Balearic beauty: The enduring charm of Mallorca
A glorious villa, an island's worth of majestic views, plentiful sunshine... Just make sure you can handle Mallorca's hairpin bends...
Saturday 11 June 2011
As soon as I saw the villa, I didn't want to leave it. The drive, it's true, was deterrent enough: up a track, and then another track, and then down again and then up another track, which seemed, in the dark, to be barely wider than the car. By the time I got through the first gate, and the second gate, and safely past the sheep which seemed intent on throwing themselves under the wheels, I was very, very pleased to be there. No one could accuse this farmhouse of not being remote.
Even in the dark, C'an Picassa was gorgeous: a pretty stone building tucked away among pine trees, with a large terrace studded with pot plants. Inside, it felt comforting and solid. There were beams set into the walls supporting the terracotta ceiling. There were huge wooden chests and old rocking chairs and furniture of the type normally described as "rustic". There were ancient black-and-white photos of the family who lived and farmed here, clearly for some time. There was strip lighting in the kitchen: a reminder that this isn't just a bijou spot for tourists, but a Mallorcan home. And there were comfortable beds. Maybe it was the drive, or maybe it was the size of the Carrefour at Palma, which made getting in a few groceries a near-Olympic challenge, or maybe it was just the quiet. Whatever it was, that night I slept the sleep of the not-quite-but-almost dead.
When I woke, it was to a world of peace and beauty and quite remarkable stillness. All that climbing had taken me up to a clearing in a forest, a clearing that offered views of wooded hills all around, of fields dotted with sheep and, most spectacularly, an unbroken vista of mountains stretching out to the distance, a mass of white houses that must, I thought, be Pollença, and a valley. This was the view from the pool and I could have stayed there all week.
In the garden, which was lush and green even though it was the end of summer, there were palm trees, fig trees and cacti. On the terrace there were pots of basil and rosemary, and cascading down the front of the house was a mass of pink bougainvillea. All of this spoke of the climate – sun-drenched, softened by rain – that has made Mallorca a magnet for writers, artists and poets and, less glamorously, a lot of British tourists. There's something about the light, and the way it reflects on the leaves, to make you think that there are more shades of green than you ever dreamt of, and to make you wish you could paint or write poems.
I can't do either, but I'm very, very good at lying on a sun-lounger and drinking in sunshine, as if it was nectar, or at least a nice glass of rosé, and gazing out at mountains covered in pine trees, and looking at the changing shapes of the shadows as the sun sinks and sets. After a day of this, I felt almost ready to move. Nothing too dramatic, and certainly not one of the epic walks or bike rides undertaken, in the considerable heat, by the brave be-rucksacked souls you seem to see everywhere in Mallorca (and for whom the rewards, must be enormous, particularly when the island is awash with flowers). Just a little jaunt, by car, to the nearest town.
Hovering at the point where the Serra de Tramuntana gives way to coastal flatland, Pollença was founded in the 13th century, which was probably the most exciting time in Mallorca's rather unexciting history. It was then, before the Spanish looked west to the Americas, that it was a prosperous trading post. After that, in spite of frequent attacks by pirates, including one on Pollença in 1550, which is still remembered with a big festival and re-enacted street battles, it settled into the sleepy parochialism of a hierarchical Catholic society, which is how it stayed until mass tourism hit, largely on the south coast, 40-odd years ago.
Even here in the north, and in towns like Pollença, which look as though they haven't changed for centuries, you hear a lot of English voices. In the pretty square at the foot of what appears to be the town's main attraction, a stone stairway called the Via Crucis, I was surrounded by them. They largely belonged to what a friend once described as "the maturer tourist", which was just fine by me.
Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, and only mad Englishwomen climb the 365 steps up the Via Crucis to a little chapel housing a 13th-century statue and some truly awful religious paintings in which Christ appears to be wearing an A-line skirt. The views, however, down to the town, and, if you took a little detour to the side of the chapel, out to the mountains and the sea, were gorgeous. Even more gorgeous was the squid ink risotto I had in Il Giardino, an Italian restaurant in the main square. I know you should really try the local delicacies first, but the restaurant came with a recommendation and it deserved it.
I didn't drink, which was probably just as well. Driving in Mallorca is, as the Rough Guide says, "stimulating". I'd already managed to take a wrong turn on the way to the main road from the villa, and ended up by a padlocked gate. Luckily, a man let me in to turn the car round, but the next time I did it, it was dark and the gate, in spite of my wild pressing of buzzers, remained firmly locked. Reversing in the pitch black down an extremely narrow track, edged on one side with rocks, and on the other with a serious drop, is quite as much stimulation as most of us need.
At Cap de Formentor, the peninsula just up the road from Pollença, Mallorca's landscape is seen at its most dramatic. At the cape itself, there are no houses, no villas, no buildings of any kind – just towering cliffs, jutting headland and a sparkling, amethyst sea. You can gaze out over the cliffs and fight the feeling you get a lot in Mallorca; a kind of mesmerised vertigo where you can't help wondering what it would be like to throw yourself over. It is, however, a lot more fun to amble gently in and swim in it.
Driving on a few miles, and zig-zagging down the usual hairpin bends, I hit Formentor beach, where I did just that. It's surprisingly narrow, and hardly deserted, but it's also very pretty: fringed with pine trees and offering views to the other side of the bay and the mountains. The pine trees offer shade if you need it, but you can also, as on most beaches in Mallorca, rent sun loungers and parasols at rates that don't feel like a rip-off. If I'd studied the guide book properly, I'd have rounded off the day with cocktails (maybe non-alcoholic ones) at the Hotel Formentor, where Charlie Chaplin and F Scott Fitzgerald used to hang out. Unfortunately, I hadn't.
