables' to be sent away. The year was1854. There was no longer a bishop on the island as the bishopric has been discontinued in 1852; but there was a provost who welcomed the banished priest and showed him around the island. The purpose of this courtesy tour was so that the friar might choose where he wished to spend the years of his exile. Palau was particularly taken with Es Cubells, a choice that could have been described as seeking 'exile within exile'. If Ibiza was off the mainstream, Es Cubells was on the shores of oblivion.

Intellectual Starvation Turns to Spiritual Abundance

In the absence of any type of mental stimulation, this city-dwelling priest soon developed a hitherto dormant facet of his personality: mysticism. Following his new devotional bent, Palau would frequently remove himself to the tiny islet of Es Vedrá, a speck of naked rock standing just off the south-west coast of the island. Here, utterly isolated from human contact, he would fast and meditate for periods of up to a month.

Eventually, with the help of Es Cubells' few inhabitants, Palau built a tiny hermitage on the wooded cliffs overlooking the sea, and how no? dedicated it to his beloved Virgen del Carmen. With his particular charismatic flair, the friar soon founded a Carmelite Order at the hermitage. This order, incidentally, still exists although it has been moved slightly up the coast and further inland

Pilgrim's Way

So fervent was Palau's devotion to the Virgen del Carmen that, during the three years of his banishment, he travelled all over the island preaching her virtues in every house of God. His preaching generated such an intensity of religious sentiment that, by the latter part of the 19th century, waves of worshippers began to make pilgrimages to far-flung Es Cubells in order to better adore their Lady of the Sea.

In 1857 Palau's exile was lifted, and he returned to his home in Barcelona. The friar's absence, however, did not diminish the fervour of his teachings by one iota. By popular demand, an icon of 'el Carmen' was placed in almost every island church, though, much to the consternation of the parish priests, whole congregations continued to make the long trek to Palau's now crumbling hermitage.

In the words of island historian Joan Marí Cardona, "The hermitage of Es Cubells . . . was virtually abandoned and in a complete ruin, a fact which did not stop the islanders from visiting it. This being the case, the rector of Sant Josep, Monseñor Pallarés, determined to put an end to the pilgrimages, assuring everyone that it was not worth struggling along such a rocky road as the one that led to Es Cubells when the figure he had of 'el Carmen' was the same or better than the one at the hermitage." But somehow, the magic of Es Cubells drew worshippers like bees to a flower. Even to this day, you will occasionally hear a distressed country wife say, "If my husband recovers from this, I will go to Es Cubells."

Bitter Battle

Eventually, however, the pilgrim fad wore itself out. As the island's population expanded, more and more families settled in Es Cubells, somehow drawing the numinous place back into the mundane world. By the first third of the 20th century, the growing village became embroiled in an ecclesiastic showdown of such dimensions that the intervention of the Vatican was necessary for its resolution. Because the memory of these events is still fresh in the minds of many Ibicencos, we shall not delve too deeply into details.

The gist of the dispute was this: On the one hand, the friars of the deceased Father Palau's order maintained that their hermitage should remain an independent entity and should not be absorbed into the dioceses. The villagers, on the other hand, wanted a parish church of their own since the nearest place to attend Mass was in Sant Josep - a very long haul and uphill all the way.

In 1933, island bishop, Salvi Huix, sided with the villagers and granted parish rights to Es Cubells. He posted an official decree of erection whereby the hermitage would be enlarged into a community church. Edicts notwithstanding, Huix could only manage an uneasy compromise with the friars: the villagers would be permitted to use the hermitage temporarily and only until a parish church could be built at another site.

No progress was made in the matter until eight years later a new bishop, Antoni Cardona 'Frit', came into office. With the verve of a newcomer, Cardona, was determined to push through with the episcopal decree of his predecessor, and construction was begun on the church in 1941. Because of unceasing conflicts with the friars, the edifice was not completed until 1959, eighteen years later. Father Palau's chapel was incorporated into the nave of the church, while all of the possessions within it were bequeathed to the Carmelite Mission by papal order.


Not to end on a turbulent note, the 'Fiesta del Carmen' is always a jolly affair in whichever of the five island localities it is celebrated. Fisherman and seafarers still ask for the virgin's protection, making this one of the most heartfelt fiestas in the Pitiusan calendar. If you happen to be on one of the islands, why not wander down to the nearest harbour and join in the fun!

Emily Kaufman