Mallorca recalled to me a paradise island perhaps ruined by tourism. My thoughts turned to places like Magaluf; a Benidorm-like hive of young Brits obliterated on cheap alcohol, scabby beaches with crystal clear waters and high rise apartments and hotels. An island then where the national drink was surely cold jugs of fake sangria and where everybody ate defrosted paella and had churros for dessert. The capital, Palma, came as quite a surprise.
It has been a while since I visited such a consistently pleasant, calm and clean a city as Palma. Similar to Pamplona, it was a city whose sights were predominantly unassuming and stately, but the sum of its part made for a very enjoyable whole. The old streets were rambling and tight and uniformly cute in that Spanish way. The city, and the island, were bathed in sunlight and a warm blue sky. The canary-yellow Plaza Mayor mimicked a small version of the Plaça Reial in Barcelona but without the palm trees.
Here and there were little modernist flourishes - the mad creations of Gaspar Bennàssar, Francesc Roca, Gaudí - that sat side by side with hordes of tourists; half of which never looked up and three-quarters of which were German. I wondered how little some people got out of travel, but then presumed that as long as the sun shone and the wine flowed, they were still happy. Perhaps they were happier in that simplicity.
Day 1 - Nibbling the streets of the capital…
Breakfast was taken at C’an Joan de s’Aigo. The oldest cafe in the city, dating from 1700, it is a patchwork of tiles and wooden beams and tables. Old men sat having their coffees reading their morning papers, while I sat with a couple of my friends, rosy-cheeked. A couple of Mallorca staples to begin: ensaïmada (a whirled pastry made with lard as bonus ingredient; shahim meaning fat in Arabic), an ensaïmada with apricot and a cuarto (a sweet sponge cake). Light and airy and usually dipped in chocolate, these were a gentle start to our first day.
Here and there Palma is spotted with beautiful convents, small havens of peace and grace, that sit quietly out of the way of the main drags, as if they know that they aren’t going to hold much popular sway against the brash brilliance of the cathedral. Little old alleys, away from the modernity, slunk away and hid quiet gardens where the sun pooled in the branches of exotic bushes and the sounds of music and chatter dribbled through the spongy air.
Sitting down on a raised defensive vantage point and looking out to the sparkling Mediterranean is La Seu. A wonderful 17th century beast of a cathedral reflected in a personal pond; all spiky spires, flying buttresses and Gothic grandeur.
Celler Sa Premsa, a former bodega converted to a large tavern in the 50s, became the next stop. Flung out on the northeast part of the centre, this place was all wooden barrels, basic wooden tables, hurried waiters in white shirts, and big adverts of bullfights that once happened.
A range of classic, gloopy and juicy locals dishes: tombet (a Mallorcan answer to ratatouille, a baked blend of potatoes, aubergines, peppers), frito mallorquín (a mish-mash blend of offal, meat, potato, onion, tomato, red pepper and sprinkled with dill), and lomo con col (pork fillets cooked inside cabbage leaves and covered in a rich wine-based sauce of pancetta and tomato).
A quick stop, down an adorable side street hiding a tall church dedicated to St James and the pilgrims, was made at La Bodeguilla - a high-end wine/tapas bar. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the local wines; any excuse to ask for a bottle from one of the many wine-covered walls. We chose a bottle of Obac, a blend including the local superstar grape: Mantonegro.
As the sun fell out of the sky we headed to the small luxury port of Portixol for a couple of sundowners and a snack. Little pleasure boats sat still in the water as if stuck in some limpid wax, joggers breezed past us and we dreamed of having money.
At Es Vaixell, a rambunctious little bar not much bigger than a cupboard but with a lively terrace area out front, we ordered the speciality snack: the llonguet - a small baguette/ciabatta that used to be very common in Catalonia but seems to now only continue its existence in Mallorca. I ordered one of sobresada (a local semi-cured chorizo-style sausage) and cheese. Then before collapsing from the long day of travel and walking (and drinking) we gulped down a couple of local vermut straight from the tap, along with some torta del casar cheese croquetas and tinned scallops at Vermuteria La Gloria.
Day 2 - Mountain town buns and remote rice…
The only way to really appreciate a country is by four wheels; and in Mallorca’s case four wheels for three days and constantly trying not to wipe out any of the myriad cyclists that plagued the twisting hill-routes.