After another day in the peace and stillness of my mountain paradise, I was ready for more. I was ready, in fact, for Deià. I'd heard enough about this place of pilgrimage for poets and wannabe poets to think it could only disappoint. It didn't. The drive, as always, added an extra adrenalin edge, and an extra flood of relief when the car was parked. As soon as I started wandering down little alleyways, lined with honey-coloured stone houses, and gardens bursting with jasmine, lime trees and morning glory, I was hit by the atmosphere. It has something to do with being surrounded, on all sides, by such high mountains, and yet being close to the sea. But not, it turned out, that close. Seeing a sign to the beach, I followed it. By the time I reached the tiny, rocky (and very beautiful) cove, 55 minutes of my two hours of parking had passed. I just had time to wolf down coffee and almond cake at the café overlooking the cove before charging back up the hill to beat the traffic wardens. One can only assume that for former resident Robert Graves, and those who came to pay court to him, things were rather less stressful.
In the churchyard at the top of the village, which offers spectacular views of the countryside around, there's his grave: a simple stone slab inscribed with his name, his dates, and the simple word "poeta". A short drive down the road, there's his house. A very good little film in an outhouse gives an introduction to the man who ran away from England in 1929 with his lover, Laura Riding, and who came, on the advice of Gertrude Stein, to Mallorca. Fantastically prolific, fantastically popular, fantastically louche and, if the autobiographical extracts in the film are anything to go by, fantastically pompous,
he appears to have attracted vast numbers of visiting writers and artists. Among those who visited him in Deià were Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Ava Gardner, Gabriel García Márquez, Alan Sillitoe and Kingsley Amis.
Graves built Canellun, his Mallorcan "paradise", in 1932. I'm no great fan of his poetry, but you can't fault him on interior design. The house is just as it was when he lived in it, and it's a model of vintage simplicity; all whitewashed walls, wooden furniture and tastefully faded books. There's an interesting exhibition of books, photos, contracts and letters, which includes him reciting poems in a Cholmondley-Warner voice, and from each of the rooms there are fabulous views out to the hills, and the sea.
A few miles down the (very windy) road, is another pretty hill-town, Valldemossa. The key attraction here is the monastery, which started off as a royal palace, built in the 14th century by an asthmatic king. In 1399, it was given to Carthusian monks from Tarragona, who seem to have enjoyed its amenities and its scale. Certainly, the cells are more penthouse suite than penitential. The prior's cell, for example, has a huge library of medieval books, a dining room, a bedroom, an "audience chamber", and a stunning garden. There's one cell that's a little more modest, kitted out with monkish things and even a waxwork monk, and then two that are packed with curios – manuscripts, letters, a piano – relating to their most famous occupants.
These were George Sand, the French aristocrat and writer who stayed at Valldemossa from 1838-39, and her lover, the pianist and composer Frederic Chopin. In her memoir, A Winter in Majorca, Sand describes the views from the monastery. "It is," she says, "a surpassing picture, framed in the foreground by dark, pine-covered crags; beyond that by the sharply outlined profiles of mountains set off by superb trees; and in the background by the rounded humps of hills, which the setting sun gilds with the warmest shades". And it is.
More hairpin bends (of the kind that have you counting out rosaries and yelling out Hail Marys) take you down to Port de Valldemossa, where there's nothing except a few houses and a craggy cove. The soft evening light on the beach made the drive worthwhile. So did the lobster paella at the restaurant next to it.
On my last day at the mountain retreat, I made a brief trip to the nearest resort, Port de Pollença. It's certainly no stranger to the tourist, with a spattering of pubs with names like "The Beer House", cafes doing English breakfasts and a lot of red-faced Brits. But it's also very pretty, surrounded by mountains and with a picturesque marina and a long golden beach.
I didn't want to leave. I really didn't want to leave. I cushioned the blow – after packing up and driving to Palma, where I had the best part of a day to kill before the evening flight – with some gentle sightseeing. Next to the main station in Palma there's a station from another era. In it, there are charming little wooden trains, which make you think of The Railway Children, or perhaps Agatha Christie.
The railway was built in 1911, to bring fruit to Palma. Now it's an excellent way to see the mountains and valleys of the Serra de Tramuntana. After clanking through the outskirts of Palma, it takes you out to flat farmland and olive groves, through a town called Bunyola, past craggy mountain peaks and orange groves to the town of Sóller. I just had time for a saunter round the town, whose charming square was dominated by a bustling market, before getting the train back.
I only had a few hours for Palma, which wasn't nearly enough. It was a great shame that I picked for a late-lunch Plaça Major, the main square, which was once the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, and continues the great tradition of torture with some truly terrible tapas. But it's very pleasant just to wander down Palma's pretty streets, and gaze up at the little, wrought iron balconies, and on to the magnificent cathedral (which, since it was closed, I couldn't visit). Beyond the cathedral, there's a nice little park. Beyond the park, there's the harbour, and the sea.
That's the thing with Mallorca. Almost anywhere you go, there's a glimpse of green and there's the sea. It's very pretty, and very peaceful, and if you could hire a chauffeur, it would be even better.
Travel essentials: Mallorca
* Palma is well served from a range of UK airports by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com) and Monarch (08719 40 50 40; flymonarch.com).
* Car hire starts at £13 per day with rhinocarhire.com.
* Mallorca Farmhouses (0845 800 8080; mallorca.co.uk) offers an extensive portfolio of properties, all with maid service, starter pack and private pool. Rental of C'an Picassa, which sleeps six, ranges from £725 to £3,188 per week. Properties can also be booked to include car hire, while a private chef service is also available.
* Balearic Islands Tourist Office: 00 34 902 102 365; illesbalears.es
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