I arrived at night at Mallorca’s Palma airport, one of the busiest in Europe, and was intrigued right away by the amount of ads in German – not in Spanish, the language of the land.
“The Germans own Mallorca, they buy everything they can,” explained my French friend Margot, who has a vacation home there and was waiting for me at the arrival gate. “But they keep to themselves, they don’t mingle much,” she added.
Next morning, opening my bedroom window in my friend’s small but well-appointed apartment by the beach, I was blinded by the intensity of the sun over the Mediterranean, shining as in an explosion of light. “So this is what people come to Malloca for,” I thought.
Mallorca, or Majorca in Spanish, is the largest of the Balearic Islands, with 554 km of coastline (345 miles) of sandy beaches, coves and bays right in the middle of the Mediterranean. Called ‘the island of calm’, because the wind loses force when it meets the imposing Sierra de Tramuntana, Mallorca is blessed with average annual temperatures ranging from 15 to 33 C (59 to 90F) and has a year-round population of 860,000 that doubles in the summer months. Palma, the capital and the largest city, has 400,000 inhabitants; the rest of the population is spread between the many villages throughout the island.
Driving with Margot, it became clear that Mallorca caters to an upscale crowd: there were no neon signs, no major billboards on the roads, no MCDonalds or Burger Kings (or their European equivalents) in sight. The buildings were limited in height; only in Palma did I see tall buildings. The overall aesthetic was one of well-kept proportions and discreet elegance, with lots of green everywhere.
We had breakfast with fresh local specialties (my friend only eats fresh food – which may explain why I lost weight while there) – at one of the few restaurants still open in winter at the marina, near her place. Mallorca offers some of the best finger-food in the Mediterranean, and its cuisine – based on pork, fish and vegetables – is famously healthy.
The marina complex was mostly closed; the mega-yachts flying German and English flags looked empty, other than for a few local workers who were washing them. The high-end boutiques nearby were all closed, but the nice weather had already attracted a few tall and blonde people to the tables near us. They spoke German in that hushed tone that the super rich adopt when in public, almost hard to hear. “Come summer, this place will have more Germans than Berlin,” Margot joked. I believed her.
“Mallorca is big,” she explained, while telling me what we were eating. “It’s not only Palma, there’s a lot to see here. And each place has its own character.” In the next few days, I was going to be introduced to those places by an insider – what luck! What I saw left me totally smitten.
Palma de Mallorca
Palma stretches for 20 km around a magnificent bay with a busy port. The city combines a well-preserved old town with historic sites, palaces (the Spanish royal family summers in one of them) and monuments with a modern zone that boasts excellent hotels, services, avenues and upscale shopping. I liked Hotel Mama Palma de Mallorca, a 5-star hotel with a great location, but there are many types of accommodations all over Palma for every budget (book ahead in the summertime).
Palma has a lot going for it, not only great beaches. The greatest landmark is its Gothic cathedral, a massive structure of 7,000 m2 built on the site of a former mosque and completed in the 17th century. Once inside, one is left awestruck by the sheer dimensions of its nave, not to mention the rich ornaments and historic spots.
Palma’s culinary scene is also famous, and some of its celebrated chefs are listed in the Michelin’s guide as “best in Europe.” All over town, many Art Nouveau buildings, churches, museums and art galleries add to its charms, and even in the winter tourists and cruise ships keep coming.
The West Coast – Sóller, Valldemossa, Deià, Port d’Andratx
Leaving Palma towards the west of Mallorca is like entering life in a previous century: no big cities, no skyscrapers, no major highways, just stone farmhouses dotting the landscape – and many orange trees. We passed centuries-old stone villages built on steep hills, some of which faced the sea and offered gorgeous views. Small signs on the curvy and narrow roads pointed to hotels and restaurants, but nothing too flashy. “They must have a very strict building code here,” I pointed out to Margot, who was driving. “Yes, they do. You can’t change a window without approval.”
The first village we visited was Sóller. The sun was high in the sky by mid-day when we got there and we left our coats in the car to walk. Margot alluded to a place in town where she had eaten with her late husband, years before. “I still can’t believe he’s gone,” she confided, almost in tears.“Neither can I,” I replied, meaning every word. We walked holding each other’s arm in silence, hearing the sound of our boots on the cobblestones, passing by low-standing houses that opened to lush back gardens.
