A landscape like this deserves a good write-up

George Sand hated Mallorca. Jeremy Atiyah follows in her footsteps and wonders what the 19th-century author was complaining about

After visiting Mallorca with her lover, Frederic Chopin, in 1838-39, George Sand returned to France to compose one of the most malicious travel memoirs ever written. "Travellers habitually enlarge on the good fortune of the southern races," she scoffed, in A Winter in Majorca. "This is an error ... from which I am now safely delivered." She went on to describe the people of Mallorca - at length - as barbarians, thieves, hypocrites, cowards, monkeys and Polynesian savages. The typical Mallorcan peasant, she declared, led a "poor, witless existence". His prayer was a "senseless formula" and his songs expressed "that bleak melancholy which overwhelms him in spite of himself".

After visiting Mallorca with her lover, Frederic Chopin, in 1838-39, George Sand returned to France to compose one of the most malicious travel memoirs ever written. "Travellers habitually enlarge on the good fortune of the southern races," she scoffed, in A Winter in Majorca. "This is an error ... from which I am now safely delivered." She went on to describe the people of Mallorca - at length - as barbarians, thieves, hypocrites, cowards, monkeys and Polynesian savages. The typical Mallorcan peasant, she declared, led a "poor, witless existence". His prayer was a "senseless formula" and his songs expressed "that bleak melancholy which overwhelms him in spite of himself".

Given their climate, they had the potential to keep "the whole of France supplied with their exquisite oranges", but thanks to their "superb negligence", the trade remained scant. The local wheat was excellent, but the bread was "disgusting". The same went for the olives, which, "thanks to their Moorish inheritance", the Mallorcans knew how to cultivate. But where the oil thus produced should have been the finest in the world, it was in fact so "rancid and nauseating" that "every house, man and carriage in the island, and the very air of the fields, is saturated with its stench".

What can account for such bitterness? Sand was writing in an age before lager louts had been invented. Sand had had the fortune to stay in the most picturesque part of the island, in villages of pink stone, amid ancient terraced plantations of citrus and olive, by mountains where rugged peaks soared straight out of the Mediterranean. What was she complaining about? I am on my way to investigate.

Where Sand had to cross the island by coach, on wild paths beset by "ravines, torrents, swamps, quickset hedges and ditches", I have a train to assist me. Not that anything about this line is particularly hi-tech: the olive oil and citrus trade with Marseille paid for it, I am told, nearly 100 years ago. Palma and Soller are only 20 miles apart, but in old wooden carriages that creak and clank through the hills, the journey takes an hour.

From Soller, I walk across the valley to my hotel. Even in torrential rain, I am impressed. Grand old mansions dot the slopes. And the village of Fornalutx, when I get there, is built of pinkish-red stones, the same hue as the crags surround it. Ancient terraces, grazed by goats, climb up to craggy peaks. I check in at an immaculate little hotel called C'an Reus, where the exquisite lisp of the English owner makes me proud to be her compatriot. I dine on suckling pig and rabbit with onions and a stew of cabbage, bread and garlic. How to improve on this?

"Perfect weather for walking," says the lady with the lisp, the next morning, as I stare up from the terrace behind my hotel at cliffs that disappear into black clouds. She is right. My plan is to spend a couple of days trekking along this coast. And I soon find myself in the most ancient olive groves I have ever seen, containing trees that date back a thousand years, to the long peace of the Moorish occupation. Sand likened these trees to "a horde of strange fantastic monsters", including dragons, wrestlers, centaurs, dwarfs and dancing satyrs. Goats bleat at me from on high. I chew on a carob pod tasting of soap and cheese as I go.

The trail is not quite empty, but neither is it swarming with drunken escapees from Magaluf. I pass a handful of fellow hikers as I wind down through the gorgeous valley of Balitx. One of the old farmsteads catches my eye: an ancient square tower rising above the groves, beside a single palm tree. Inside, the owner's olive press may be covered in cobwebs and his agricultural implements may be rusting, but his orange juice - of which he now squeezes me a glass - is the fuel I need to carry me out of the valley. On reaching the pass, I am surprised by the sight of a vast sea and the roar of distant waves.

