The walker in Mallorca
The sunshine might be fading, but winter proves to be a fine time for a walk on the Mallorcan wild side. Mick Webb steps out from the town of Sóller
Saturday 03 December 2005
A walking holiday through Mallorca's varied landscape had long been on my wish list, but a walking holiday in November hadn't. The guide books were ambivalent about the chances of Balearic sunshine at this time of year. However, undeterred, my partner and I looked out our dusty walking boots, packed swimming costumes and caught the plane to Palma for a long weekend in Sóller, on the island's north-west coast. A rain-filled grey sky greeted our arrival, along with local paper headlines announcing that a cold front had lowered the temperature by 10 degrees. Maybe we should have waited till spring after all. But an hour later, as we rattled, creaked and groaned our way up into the Tramuntana Mountains on the ancient narrow-gauge railway that links Palma and Sóller, patches of blue sky hinted at brighter things to come.
After an hour of geriatric but relaxing travel there was a fine view down into a wide valley filled with red-roofed buildings and almost completely encircled by an amphitheatre of mountains. This, after a couple of twisting hairpin bends, turned out to be our destination as well as the end of the line.
As a general rule of travelling, the nearest hotel to a railway terminus is best avoided - but that's not the case in Sóller. A mere stone's throw from the classy little station is the equally neat and tidy Hotel Guía, though our journey from one to the other was delayed, very pleasantly, by an exhibition in the station foyer featuring a series of prints by Miro and some stunning ceramics by Picasso. And it was free. The town's main square, La Plaça Consitucio was equally close at hand. The open-air terraces of its cafés and restaurants were deserted and rather sad at this time of year but there were two entertaining and playfully-decorated modernista façades belonging to the Church of Sant Bartomeu and, perhaps surprisingly, the Bank of Sóller. The architect was Joan Rubio, who studied under Gaudí and was clearly an assiduous pupil.
Even on a Saturday afternoon out of season, Sóller's unsuitability for 21st-century traffic was patently obvious as queues of cars built up in its narrow twisting streets. Traffic flow is further complicated by the tracks of the ancient tram which links Sóller with Port de Sóller. As the sun went down, we took a tram ride down to the sea, passing between gardens bright with startlingly-coloured bougainvillea and then enjoyed a gentle warm-up stroll around the port, set in a shapely bay. The Maritime Museum and most of the hotels and restaurants were closed, but on the evidence of those people who were around, I would guess that the main language of Port de Sóller is not Spanish or Catalan or Mallorquín but German.
Walking in earnest began the next day, after a wake-up whistle from the eight o'clock train to Palma. We found our way through the maze of streets flanked with miniature shops to the edge of town, crossed the not-very-busy bypass and set out along the Camí de Castelló, a path that leads to the village of Deià. For a couple of hours we strolled in warm, sunny weather along a well-marked track past olive groves, orange and lemon trees and smallholdings whose vegetable gardens were decorated with red peppers. We avoided the temptation of orange juice and cake at a country house called Can Prohom but unwisely decided to sample the ripe black olives, whose flavour, before curing, is bitter and quite disgusting.
The path meanders down to the coast. At the bottom of a narrow ravine is the Cala de Deià, a rocky inlet with a tiny beach. A scattering of young Mallorcans were sitting on the pebbles, texting away, while a group of elderly Germans were swimming in the lively waves. We would, of course, have joined them but lunch was calling so we climbed back up to picturesque Deià, clinging to the crags at the top of the ravine. This was the home of the writer Robert Graves, who was followed here by a host of artists, literati and glitterati. If Michael Douglas was lurking in one of the green-shuttered houses we failed to spot him - he owns property on the island. At the top of the village with its twee eateries we had an oil-free Spanish omelette and a glass of robust, local wine before retracing our steps back to Sóller. The rapidly advancing evening was filled with the scent of orange blossom and the huge wall of rock beyond the town was painted in glorious shades of orange by the setting sun.
The Deià walk was the hors d'oeuvre for Monday's main course: an 18km trek through the coastal mountains on the east side of town. After an undemanding beginning along the floor of the valley, the path turned abruptly upwards and kept on climbing through terraces of ancient, gnarled olive trees where equally gnarled and ancient farmers were employing low-tech methods to harvest the crop - shaking the branches. Birds and birdsong were everywhere and as we reached the pass at the top of that first breathtaking climb, two huge black vultures sailed overhead. Then it was downhill on a well-crafted path formed from large, rounded boulders towards a distant patch of iridescent dark green at the bottom of an almost uninhabited valley, totally enclosed by mountains.
The green patch resolved itself a grove of orange trees and the adjacent farmhouse provided the freshest orange-juice you've ever tasted, straight from the tree. I became the interpreter in a rather surreal discussion between the farmer and a group of German hikers. The latter were trying to locate a path back to Port de Sóller and refused to believe the farmer's assertions that the path no longer existed - "Look, here it is marked on our map and the map is not old, it is this year's."
We had no such problems with our route and, after another stiff climb, were rewarded with an uplifting view across the Mediterranean.
The next stretch of the path must be a contender for Europe's best cliff walk. Staying about 100m above the clearest aquamarine sea, it takes you round a sequence of headlands with views down to rocky bays and inlets virtually unreachable from the land. The breeze was gentle, the sun's rays were warming - not scorching - and the birdsong continued. But even in paradise there are serpents and our particular problem was that this was not a circular walk, so we had to get back - somehow.
In the summer and early autumn this is not a problem, as there is a regular boat service from our destination, Sa Calobra, back to Port de Sóller. But not in November. With this in mind I'd taken the phone numbers of some local taxis and charged my mobile phone but had not taken into account a complete lack of network coverage.
I kept my concerns to myself until at about four o'clock we reached the little beach at Cala Tuent and driven by a mixture of pride, aching knees and blistered feet, took the plunge into what turned out to be surprisingly warm water.
On the beach behind us the last two of that day's few visitors had untwined themselves from a lengthy embrace and were walking to their car. And with them, I realised, was going our only chance of getting out of here. We leapt up and were dressed and holding out our thumbs before they'd driven out of the car-park. A charming couple of young doctors - he was German, she was Spanish with a shared language of English - they took us back to Sóller. Although we didn't quite make it to Sa Calobra, we agreed that we would both be delighted to have another go next November.
The writer travelled to Mallorca with easyJet (0905 821 9005; www.easyJet.com), which flies to Palma from Belfast, Bristol, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Newcastle. Palma is also served by MyTravel Flights (0870 241 5333; www.mytravel.com/flights), bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), BMI (0870 6070 555; www.flybmi.co.uk) and Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com).
Hotel El Guia, Carrer Castanyer 2, Sóller, Mallorca (00 34 971 630 227; www.sollernet.com/elguia). Double rooms start at €80 (£57), including breakfast. The hotel is now closed and will reopen in March.
Gran Hotel Sóller, Carrer Romaguera 18, Sóller, Mallorca (00 34 971 638 686; www.granhotelsoller.com). Double rooms start at €257 (£184), including breakfast.
Mallorca tourist information (00 34 971 712 216; www.visitbalears.com).
Spanish Tourist Office (08459 400 180; www.tourspain.co.uk).
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