The History of Avarcas Sandals, Menorca
Naomi Rohr > 16 April 2018
My history with avarcas sandals? It was love at first sight!
They have gorgeous colours and styles…. your foot just slips into them …. it’s a bit like getting away with wearing slippers all day except WAY more stylish.
Most of our customers come back for more and confess they’re the only shoe they wear all day, every day.
But did you know they come from a very small island off the eastern coast of Spain called Menorca?
You may know that Spain is well known for its high-quality shoe manufacturing (think Manolo Blahnik, Campers, and Espadrille), so it probably will come as no surprise to you that these beautiful and comfortable shoes have a history that dates back centuries.
In this post, we’d like to share the wonderful, rich history of the genuine avarcas sandals with you; including what we mean by them; their peasant beginnings; the pivotal moment when peasant shoes became stylish, and their popularity today.
Despite their unpopularity with the middle class for some time (read more about this below!); today, the islanders of Menorca love them so much, they’ve even written an ‘Ode to Avarcas’ that we’ve included in the bottom of this article!
What we mean by an avarca
Similar to the way an ‘UGG Boot’ refers to a type of shoe made from sheepskin and wool; an “avarca” (Catalan pronunciation: [əˈvarkə], plural avarcas) is a type of sandal produced in Menorca. The shoes are made using a leather upper and a rubber sole.
Unlike Australia’s UGG boot, which unfortunately lost a large international trademark battle and was copied worldwide; the avarca name has fought off patent attempts and been protected by the Island Government of Menorca; and the Association of Menorcan Footwear Manufacturers. Together they have created a standard for the avarcas sandal, which requires any shoe named an “Avarca” to meet. This is called the ‘Avarca De Menorca’ guarantee.
This has protected the Avarca name; the Menorcan shoe manufacturing industry; and the quality of the shoe as we know it today.
So now we know what we’re talking about when we say an ‘avarca’ – let’s learn more about its humble beginnings.
Rumour has it, that in 460BC, the Slingers of the Balaeric Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera), wore one of the first European forms of a handmade, all-leather sandal while fighting against the Romans.
Menorcan historians trace the history of handmade, all-leather sandals back a little later than this - to the 13th Century, when Menorca was conquered by Alfonso III, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona. Aragon at the time was the eastern region of Spain; off the coast of which lies Menorca.
At the time, a basic form of handmade leather sandals were thought to be worn across Aragon; and Alfonso III’s reclaiming of the island is said to have introduced these basic leather sandals to Menorca.
The Avarcas sandal – a Peasant Shoe
In Menorca, avarcas were considered a peasant shoe – a pair of avarcas and a hot meal could be a farmer’s payment for children performing labouring work.
Peasant farmers used the leather from dead livestock to make their own avarcas sandals. They mainly used the rear part of the animal where the skin is thicker and fatter.
It is said that Peasants would make or repair their own sandals in the evening, to ensure they had appropriate footwear for labouring work.
Originally, the avarcas shoe was made entirely of leather sewn by hand, including the sole of the shoe.
The open toe style of the sandal was perfect for summer months; but not so for winter. To avoid cold feet in the cooler months, peasants placed dry straw inside the sandal, which would be replaced when wet. While this sounds strange to us, if the peasant’s only choice was to either go barefoot or wear anything on their feet, the avarcas were obviously the best option!
Our first illustration of an early version of an avarcas sandal
One of the earliest graphic references showing an illustration of avarcas appears in the book “Die Balearen” by the Archduke Ludwig Salvador of Austria (1847 – 1915). The Archduke took up residence in nearby island Mellorca, after widely travelling the world, writing over 50 encyclopaedic books on his travels.
He came to nearby Mallorca for the first time in 1867 to write a book about beetles and liked the island so much, he settled there permanently.
He noted of the avarcas:
“The abarca sandals are really quite ugly and in winter they are very uncomfortable … people are however so used to them that in the centre of the Island, Mercadal and Ferrierie, they are almost the only footwear to be seen.”
The first major change – the introduction of rubber soles
With the arrival of cars to the island, it made sense to shoemakers and peasants to reinforce the sole of the shoes with used tyre rubber. Being much thinner than leather, it was also used to make the straps.
This helped increase the durability of the avarcas and the flexibility of the sole. It also protected the foot from wet weather and created a gripped surface for uneven or slippery terrain.
For the peasants, this meant the sole lasted an entire year, and the rubber sole was more suitable for work behind a plow, with stones and stubble all around.
For labouring peasants, rubber also became another form of payment.
Avarcas, similar to how we know today are born
Okay, the glitter may be a stretch for this time, however, one step at a time!
Back in 1955, a local middle-class family who owned the Pregonda country house in Menorca, were host to many international guests. Traditionally they used avarcas to walk along the rocks along the beach; however, they considered the bulky nature of the peasant shoes unsuitable for the females in their visiting groups.
They, therefore, commissioned a local shoemaker, the Servera family workshop in Es Mercadal, to come up with a less bulky, more stylish version.
So the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention; so the need for a more stylish version for middle-class females lead to the re-imagining of the avarcas sandal into the style we know and love today.
Until this new version, the avarcas was considered by many locals to be only worn by labourers and workers. However this new style of Avarcas was a separation in look and association with a peasant shoe, and an instant hit with locals and tourists alike.
After the war, Menorca’s natural island beauty attracted many French, Italian, German and British holiday-makers; which in turn increased the avarcas popularity internationally.
The Servera family workshop continued from c.1923 until 2005, when it closed its doors.
Our Avarcas Australia
Despite the closure of the Servera family workshop, there are a number of other traditional shoe manufacturers in Menorca who have been making these shoes for some time. They also hold the authentic ‘Avarca de Menorca’ certification.
One of these is Mónica Menorca run by the Juanede Marqués family. This has been a family business on Menorca that has been passionately making avarcas since 1926; and where we here at Avarcas Australia source our beautiful shoes from.
While there are a number of brands promoting this shoe, it’s important to look for the certification to ensure you are getting the quality product and supporting a small island shoe manufacturing industry that dates back centuries.
We think avarcas are the perfect match for our Australian climate and love working with our friends across the oceans to bring you the very best and latest styles.
Ode to Avarcas
Together we have walked the luminous fields of the island
and tread upon the placid beaches with seaweed and waves.
We have tasted the salt left on the rocks by the northern winds
and climbed steep rocky hills.
We have swum in the stifling heat of August nights
and danced with the wind on southern beaches.
We have been merry amongst the thistles and the bramble bush
this sky now full of autumn grey carries us to the clouded chill.
We have sown with memories the summer tracks
and set free solitary haikus around the wood.
Franciscan, modest, leather and car tyre
with you I have witnessed the ancestral places
Where Menorca’s heart beats
and I have felt in me,
full of joy and pride,
that my homeland was born.
With you I have been so happy,
that now I owe you a poem of love,
my dear Arvaca sandals.