That rain, mind you, has not gone away: I assume this is the same rain that Sand found so infuriating 166 years ago. As darkness falls, under renewed torrents, I catch a taxi to my next hotel, in Valldemossa.

According to the owner, the Hotel Valldemossa exists not to make money but to enable the world to appreciate the beauty of its location. The next morning, I can almost believe it: I open the curtains to find that I am perched on an outcrop in the middle of a green valley, surrounded by terraces and overlooked by a grand old Carthusian Monastery. That monastery, the Real Cartuja de Jesus de Nazaret, is the building where Sand, Chopin and her two children, took lodgings in 1838.

They lived in a monastery? Perhaps I can see why the Mallorcans didn't take to this trouser-wearing, cigarette-smoking, coffee-drinking 34-year-old French intellectual, living with her two godless children and a foppish, sickly, long-fingered musician who always wore his overcoat buttoned up to the chin. But, in a strange tribute to their persecutor, the Mallorcans don't hesitate to peddle Sand's book. It is on sale all over Valldemossa.

Or is this more in honour of Chopin than of Sand? The melancholy musician, after all, described Valldemossa as the most beautiful place in the world. "Here I am in the midst of palms and cedars and cactuses and olives and lemons and aloes and figs and pomegranates," he enthused, in a letter to Paris. "The sky is turquoise blue, the sea is azure, the mountains are emerald green ... all day long the sun shines and it is warm, and everybody wears summer clothes."

Even Sand was willing to concede the natural charms of the island, calling it a "painter's Eldorado". But she could not accept that Chopin genuinely liked Mallorca. Given his "detestation of the sordid", he "naturally enough took a violent dislike to the island". And when, in spite of their difficulties in finding a suitable piano, he composed the beautiful "Raindrop Prelude", Sand heard in it the sound not only of "raindrops beating on the echoing roof-tiles" but also of "tears from heaven, beating on his heart".

I approach the monastery on foot, accompanied by coach-loads of German tourists in plastic macs. We are looking for the cell where Sand and Chopin resided; a cell from which the monks had only just been expelled. Though "cell", I discover, is a misnomer. Their former lodgings turn out to comprise three rooms under vaulted ceilings, fronted by a large terrace, decorated with trees, flowers and festoons of creeper. The views, over groves, down to the distant sea, are glorious.

Not that George Sand was satisfied. She liked the location. But although most of the monks had been expelled a couple of years before, one remained as a constant irritation: "a wild animal", whose brain had "given way, under the combined assaults of wine and religious enthusiasm". His approach "was heralded from afar by broken exclamations and the beat of his staff on the flagstones".

At least it was possible to avoid him. What was impossible to avoid was the weather. Fog hung over the landscape like a "damp shroud", while icy winds moaned through the long corridors. Maybe I can see what she meant. I am not suffering from the cold, but this rain is persistent. On my last afternoon, I walk along the coast west from Soller to Deia. Again, I am surprised by glimpses of the sea crashing on the cliffs below. On my left, I begin to get dark glimpses of Mount Teix, buried in clouds; for the poet Robert Graves, Deia's most famous resident, Teix was a numinous place, haunted by ancient spirits.

These days, real estate in Deia is bought by film stars rather than poets. But 100 years ago, virtually this whole coast - one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean - was owned by Archduke Ludvig Salvador of Austria, a relative of the Habsburg emperor. Like Graves after him, the Archduke fell in love with the island and its people. He spent much of his life here, up to his death in 1915, working on a seven-volume encyclopaedia of its natural history. He even owned a hostel near Deia, where passers-by could stay without payment. His special secret was a local peasant girl, Catalina Homar, whom he had taken to be a manager of his estates - and his lover.

