I arrived at night at Mallorca’s Palma airport, one of the busiest in Europe, and was intrigued 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 at the arrival gate. “But they keep to themselves, they don’t mingle much”, she added.
The next morning, opening my window in her small but well-appointed apartment by the beach, I was blinded by the intensity of the sun shining over a blue Mediterranean, 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 a coastline (345 miles) of sandy beaches, coves and bays in the middle of the Mediterranean. Called ‘the island of calm’, because wind loses force when it meets imposing Sierra de Tramuntana, Mallorca is blessed with average annual temperatures ranging from 15 to 33 C (59 to 90F) and has and year-round population of 860,000 (many more in the summer months), most working in the tourism or construction industries. Palma, the capital and the largest city on the island, has 400,000 inhabitants; the rest of the people are spread in many villages around.
Driving with Margot, it became clear that Mallorca caters to an upscale crowd, not the hoi polloy: 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 I saw tall buildings); the overall impression was one of well-kept proportions and discreet elegance, with lots of green everywhere.
We had breakfast with fresh local specialties (my friend eats only fresh food, which may explain why I lost weight while there) in one of the few open restaurants in 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 for the winter, the mega yachts with German and English flags looked empty, other than for few local workers washing them. The high-end boutiques nearby were all closed as well, but the nice weather had already attracted few blonde and tall people to the tables near us. They spoke German in that hush tone the super rich adopt when in public, almost hard to hear. “Come summer, this place will have more Germans than Berlin”, joked Margot. 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; each place has its own character”. And in the next few days I was going to be introduced to those places by an insider, how lucky of me!
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 many historic sites, palaces (the Spanish royal family summers in one of them) and monuments – with a modern zone with excellent hotels and services, broad avenues and upscale shopping. On top of it all sits the city’s Gothic cathedral, a massive structure of 7,000 m2 built on the site of a former mosque and completed in the 17th century. Palma’s culinary scene is famous, and some of its chefs are listed in the Michelin’s guide as “best in Europe”. Many interesting Art Nouveau buildings, churches, museums and art galleries add to the city’s 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 here and there, and many orange trees. We passed centuries-old stone villages built on steep hills, some facing the sea and offering gorgeous views. Small signs on the curvy and narrow roads pointed to hotels and restaurants, but nothing too flashy. “They must have very strict building codes 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 on 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 houses opening to charming back gardens.
Sóller sits elegantly in a valley with an abundance of orange and other citrus fruits trees – I never saw so many fruits in one single tree! The town is connected to Palma by a 2,900-metre tunnel carved on 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, and ever since a railway train drawn by an electric engine makes the journey between Palma and Sóller in 1 hour – before that the trip 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 miles) journey to the coast. The beach is in the bay itself, and in the summer boats take visitors to few 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 center 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, never leave. 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-color 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 art crafts, restaurants and bars. Few were open; we entered the one with a smiling German lady by the door and while Margot talked to her I took pictures from her back window, which overlooked the town’s red roofs. From there it was clear that everything had been built around a church tower at the top, all surrounded by olive and almond trees terraces sloping down the hill. I sent a picture to my daughter in London – it’s hard to imagine a more enchanting place.
Valldemossa may have been new to me, but it’s part of the Unesco World Heritage sites, its beauty already famous in Europe centuries ago. 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, 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 found that kind of ‘change’ in my pocket, I would have bought a property there, right on the spot! Maybe next time…
This quaint small town sits in the middle of a green hill of olive and almond trees that go 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 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, clear air. It all felt unreal, like being in a movie: the silence, the sun, the blue waters of the Mediterranean, so far away from it all – just heavenly.
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 leaving for the US, but that day most stores and restaurants were closed, due to the weather. We walked the empty downtown streets, taking shelter from the wind in two high-end boutiques – one owned by a friendly German lady, the other by a tall and 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 happening all the way to the top. “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 – and about 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, too expensive for them”.
When to go to Mallorca:
This Balearic island is pleasant year-round, but it gets crowded and more pricey in the summer months, July and August, when it attracts tourists from all over the world. Good alternatives are May and October, with nice temperatures and fewer people.