Ibiza History & Culture

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History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

Sant Josép de sa Talaia
Fiesta Day Celebrated 19th March

Saints & Fiestas

Welcome! This week we have an important fiesta on the island agenda - March 19th - the patron saint day of Sant Josép. Local holidays give us an excellent focal point for our ruminations, in that the origins of these festivities are always rooted in important past events. Anything worth celebrating, it seems, must be steeped in a heady brew of history - such is the case, at least, in Sant Josép. Before getting into the historical aspect of the town, however, it might be helpful to know something about its present-day situation.

Most foreigners know this area as San José (its Spanish name), but under the island's current linguistic programme, it is now referred to as Sant Josep (the Catalan equivalent). Today it is the largest municipality on the island (15,578 hectares) and also one of the wealthiest, for it contains Las Salinas, the airport as well as three major resorts: Cala Vadella, Playa den Bossa and Port des Torrent along with most of the San Antonio Bay. But, despite its size and its touristic concentrations, it is less densely populated than Eivissa, Sant Antoni or Santa Eulària, with a population of 14,325 inhabitants.

The village proper lies in the south-west of the island, nestled into the foothills of s'Atalya, a small alp. The yesterworld charm of this sleepy hamlet causes many people to assume that it was one of the four original settlements after the Catalan conquest, but not so. The four original sites were Sant Antoni, Sant Miquel, Santa Eulària and Sant Jordi, all established in 1305.

It was not until the much later date of 1726 that the 'Vedráns', as the area's inhabitants were then called, sought episcopal backing for the construction of their own church. Up until that time, the spot chosen for this church had been known locally as 'The Hill of Cala Vadella' for the simple reason that there was no town centre to speak of. Not until a maverick group of local residents brought Sant Josep into existence through sheer dint of hard work.

Around the turn of the 18th century, the Vedrans (after Es Vedrà) perceived the need for a new church to accommodate the growing numbers of residents which now populated their neck of the island. For the preceding 400 years the few families living in the area had made the arduous trek every Sunday to attend mass at the far-flung churches of either Sant Jordi or Sant Antoni. The natural inclemency of spring floods, winter frosts, summer swelters and autumn winds often made their passage not only long, but gruelling. Moreover, churches in those days were used not only as houses of worship, but also as strongholds against pirate attacks. The Vedrans had been sorely deprived on both points for as long as they could remember.

Winds of Change

The 18th century, which in Europe witnessed the Enlightenment, in Ibiza also gave rise to a new mentality that was quite revolutionary and rationalistic in its own way. The forces that sparked this change can be traced back to the previous century when a severe bout of bubonic plague (1652) had decimated island numbers. During the collective convalescence, the survivors began to feel that they had somehow triumphed over a savage foe, the grim reaper at his most deadly. Morally strengthened in their victory, an urgency to strike out and meet the world head on soon replaced the silent resignation that had reigned for untold centuries.

The Ibicenco 'Enlightenment' was felt generally across the island, but remains most clearly attested to on 'The Hill of Cala Vadella'. The Vedrans got together and wrote a letter (still surviving) in very fine Castilian Spanish to their Archbishop, Manuel de Samaniego in Tarragona. They politely asked him to provide a vicar for the country church they proposed to build on the hill in question. The Prelate, obviously impressed by what he read, decided to give the matter his full attention and personally came to Ibiza to inspect the situation. He summoned the area's elders and asked them how much the population had grown since the plague. They answered that it had grown by more than 50% for which reason there were now enough of them to fill a church. Samaniego made several rounds, saw that the elders' words were true and gave the project his official blessing. He then chose a name for the new church which, as we know, turned out to be San José - at that time Castilian held the upper hand in the linguistic battle.

Once the church was built, a little village sprang up around it, though, as was customary, the main bulk of the population continued to live in farms, scattered about the countryside. As a matter of curiosity, there were two other groups of islanders who, during this period, were also swept up on the tide of expansion. They were the Labritjans (i.e. Sant Joan) and the Formenterans. Although they had not been so bold as to write to the Archbishop, they did not hesitate to request a hearing with him once he had arrived. They, too, needed vicars for the churches they were planning to build. Happily, the Prelate was agreeable to their pleas so that, by the time his visit was over Samaniego, had taken, not one, but three vicarages under his episcopal wing.

Archduke Luis Salvador

We also have the interesting testimony, some150 years later, of the Austrian Archduke, Luis Salvador who visited Ibiza twice, first in 1867 and again in 1885. This erudite traveller left a wonderfully written and illustrated record of his experiences which, naturally, included the important town of Sant Josep - with only six villages on the island, I suppose none of them could really be excluded from his sightseeing agenda! The three aspects of Sant Josep which most impacted the Archduke were: 1) its altitude, 2) its agriculture, and 3) its church. Let us consider his impressions point by point.

Sant Josep, as we mentioned earlier, lies at the foot of s'Atalaya, the highest point on the island (486.07 metres) As such, the area commands a spectacular view of the surrounding country. On one occasion the Archduke explored the trails leading out of the village on the back of a mule. He observed, duly impressed, that: "From the wooded peaks of the west one could see the sea from four different points . . . and, in the distance, Formentera." Of course, that same breathtaking view is still intact today for any and all to enjoy. The advent of the motor vehicle has even removed the necessity of having a mule!

The area's excellent agriculture yield is well-evidenced in one of the Archduke's detailed drawings which shows fields of rich tillage, extending from the edge of the village down the slopes of the valley. The royal visitor commented on the enormous onions and figs which issued form the area, as well as on the fabled fruit of Es Cubells. He tells us that Sant Josep was also thought to be the county with the most flowers, as the majority of honey for sale at the central market was culled form Sant Josep's hives. The vigour of its harvests was perhaps due to the mildness of the local climate, considered in folklore to be the most benign on the island. Even today, locals vouch that the almond trees blossom first in Sant Josep and afterwards on the rest of the island. A tip that present-day tourists might appreciate is that the nights in this village are always blissfully cool and breezy. Its height makes the air almost ozonic compared to the mugginess of the portside resorts.

The Archduke's first observation about the church was that its Baroque altars were excessively ornamented. Secondly, he noted that the locals used to tie their beast of burden to the front arches, under the shade of the porch, while attending mass. An interesting contrast! Despite the Archduke's comment on the altars, the townspeople were deeply struck when, years later during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), all four of the church's altars were destroyed by fire. At the close of the war, new altars were installed, and, in an act of solidarity, the women of the parish donated pieces of gold jewellery to be melted down and used in their decoration. The crown of the Virgin Mary (central panel) is the result of their generosity.


That's it for this week. Next time we'll speak at greater length about the Archduke while his name is still fresh in our minds. His comprehensive book, 'Las Antiguas Pitiüsas' sheds invaluable light on 19th-century Ibiza and Formentera, and the Archduke himself was a very interesting person. He was an excellent and prolific draughtsman, leaving a large legacy of drawings and paintings on all aspects of islands life. Thank goodness for royalty!

The Church at San José
Picture Copyright © Gary Hardy

Emily Kaufman