Years after she died, the Archduke wrote a small book, "thickly bedewed with tears", celebrating her generosity, her success in cultivating grapes (her wines won prizes in Paris and Chicago), her love of animals and nature, and her universal goodness. When the Empress of Austria visited Mallorca, it was said, even she fell for the island girl's charms.

For the Archduke, the instinctive hospitality of the Mallorcans was unique. "I do not exaggerate a bit," he wrote, "when I say that any foreigner can travel across the whole island without ever needing to stay at a hotel. It is enough to knock on the door of the first house that he finds on the road, be it a luxurious mansion of a Spanish nobleman, or the humble cottage of a mountain peasant." This custom, he believed, was a consequence of the intense love Mallorcans felt for their land. To be separated from their land would cause them to fade away and die.

Mount Teix, behind me, has vanished in the fog. I am due to spend tonight at one of the Archduke's old properties, the four-star Sa Pedrissa Hotel, just outside Deia. From its rustic gardens, I can look down over distant headlands in the twilight. As the sea fades to black, I think of poor Sand, whose hope in coming to Mallorca had been to nurse her sickly son, Maurice, back to health.

The Mallorcans, it seemed, had been in denial about their own climate. "Until the very end of the two months of downpour which we were obliged to endure," Sand wrote, furiously, "they insisted that it never rained in Majorca." In the event, the weather was so bad that a new disaster struck: Chopin's incipient consumption began to bite. In his room in the old stone monastery, three doctors called on him. "The first one told me I should die," he joked, grimly; "the second that I was dying, and the third that I was dead already." For Sand, her Mallorcan winter could not get much worse than this.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Jeremy Atiyah travelled to Mallorca with Inntravel (01653 617906 www.inntravel.co.uk). Its Mountains & Villages of Mallorca independent walk costs from £788 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Palma, transfers, seven nights b&b with one dinner and two picnics, luggage transfers, walking maps and notes.

The Tren de Soller (00 34 971 630301; www.sollernet.com/trendesoller) operates between Soller and Palma, stopping at Bunyola, Caubet, Santa Maria and Son Sardina from 8am until 7.30pm, daily, throughout the summer. One-way tickets cost €6.50 (£4.60) and return fares cost €11 (£7.80).

Where to eat

Ca N'Antuna restaurant, Fornalutx (00 34 971 633 068); Can Reus Hotel, Fornalutx (00 34 971 631 174); Valldemossa Hotel, Valldemossa (00 34 971 612 626); Sa Pedrissa Hotel, Deia (00 34 971 639 111).

Further information

Spanish Tourist Board (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info) and www.newsmallorca.com.

One hundred years on the tourist trail

Mallorca marks the centenary this year of the creation of its tourist board with a special programme of activities.

The main event is the Mallorca Tourist Board Centenary exhibition at the La Lonja Exhibition Centre in Palma (00 34 971 711 705). A visual record of 100 years of tourism on the island, it opens from 19 August for two months. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am-2pm, 5pm-9pm, and Sunday afternoons, closed Mondays. Admission free.

Another exhibition featuring more than 100 works of art donated to the Mallorcan tourist board over the past century will be on display at the Es Baluard Museum in Palma (00 34 971 908200; www.esbaluard.org) until May. The gallery's debut exhibition, it is based around nine themes, including Mediterranean landscapes. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-8pm, closed Mondays. Admission free.

Both exhibitions are linked to the Mallorca Enchanted photographic showcase (020-7201 0753; www.mallorcaenchanted.com), which will tour the UK until December. This month, the exhibition is in Warrington. Admission free.

Back on the island, a series of events will be held under the banner "A Winter in Mallorca" (00 34 971 72 53 96; www.illesbalears.es) from October to December, including 180 concerts by world-renowned soloists, chamber orchestras, choirs and jazz groups, and a special Christmas programme.

For further information contact the Mallorcan Tourist board (00 34 971 725 396; www.newsmallorca.com).

Justin Talbot

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