Travel: Oddly enough, it's still Spain: Simon Calder was surprised. Just a mile from the bars and beaches of package-tour Majorca, there is a sublime, unspoilt island

Simon Calder@SimonCalder
Friday 12 August 1994 23:02

The party started at Gatwick airport. I was there when it began, with a delay of five hours and a flurry of LRVs. LRV means 'light-refreshment voucher', issued by the airline and intended to provide pounds 4 worth of food while you wait. If you know the right places to go in the distinctly non-pastoral Gatwick Village, however, you can convert them into lager. Several beery hours and one boozy flight later, a queue of sorts formed at Palma airport to change sterling into the local LRVs: pesetas.

The first time I went to Majorca, on a Thomson package holiday, my heart sank as the bus left the airport. 'Welcome to Majorca,' the courier recited, 'an island of contrasts.' As well as being the first cliche in the travel writer's thesaurus, the biggest contrast this description usually implies is between what the place used to be like, and how it is now that the tourists have wrecked it.

This summer, one in four of the British travellers taking a package holiday is heading for Spain's largest island. I went to survey the damage; I returned not with a Watneys-inspired hangover, but a healthy respect for the way Majorca copes with its 23 per cent share of British holidaymakers, plus similar proportions of German, Dutch and French travellers.

It is a thoroughly effective trick. Most tourists are distributed along an arc of coastline either side of Palma, the capital, and rarely stray beyond the confines of the beaches and bars. And, to use the name of one of the British pubs on the seafront at Palma Nova, Why Not? Whatever itch you have, the Palma conurbation will scratch it. Fancy a round of Jurassic Crazy Golf, a three-card trick performed with potato halves rather than cards, or a temporary tattoo ('lasts three to five days')? Then step right up, down and across.

Before the bars and side industries sprang up, the reason visitors came here was simple: the beaches are superb. Now, the added attraction is that you can leave your home and lifestyle in Britain and step straight into a near-replica in the Mediterranean: everything from Guinness to Golden Wonder crisps are imported for your convenience.

The ribbon of crass overdevelopment stretches from the Haus der Schnitzel at Arenal via pubs and pot noodles to Natali's caff at Magaluf, where a chip butty costs 250 ptas ( pounds 1.25) but the price of lager is quoted in pence (75 a pint), to make life easier for those who have already spent rather too many LRVs on alcohol.

If mass tourism is an infection, however, it has not spread very far. Move a mile inland, and suddenly the scene shifts from strident overcommercialism to sublime beauty.

The old heart of Palma is a good place to start. Spain is at its most intoxicating in the odd corners of its cities, where funny little dogs bark at strangers from behind the delicately louvred shutters of weather-beaten tenements. Carrer Sol, the street of the sun, is deliciously decrepit, and only cleans up its act in the vicinity of the Balearic School of Tourism. Lesson One for new students must be 'never let tourists spoil your home town': in the case of Majorca, a generation of intensive tourism has hardly penetrated its capital, one of Spain's most graceful cities. Finding a cheap room in a comfortable hotel is simple, contradicting the tabloid assertion that the Germans have grabbed all the beds in the Balearics this summer.

Palma reverberates around quite the most magnificent cathedral in Europe, its walls the colour of warm flesh (tanned, not toasted). It is a vast hangar of worship. Outside, flying buttresses swept back like aircraft wings support an uncannily high roof. Completed only early this century (when Antoni Gaudi put the finishing twirls to the interior), the cathedral was begun nearly 800 years ago to celebrate the reconquest of Spain by the Christians. Few traces of the Moorish occupiers remain in Majorca; the most substantial site is the 10th-century Arab baths. A precise dome, supported by classical columns (themselves plundered from early Christian structures), forms a canopy above once-indulgent baths, set in gentle gardens overlooked by tottering, asymmetric houses.

At the opposite end of town (and of time) is the new Miro Foundation. This sleek structure, on the site of Joan Miro's studio, looks like an artist's impression rather than a real building. The unworldly impression is enhanced by the technology in use: you cannot move from the section containing sketches to the sculptures without first swiping the card that constitutes your admission ticket through an electronic slot.

