Travel: Literary breaks - Prelude with a hundred pigs

In 1838 Chopin, his lover and a herd of farm animals arrived in Mallorca. Katharine Hourston set out to follow in their footsteps
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The Independent Culture
I am at Palma among palms, cedars, cactuses, olive trees, oranges, lemons, aloes, figs, pomegranates; the sky is like turquoise, the sea like emeralds, the air as in heaven." That is how Frederic Chopin described his arrival in Mallorca to his friend Fontana. On 8 November 1838, Chopin, his lover Aurore Dupin (better known as the novelist George Sand), her two children, and some 100 pigs made the crossing from Barcelona. Soon after sunrise, they were rewarded as ochre ramparts, a spireless cathedral, the fortress-like Almudaina Palace and a row of bone-white windmills loomed into view: Palma.

Although they were charmed by Palma, it was to the hills beyond, and tranquillity, that Sand and Chopin moved after a week in the capital. I decided to follow their trail. They set up home in Son Vent (Wind House), a villa in Establiments, in the foothills of the Serra de Tramuntana. The range stretches the length of Mallorca's north-west coast. It encapsulates the island's variety and enchantment, from the delightful fishing village of Sant Elm and the small island nature reserve of Illa Dragonera in the west, to the rugged outcrop of the Cap de Formentor and the towns of Pollenca and Alcudia, each endowed with a golden bay, in the east.

Like Sand and Chopin, I enjoyed walking in countryside so neatly terraced that it looked like a tidy orchard, punctuated only by charming, ramshackle cottages as splendidly roofed as Florence's palaces. On one such outing, three weeks into their stay, Chopin over-exerted himself, and provoked consumption. The rains descended, the villa became uninhabitable and, to top it all, they found themselves rudely evicted by their landlord.

Homeless, and with Chopin desperately ill (one doctor even pronounced him dead), they moved to the Carthusian monastery at Valldemosa, further into the Tramuntana Mountains. Both Sand and Chopin saw it as a romantic idyll. Sand was later to recount: "Our garden is strewn with oranges and lemons: the trees are cracking beneath their burden... vast cloisters of the most beautiful architecture, a delightful church, a cemetery.... You see that I shall not lack poetry and solitude."

I enjoyed discovering for myself the lovers' abode at the Real Cartuja de Jesus de Nazaret but, maddeningly for winter visitors, it closes for winter from tomorrow. There is also a municipal museum, and the Palace of King Sancho, which houses works by Miro, Picasso, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. If you're keen on experiencing the realities of monastic life for yourself, try renting a cell in the nearby Ermita de Nostra Senyora de Puig, outside Pollenca, or the Monestir de Lluc, both in the east of the Tramuntana range.

In her notorious account, A Winter in Mallorca (1841), George Sand, embittered in her new role as nursemaid and platonic companion, had nothing complimentary to say. She nicknamed Mallorca "Monkey Island" after the "thieves, monkeys, and Polynesian savages, who cheat, extort, and lie". The islanders, by nature cautious, were affronted by her wearing trousers, smoking cigars, having an illicit lover, and not attending Mass. True, the weather was appalling; and Chopin was sick. Even worse, he had no decent piano at hand.

Yet for all her curt comments, Sand had a fairly productive time here. She completed Spiridion, gave the children lessons, and explored the surrounding area. She particularly enjoyed walks to La Granja, a country house that can still be visited, and the surrounding villages. Today numerous, well marked paths criss-cross the mountains here, and make walking a delight, whatever your level.

I doubt that Chopin had much of a chance for such exertions, but he recovered enough to compose several works here (Preludes, Op 28; the Scherzo in C minor; and Polonaise in C minor). Try to catch a concert at the Caves of Drach, where musicians drift in boats on the ghostly lake, or even at the Pollenca International Festival, which takes place in August.

The couple left "Monkey Island" on 13 February 1839, barely a week after Chopin's piano arrived. His health survived, after a fashion, but their relationship was never the same again.

On the face of it, their stay here was a disaster, yet while able to do so, they had revelled in Mallorca's wild beauty. And today the islanders are proud of the Sand/Chopin connection. With a sense of perverse celebration, A Winter in Mallorca can be found for sale all over the island - despite its less-than-enthusiastic response to Mallorca.

Katharine Hourston paid pounds 108 return, travelling with easyJet (0990 292929) from Luton.

The Spanish Tourist Office in London offers information on 0171-486 8077, 9am - 4.30pm. The brochure order line is 0891 669920, a premium-rate number.

The Real Cartuja de Jesus de Nazaret is open March-October, Monday-Saturday, 9.30am - 1pm, 3-6pm. Entrance 1,000 pesetas.

Package tour operators covering the Tramuntana area include Alternative Mallorca (0113-278 6862), Exodus (0181-675 5550) and Globespan (0131-441 1388)