Sóller sits elegantly in a valley with an abundance of orange and other citrus fruit trees – I never saw so many fruits on a single tree! The town is connected to Palma by a 2,900-metre tunnel carved into the mountains of the Sierra de Tramuntana, a daring work that local skeptics of the time deemed impossible. It took 4 years to be finished, but in 1912 the 27 km journey became a reality; ever since then a railway train drawn by an electric engine makes the journey between Palma and Sóller in 1 hour, when before it could only be made by sea! Sóller is also linked to its sea port by a tram carrying passengers on a 5 km (3.1 mile) journey to the coast. The beach is on the bay itself, and in the summer, boats take visitors to nearby islands.
Once we reached Sóller main square, we found it busy with trucks and crews of people screaming at each other while moving heavy filming equipment. Easy to see why the place would be perfect for a period movie – things don’t seem to have changed there for a long time: quaint houses sit on each side of an old church next to the town hall, bars and restaurants with tables on the sidewalk face a central square with a monument. We found the place Margot was looking for, got a table and ordered coffee. I left her with her memories and just sat there, basking in the winter sun with eyes closed, suddenly overcome by a strong desire to stay there forever. Life couldn’t possibly get any better.
Had we stayed in Sóller, I’d have missed Valldemossa, a charming mountain town 400 m (1,637 feet) above sea level with only 2,000 inhabitants year round and well-preserved pink stone houses. We left the car in an almost-empty public parking lot and walked narrow streets filled with charming boutiques of local food and crafts, restaurants and bars, most closed for the winter. We entered one with a smiling German lady by the door, and while Margot talked to her I took pictures from her back window overlooking the town’s red roofs. From there it was clear that everything had been built around a church at the top, all surrounded by olive and almond tree terraces sloping down the hill. I sent a picture to my daughter in London.
Valldemossa may have been new to me, but it’s an Unesco World Heritage site, its beauty famous in Europe for centuries. Polish composer Frederic Chopin and his mistress George Sand lived there in 1839, while he recovered from tuberculosis (the high altitude and fresh air supposedly perform miracles). Archduke Louis of Austria bought properties around town, in the late 19th-century, and was a resident for long periods of time. Today’s A-list part-time residents include celebrities like actor Michael Douglas and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, tennis star Raphael Nadal, king Felipe and queen Letizia of Spain, actor Pierce Brosnan, model Claudia Schiffer, Sir Richard Branson and many others. Looking at the ads of a real-estate agency on main street, I didn’t see anything for less than 500,000 EUR ($566,000). And if I had that kind of ‘change’ to spare, I probably would have bought a property right on the spot! Maybe next time…
This quaint small town sits in the middle of a green hill of olive and almond trees going down all the way to the sea. We reached it at the end of a narrow mountain road so curvy that I got dizzy, but the trip was well-worth it: picturesque red houses, stone steps descending towards a sea cove, breathtaking views of the sea everywhere. A small hamlet town nearby – Llucalcari – some 85 m (278 feet) above the sea and accessible only by foot, is an idyllic image of Mallorca I will always keep in my mind. Tiny Deià, on the other hand, has many high-class hotels and starred Michelin restaurants. We stopped many times along the way to take pictures and to take in the fresh air. It all felt unreal, like being in a movie: the silence, the sun, the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Like in a book by Proust.
It was raining and windy when we went to Port d’Antratx, an old commercial fishing port considered one of the most beautiful sites in Mallorca. Margot wanted me to see it before I left for the US, but that day most stores and restaurants were closed, due to bad weather. We walked the empty downtown streets, taking shelter from the wind in two high-end boutiques – one owned by a talkative German lady, the other by a tall, blonde Scandinavian girl in her 20’s who clearly knew she was beautiful. On the port, the wind tossed the boats as if they were small toys. On the slopes surrounding the bay, construction was going on all the way to the top, and had not stopped for the rain. “I hope they don’t overbuild here,” said Margot, looking concerned. I agreed, and told her about a BBC program I had recently watched – Amazing Houses of the Mediterranean – showing a house in Port d’Andratx that had impressed me, a modern, all-glass structure belonging to an English couple. “I know,” she replied. “The Spanish cannot buy here, it’s too expensive for them.”