Six days in mallorca
Mail on Sunday, 2009
It's hard to explain why visiting a writer's home is exciting, but literary pilgrimages are very much my thing and I've made many a detour to pay homage. Mind you, thousands get excited following the Hollywood star trail, whilst a visit to Graceland is a must, both for true lovers of Elvis and the merely curious. Even sports lovers gain a thrill rubber-necking at the tall gates of football stars. So perhaps it's not so strange that I should travel to the jewel-like island of Mallorca for the first time, on the trail of not one writer but two. Oh, and a genius of a composer as well.
It's all very well thinking of Mallorca as a sun-and-sangria holiday destination, but if your imagination hasn't ever moved beyond the high-rise resorts of Magaluf and the rest – well, you should really think again. Because this Balearic island is so much more than that. We escaped for a six night break – and quickly discovered worlds which I can sum up as the three high Cs: City life, Country pleasures and Culture.
Naturally the holiday starts in old Palma – a relatively small area of narrow streets, lovely shops, good restaurants and cafes, and plenty of atmosphere. We'd taken a horribly early flight from Bristol and so by mid-morning were ready to sample the famous Mallorcan speciality, Ensaimadas. This must-try is a large curl of feather-light pastry topped with icing sugar and is as utterly delicious as it is fattening. We were lucky to find one of Palma's most famous Ensaimada-makers, Miquel Pujol creating them in his old bakery, and were amazed at how like his delicious (oh-so-fattening) confections he has grown to look .....
Well fortified we set off to explore the huge, bulky, medieval Cathedral, where light from the vast, vivid rose window illuminated the walls in a blaze of colour. It contains two bizarre examples of modern art, totally out of keeping, but they failed to detract from the powerful whole. Another beautiful church is the Basilica Saint Francisco (don't miss the cloisters) but the truth is, you can spend a whole day in Palma just exploring narrow streets, admiring ancient buildings as well as examples of the early twentieth century 'modern' (neo-Art nouveau) style, wandering through art galleries (too many to mention, and we have to go back because we had no time for this, our favourite pursuit), or just people-watching at pavement restaurants. The streets are full of human 'statues.' If you're lucky enough to stay in hotel as beautiful as the Palacio Ca Sa Galesa (the city is full of elegant private homes now turned into stunning small hotels) you also want time to relax. From the hotel roof garden we could see the Cathedral as well as the Bay of Palma. Perfection.
It was time to venture into the countryside so, after just two nights in this beautiful city we picked up a rental car and headed for Soller, which nestles in a valley of the Tramuntana mountains. With more time to spare we might have taken the famous old railway. Soller is an enchanting little town which people use as a centre for hiking in the olive and citrus groves for which the region is famous. The picturesque main square invites you to fritter time away with local white wine and beer, and our hotel couldn't have been better situated: right there in the square. The Hotel La Vila is a little art nouveau gem (painted ceilings and walls), but its simple rooms keep the price down whilst the food (cooked by an Italian chef) is excellent. At the back is a shady garden, overlooked by the quietest rooms. La Vila is a perfect base for exploring the town, and the countryside beyond.
Armed with an essential guide book (Walk & Eat in Mallorca and Landscapes of Mallorca, are both by British resident Val Green and indispensable) we set off on the Biniaraix and Fornalutx walk. This is about 7km and takes you through olive groves (fairly steeply at times) up and around and finally down an ancient stone-stepped path to the pretty village of Fornalutx, where flowers spill over pavements and you can stop for a jolly good lunch, before continuing the circle back to Soller. In the Spring, we were told, the whole valley is heady with the scent of orange blossom – and the fruit from this aptly named Golden Valley is said to be the best on the island.
In Soller itself we wouldn't have missed the new art museum 'Can Prunera' : a good, small collection of modern masterpieces houses in one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau mansions I have ever seen. Nor sampling the fragrant olive oil at Ca'n Det, where the same family has been pressing olives for 300 years. Nor the treat of gorging on divine locally-made ice-cream at 'Fet a Soller.' But most indulgent of all was lunch at El Faro at the Port of Soller, reached by the quaint old tram which ferries people to and from Soller's very own seaside. High, high above the glittering blue Mediterranean we enjoyed a Sunday lunch I shall never forget: the freshest prawns and hake, accompanied by crisp local white wine.
The roads in this part of the island are winding and beautiful, and the short journey to Deya did not disappoint. We were booked for two nights at La Residencia, the famous hotel once owned by Sir Richard Branson and now a very independent part of the Orient Express chain. I could write reams; enough to say it's a wonderful place which makes you feel as glamorous as your surroundings. And just along the road is the place I was longing to see – the house built in 1932 by one of the twentieth century's finest poets, Robert Graves.
After watching a short film about his life you can explore the house and garden in your own time– and it's as if he and his wife Beryl had just popped down to the cove for a swim. The laundry lies folded in its basket in the hall and the desks are littered with books and pens. The top floor is a now museum dedicated to Graves' prolific career, and the whole place is romantic and atmospheric. I was thrilled to be there at last. Later we made the necessary pilgrimage to the church at the top of the village where Graves was buried in 1985, and I placed a sprig of fragrant rosemary on his simple concrete slab.
Hard though it is to tear yourself away from pretty Deya, Valldemossa is just a short drive away – and its stone streets and exquisite houses are impossible to miss. It was to this higgledy-piggledy little town that the fragile composer Frederic Chopin came with his lover, the scandalously-married mother-of-two George Sand, who had taken that masculine name early in her writerly career. They spent just under three months lodging at the Carthusian Monastery at the end of 1838 – but on that brief stay rests a whole tourist industry.
No matter that their time in Valldemossa was miserable because the locals did much care for them and anyway, their relationship was in trouble. Chopin still wrote some great works there and next year (2010) is his bi-centenary, which means that that the yearly August Chopin Festival is gearing up for hundreds of visitors. At the Monastery you can see the rooms where Chopin and Sand (and her two children) lodged, now set up as fascinating museums where you can even stretch out a delicate finger to touch the wood of Chopin's own piano. Mind you, it took Mallorcans a long while to forgive George Sand for her book, 'Winter in Mallorca' where she takes out her frustration and sadness at a failing love affair on the poor old island people – branding them savages and thieves. Which, as Robert Graves himself wrote, they were not, even then. And he knew, because he lived there for most of his adult life. Next year Mallorca will also host the 10th International Robert Graves conference.
On our last night I sat on our terrace at La Residencia, reading Robert Graves love poems by candlelight as the Autumn sun disappeared behind the black shape of the mountain and the moon and stars took over the sky. At the very end of October it was still warm and a great sense of peace pervaded evening air scented by lavender and thyme. I really didn't want to go home; 'Six days is ridiculously too short a time', I complained. 'Well, we'll be sure to come back' said Robin, 'After all, there's the whole of the rest of the island to explore.' The promise – as well as the prospect of a fine dinner at 'LaRes' - cheered me. And if you don't leave Mallorca thoroughly cheered by its beauty, as well as its food, drink and friendliness, the only conclusion must be that you stayed in one of those arid high-rise resorts, instead of going in search of the island's true soul.