The first two days were spent whizzing around the UNESCO-protected Sierra de Tramuntana; a disgustingly-attractive Jurassic-looking range of mountains that form the north/northeast part of the island. A rocky ribcage off which the lower part of the island hangs. And our first stop was the absurdly attractive village of Valldemossa.
Sitting over a ridge backed by peaks and looking down a valley to the flats and Palma in the distance, Valldemossa - once the home of Chopin, George Sand and Borges - was a study in stolen Provence. A curled up honey-coloured flurry of stone houses, little churches, colourful window frames and Palma day-trippers.
At Cappuccino Valldemossa we sampled a local sweet for breakfast: the coca de patata, a round brioche-like bun made with a similar recipe to the ensaïmada but with potatoes added; not that you’d know. The prices matched the square-side location, but it was all in the name of research.
The road rose and then threatened to leap off a cliff into the bluest of seas before winding back in on itself at pretty little Deià. Robert Graves wrote I, Claudius here and I could see why. Despite the lycra-clad cyclists, I could imagine just existing there and writing. Reading, writing, loving, drinking, and eating on that little clustered jumble in the hills. Small old ladies sold homemade orange juice - for the island was covered in orange trees - and a few schoolchildren pootled about pretending to learn.
We had no time to linger and parked the car near the Son Marroig former mansion, leapt over a gate and began a 45-minute walk down from the heights through ancient-looking olive trees busied with dopey little donkeys, down through a rocky path cleft into the sides of oak forest-covered cliffs, all the way down to the Sa Foradada headland. This was the only way to arrive at the restaurant of the same name; by foot or by private boat.
A cliffside restaurant, which looked like an outdoor hut-hangout for pirates stuck into the rock and barely clinging on above the water, Sa Foradada was opened in 1972 by the father of the lady who runs it now, Lidia. It specialises in paellas cooked in pans over wood fires. The menu is minimal. Rice, fish, croquetas, more fish and salads. The wine is local and very good.
We opted for a few items, though we could have happily spent our life savings there and stayed forever. Croquetas de bacalao (salt cod croquettes), atún encebollado (a stew of tuna slow-cooked with onions, white wine, bay leaf and paprika) and of course paella.
That night we started off with a glass of red wine at the kooky, though not overly friendly, wine bar La Vinya de Santa Clara, which was sat staring out at the meeting of various quiet cobbled streets. We then decided to investigate a bohemian and buzzing little place full of drunk middle-aged Germans, and indeed run by one: Bodega Santa Clara Antigua Sifonería. A tunnel caved out of the wall and full of barrels of vermouth, empty sifón tanks, cases of wine and plastic punnets. What used to be a spot to come and fill up your wine and vermouth to take home, has now become part social club part make shift bar, with wine sloshed out from bottles on a small table into whatever glass was clean and available.
Finally a few bites were had at the traditional Taberna del Caracol; an old bar with a spirit of rejuvenation about it. A young owner and a German chef in an open kitchen. We opted for some mind-blowing alioli with bread, some manchego cheese in olive oil, albóndigas con espinacas (spinach meatballs), and gírgolas (wild oyster mushrooms) and a bottle of José Ferrer red wine.
Day 3 - Monastic pies and lots of wine…
The third morning we just drove. The day was moist and warm and the sun hung low. The island gleamed a bright green and the towns shone ochre. Fornalutx was our first stop. A small and pretty strip of village looped round the base of where the Sóller valley started to climb very high indeed.
I couldn’t fight back the idea I was in Provence. People out here didn’t speak Castilian Spanish, it was very much the chewed up tongue of Mallorquí; a dialect of Catalan. I felt a little foreign, as if my Spanish wouldn’t help here. But of course it did.
The road then soared very high as we headed up to drive between Puig Major - the tallest thing on the island - and its stocky green lakes. Dodging lumbering two-wheeled pests all the way, my foot was starting to ache so naturally we had a break and snack at a monastery.
The Santuario de Lluc is a 13th century pilgrimage site; a hulking great building that houses the Lluc Virgin; a small medieval stone statue of a woman holding a baby. The most important site on the island. We nodded, acknowledged the beauty of the inside of the church and the facade, but, tiring of the lack of privacy and the abundance of obvious crotch bulges, decided to shift away from the sun-seeking cyclists and grab a bite.