Joining the evening promenade along the city walls is obligatory. Overhead, seabirds practise formation circling above the cathedral. A range of mountains has been thoughtfully provided for the sun to sink behind. It duly does so, casting a softness upon the limestone. By 10 in the evening all the promenaders have gone home from the main square, the Placa Major, leaving it looking like a freshly frozen ice-rink.

By now, most people are eating. The Celler Sa Premsa is a big and busy cavern, cooled by huge, creaking fans (much more ambience-friendly than air-conditioning) and staffed by ancient, white- clad waiters. Dinner is operated in two shifts: the first starts when the restaurant opens at 7.45pm. It continues for a couple of hours and is strictly for northern European tourists, anxious to eat early. The locals, when they eventually drift in around 10, are considerably less fearful of the menu (which may be summed up as '100 uses for tripe and things with tentacles'). I managed to skirt around the stomach and stick to seafood. Besides octopus and squid, I enjoyed an exhilarating tumbet, aubergine fried briskly in olive oil with potatoes, garlic and red peppers.

The only sensible way to leave Palma is by train. The ride is an hour-long entertainment. Begin by admiring the sturdy woodwork that holds together the splendid half-timbered train. Amid much hooting, shouting and bustling, it creaks away from the platform, then suddenly finds itself rattling down the middle of one of the city's main roads.

As if the journey were not absurd enough already, after 30 minutes the train emerges from a long tunnel to reveal the town of Bunyola in a valley a thousand feet below. Then it begins a series of swaggering curves and steep gradients that make the descent to the town of Soller like a fairground ride.

At Soller you have a choice: to follow the crowd riding the old tram (second cousin to the railway carriages) as it clanks through the main square and down to the port, or to head for the hills. For solitude, choose the latter. I took a hike in the Serra de Tramuntana, the mountain range that runs the length of Majorca's north-west shore. As I began the climb, I met a couple of frighteningly fit Germans coming the other way, but the next two hours were untroubled by human contact and blessed with splendid views across rich green slopes to an implausibly blue sea.

You know the walk has ended when you suddenly stumble upon a highway, and four fat tour buses rumble past - no doubt bearing the contents of the latest charter from Bournemouth or Berlin. A mile along the road, though, vehicles are excluded from the most serene sanctuary on the island. This is the municipal cemetery at the summit of the village of Deia. In childlike, joined-up italics, someone has written Robert Graves: Poeta on a tombstone. The soul of the poet, and his fellow spirits, get perhaps the best panorama on the island, peering down through the mellowing village streets to the olive groves and, finally, the shore.

Advertising hoardings around the island proclaim (in several different languages) 'A tourist, a friend'. When you reach the village of Calvia you witness the benefits of this friendship as far as the locals are concerned. Calvia is the administrative centre for the region that includes Palma Nova and Magaluf, even though its population is probably lower than one of the big seafront hotels. With the proceeds of tourism, a Municipal Palace of Sport has been built, gleaming white and far grander than the average city expects, let alone a Majorcan village.

From Calvia, one road leads down to the coast. The other drifts upwards, revealing a sequence of increasingly precipitous descents to a valley smothered in a crumpled blanket of pine trees.

Anyone making a (controlled) descent lands in Andratx, an adorable town of pale stone and mottled roofs in red and brown tiles. Inspect the ageing church, which is a chromatic compromise between these shades, and settle with a coffee on the veranda of the Bar Cuba. Here, only the coffee and the bar's name are imported; everything else is sheer Spain. The beach is five miles away, and you could not care less who gets their towel on it first.


Getting there: There are frequent charter flights to Palma from most British airports, but bookings for the remainder of August are heavy. Simon Calder paid pounds 119 for a Gatwick-Palma return through Avro (081-715 1999).

Accommodation: Simon Calder stayed at the Hostal Ritzi, in central Palma at Carrer Apuntadores 6 (tel 71 46 10). A room costs pounds 8.50 for a single, pounds 14 for a double.

Bicycle hire: 21-speed mountain bikes are rented by Bimont, Plaza Progreso 19, Palma (73 18 66) for pounds 6 per day.

Recommended reading: Spain: The Rough Guide (Penguin, pounds 8.99); Trekking in Spain (Lonely Planet, pounds 6.95).

Further information: The Spanish Tourist Office in the UK is at 57 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901). The new dialling code from the UK to Palma is 00 34 71.

(Photographs omitted)

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