When he first saw the island of Ibiza, Canadian Rolph Blakstad recalls, he thought he had found the Garden of Eden. Seventy miles off the southeast coast of Spain, the island nurtured dozens of prosperous small farms and villages centred around the main city, Ibiza (pronounced Ibeetha). Countless valleys slept among the mountains, each covered with oranges, almonds, lemons, grapes and apples. They grew wild, or in orchards, fed on water pumped up by windmills that covered the island, quivering like giant fans among the thickets.
“When I came here,” Rolph says, "I had many of the feelings about living in a bourgeois society that the young people have today. I wanted to get away from it all, think for myself, see if there wasn’t a better way to live. It wasn’t an antipathy toward Canada as such, just toward the lack of inner satisfaction in the culture we grew up in. It seemed to have no inner core."
That discovery came 12 years ago, shortly after Rolph and his wife Mary had both graduated from the University of British Columbia. Rolph had always
been obsessed with the Mediterranean area, and with the help of a study grant, he and Mary set out to look for a place to live. His odyssey took him to Morocco, Costa del Sol, Costa Brava, Mallorca and Benidor. He liked them all, but intuition settled him in Ibiza.
“It was really God's Little Acre then,” he admits. “No electricity, no paved roads, one boat a week to the mainland, and simple, uncomplicated people who wanted nothing more than to grow crops and children.”
Though they had few people to talk to, the Blakstads found the primitive life irresistible. “I think Western culture has run out of spiritual ideas. It is bankrupt,” Rolph says. “Here, I am outside of any cultural impositions. The Spanish government leaves me alone, and I can meditate on my own background, the things I picked up in Canada. And whenever I do go back, I find I’m much more sensitive to what the country is really like. When you grow up in it, you’re too busy to take time to discover either the country or yourself. Spiritually, you’re lost.”
In the past few years, hundreds of Canadians with precisely that feeling have come to Ibiza, searching. The first were mostly young writers, artists and an assortment of society’s problem children. But the underground spread the word of the good life so well that now the island draws in an unexpected, more sedate element: teachers, architects, retired people. For some the stay is a mere 14-day escape, a quick thick tan to armor them against the return to Canada and taxes, the housing shortage, ulcers, God is Dead, The Pill and other side effects of progress. But for a handful such as the Blakstads, Ibiza has become a commitment, a place to raise children, a place to live.
At first, they settled around the town of Ibiza itself. Then, as the working girls from Blackpool and the land speculators from Hamburg began to flex their pounds and marks in the town, the families moved out. Like revolutionaries on the run, they went back into the hills and smaller villages. Today, most of the Canadians live around Santa Eulalia, about 10 miles from Ibiza. But even here, El Patio Deutsches Café serves Frankfurter mit Kartofelsalad for the faithful coming not far behind.
Though the Canadians on the island keep in close touch with each other, there is no sign of a commune movement. They are all too fiercely individualistic. Mary Blakstad, who runs her own school for her four children, teaches Spanish in the morning, English in the afternoon, and French twice a week. “They get three complete courses,” she says, “and will be able to get into any of the three educational systems at a higher level.”
Life for children in general is more Tom Sawyer than Holden Caulfied. Felicity Reid, whose three sons now attend boarding school in Palma, on the mainland, says, “This is one of the last places on earth that you can let children run free. The Ibizencos love kids so much, the whole place is a village of baby-sitters. It’s a total-love situation. The great thing is that it fosters a tremendous pride, a good pride, which makes the children extremely independent. Then later, they seem to do well no matter where they are.”
But what does one do in the Garden of Eden? Rolph Blakstad, with a family of five, paints, restores Tibetan scrolls and Etruscan pottery, is involved in city planning, and free-lances as a film cameraman. He usually rests one day a
week. Felicity Reid has tested free enterprise at various times with a tea shop, real estate and library. Now, a new café is in the plans. Martin and Sheillah Evans, a retired couple from Vancouver who rent a small house in suburban Ibiza, court the social life in the best afternoon-tea tradition, blue blazers included. In off moments, they walk, shop, sail. Mrs. Evans says simply, “Here, living itself takes a lot of time. But after all, what does one do anywhere?”
The answer, it seems, depends on how much mental food one needs. The sun, the sea, the good life are all here, yet the main entertainment for the Ibiza people remains themselves and each other.
Graham Coughtry, a Toronto artist who lives with his ex-model wife Larissa in a magnificent house built around an ancient Moorish watchtower, says, “The island has none of the diversions you can hide behind in Canada. In a way, it can be terribly cruel. You can suddenly find you can’t stand living with yourself or anyone else. You have to strip away all the embellishments and start over.”
Rolph Blakstad sees the same phenomenon in a slightly more optimistic way. “Your mind needs empty, clear windows to look through, not garbage going through your head all day. Instinctively, we know what thoughts and values are good, we just lose sight of them when too much junk is forced on us. The problem is to wake up, wash your thoughts, digest the good ones and throw away what you don’t need.
“People who work nine to five lose all enthusiasm for life because they are forced to turn on and shut off regardless of what they are doing. At the same time, they become victims of the sounds and experiences going through their minds. They become slaves of obsessive thinking. They can never turn off. And even if they try to repress these thoughts — which is normal in Canadian society — they become poison in the subconscious.”
Coughtry, who has lived outside Santa Eulalia since 1960, has seen these symptoms often. But he knows, too, the cure. “When someone new arrives here, you can just feel the vibrations of the city. But then Ibiza begins to peel off all these layers, and you can almost see the person shed the bad vibrations. It's a beautiful thing to watch. Beautiful.”
a Rideout falls
The single most expensive part of Ibiza is getting there: $512 return from Montreal. Life on the island itself is sinfully cheap.
In Santa Eulalia, you can sleep in a pension such as the Pilarica for 50 pesetas — about 75 cents — and get fed the next morning as well. For the status-luxury inclined, the new Fenicia hotel provides a room with bath and shower, a fresh-water pool, dining rooms and impeccable service, all trimmed in gilt and marble opulence. The rate per day: about three dollars.
The tourist money has lured many of the peasants to the towns; they rent out their old farmhouses with disbelief to the mad foreigners outbidding each other for the abandoned homes. Rent goes between $25 and $50 per month.
Summer days reach the 90s, but with none of the oppressive, wet heat of the tropics. Rain comes only with winter, when the temperature wanders between 45 and 65 degrees.
The island is a garden, and fruit and
vegetables are about 10 cents a pound. Meat and dairy products cost most. Ironically, big meals for two are almost cheaper to eat out than to make at home: El Pinchito serves a dinner of curried chicken, bread, salad and four fingers of wine for 50 cents. However, steak au poivre plus wine plus salad plus dessert plus coffee calls for three dollars at Sa Caleta, the best restaurant in town. Otherwise, keeping the spirit alive takes mercifully little. A pack of Ducados cigarettes costs 12 cents; San Miguel beer, a dime; Smirnoff vodka, $1.25 a bottle. Straight drinkers benefit the most: at 10 cents, mix costs more than a shot of booze.
Though Ibiza does have bullfights (expensive: $7.50 for the good seats) and art galleries, diversions are simple. Entertainment is mainly the sun, the sea and the people. Best bargain: an afternoon at the Kiosko, the outdoor café at the village square in Santa Eulalia, watching the world through a glass of hierbas, the local liqueur. And if you must insist on activity, the proprietor will lend you his chess set, with his compliments. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.