We opted for a quiet choice, the charming workaday Café Sa Plaça; more attractive than I thought it would be for a spot I presumed only existed as a coffee shop for the attraction. We bought a couple of empanadas of mince meat and peas (pies that differ from their more famous shape by being a full English-style round crimped pie) and two cocarrois of vegetables (more like a classic oval-shaped pasties). For a convent cafe they were rather good.
We had a date with a winery. Finca Biniagual: a paradisiacal complex that included an old toybox hamlet/estate dominated by a fountain, low-hung buildings and a little church. The bodega was a little offset and had the usual trapping associated with all wineries: stainless steel tanks, barrels, empty bottles, a labelling machine. The vineyards were in the Binissalem DO and sat on orange soils just off the base of the sierra.
In the fields we had a close up of the gnarly Mantonegro vines - I think Cristina, the lady in charge, noticed the wine geek in my now sunburned face - and then proceeded to the reception part of the winery. She showered us with far more generosity than we deserved. We tried a selection of her wines - the classic Finca Biniagual range of very elegant reds and the sprightly and more modern Memòries selection which had the range of colours. And the food! I wanted to marry this woman. I expected a bit of ham and cheese. But instead she laid on village pâté, tortilla, fuet, sobresada, Mahon cheese, bread, jamón, tuna empanadas, chicken empanadas, local marmalades, and olives. That and the wine. I was in heaven.
Night had gone and dropped itself on us again and so we journeyed forth into the streets, grumbling a little that Palma’s nighttime tapas scene was not quite as animated as Madrid’s, until we alighted at La Cuadra del Maño; a legendary bar specialising in chuletón, which roughly translates as ‘massive ass steak’. Here Luis Martínez - ‘el maño’ - runs a no-frills bar where the centre piece is the massive ember-spitting grill. A kilo of meat on the heat and served with baked potatoes and corn on the cob. Hell for vegetarians.
A quick drink before bed was had at the vaguely absurd institution Abaco: a converted ex-mansion C’an Marcel now turned Baroque bar. Upstairs were rooms designed as if one were in some National Trust property in England: the velvety blood-red boudoir/living room with wooden furnishings, chairs and clocks, sculptures, an old kitchen with olde worlde utensils, ceramics and tiles. Downstairs was the open court entrance hall where the bar had been put in place. Piles of fruit and vegetable that looked like a still-life made real, paintings and tapestries, lamps, chaises longues, flower arrangements and wine for eight euros. An absolutely unique madhouse.
Day 4 - Chasing coves with barely time to eat…
The last day was not a gastronomic one. Before checking out and heading out we made a very quick stop at a small pastry shop near our hostel: La Flor de Oro, which made beautiful empanadas but also another speciality called a coca de trampó - a sort of baked out bread-pizza. This classic style has tomato, pepper, and onion. Nothing mind-blowing but a nice savoury start to the morning.
We belted our car east through the flatter and more undulating midsection of the island to the cute town of Artà; a less visited and more ramshackle place than the postcard pueblos of the sierra. Olive trees, orange trees, Mallorca’s trademark flour-grinding windmills, and barely a cyclist in sight.
Scruffier streets, but still retaining a flare of southern France, Artà was spread from flat to a basilica-topped hill like a giant had dipped a massive knife into a pot of architecture and wiped it across the Balearics.
We then dribbled slowly down the lonely southern coast road to the incredibly attractive port town of Portocolom. Sun-soaked white houses with colourful doors created Grecian airs. Little wooden sail boats bobbed softly by rock jetties and sun-searchers sat out eating overpriced food with the view.
We headed to a cheap and cheerful little bar - where German yet again was the first language on the menu - called Por qué No. We ordered pincho moruno (spiced pork skewers) and bacon-wrapped dates. We mused on trip and decided to at least soak up a bit of the island life before we left.
Mallorca is dotted with tiny clenched-up coves called calas. These little bays puncture the jagged coastline - for this rocky island is not one of long sandy beaches but crystal clear water and privacy; if you can find the right cala of course.
Cala s’Almunia and Caló des Moro sit side by side each other on the deep southern tip. The former looks like someone ripped a part of the set of Popeye off Malta and scattered it on a tiny stony inlet, whilst the latter sported a little beach, very attractive people, and a long tongue of turquoise water stretching out into a wider bay.
Mallorca had stolen both my health and my heart. I dreamed of buying a house there on day one, but by day four I was planning the rest of my life, my wedding and my romantic getaways. Paradise.