Siesta in Mallorca

The smallish island off Spain's eastern coast offers a plethora of vacation options, from sand and sea to historic plazas and cobblestoned streets.

Illetes beach 88 248 (photo credit: Mike Benn)
Illetes beach 88 248
(photo credit: Mike Benn)
When my wife first suggested that we take a weeklong vacation in Mallorca, my initial dilemma was: Where the hell is Mallorca? As an ex-Aussie, I am more familiar with the geographical distribution of islands like Bali, Java or Sumatra than the many island groups lying off the European coast. Googling the word "Mallorca," I quickly learned that, lying off the eastern coast of Spain, it is one of the Balearic Islands. It may be the largest of this island group, but it is only about 60 km. from north to south and 110 km. from east to west. Before I knew it, we landed at the Palma de Mallorca airport on a bright spring morning. Two comfortable public bus trips later, we found ourselves in the heart of the "old town" section of the city, at the Placa Cort, only a few meters walk from our hotel. Everyone has their own criteria for choosing a hotel - location, price, amenities. Carmela and I wanted a central location and were willing to pay for a bit of luxury for some much-needed R & R. Prebooked on the Internet and coming highly recommended in my Rough Guide to Mallorca and Menorca, the Hotel Dalt Muranda really fit the bill. Listed as a four-star hotel, this family-run 18th-century mansion has only 14 rooms. Each room, with its own character, is outfitted with antique furnishings. Our large room, with a high wooden-beamed ceiling, held two double beds. The spacious bathroom held a good-sized Jacuzzi, with light streaming in through a high stained-glass window. The hotel in general had a definite Old World charm about it - possibly barring the Jacuzzi. I did feel a bit uncomfortable with one of the paintings in our room. It was a portrait of a rather stern-looking elderly matron who, whenever I was lying on the bed, appeared to be looking directly at me with a perpetual disapproving look on her face. ("What do you want out of my life?" I tried pleading telepathically. "We're legally and happily married.") One of the biggest pluses of this type of family business is the personal service. The only people manning the front desk were dad and his two sons, Lewis and Farran - a mine of information on practical issues, from what sights were worth seeing to which bus to take to a particular place. IT WAS time to start exploring Palma itself, a city of some 300,000 located on Mallorca's southern coast. Our hotel was in the historical center or "old town" section, on a street typical of the region. Describing it as a "street" is an exaggeration, because walking down this narrow, cobblestoned alley, one realized that it was barely wide enough to allow a car through. This could account for the number of Smart cars and Mini Minors we saw in Palma. This was brought home even further as we watched a normal sized sedan car driving down our street, with the driver having to pull in his side mirrors which were scraping the walls on either side. Much of this part of Palma is a maze of these narrow lanes, all eventually leading to one of the myriad of placas (open plazas) scattered throughout the area. Three- and four-story, centuries-old buildings, with small balconies and shuttered windows, contain an array of modern boutiques, coffee shops, jewelry shops (pearls are the in thing in Mallorca) and other retail outlets. Although we would occasionally step into a shop to browse, most of our time was pleasurably spent just window shopping - thank goodness. If you're looking for bargains, like most euro-based Europe, you won't find them in Palma. We spent many enjoyable hours just wandering around, but at times did have the feeling that we should have dropped bread crumbs to find our way back. We spent one morning unintentionally circumnavigating nearly the whole of the old city, only to discover that the shop where we had started off was just 50 meters from our hotel, cleverly hidden by a wall and a short flight of steps. The more residential section of the old town was also a delight. Walking down the narrow lanes, one peers though large, arched gateways into the open front courtyards. After most of Palma was destroyed by fire a few hundred years ago, these mansions were refurbished in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The municipality pays some of the owners to leave their gates open, allowing passersby to get a glimpse of the grandeur inside. Dominating the waterfront, and within just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, is the cathedral (Le Seu in Catalan). The foundation stone was laid by King Jaume I in 1229 and construction took more than 500 years to complete - "and they're still building," as Carmela commented as we observed the latest renovations. Le Seu is one of Europe's largest Gothic cathedrals, measuring 121 meters long, 44 high and 39 wide. Opposite the entrance (and deserving a quick tour) is the Palace de l'Almudaina. Originally the palace of the Moorish governors, it was later the residence of the Mallorcan kings. ONE OF the delights of Palma was our evening stroll in search of a place to eat. On one of Carmela's Internet searches, she'd read about a place called Abaco, which was supposed to be "something special." So having built up a healthy appetite from a day of doing virtually nothing, we found Abaco down a narrow lane. Entering, we headed straight for the large outdoor garden that we had heard so much about. Murals, fountains and statues in the rich Renaissance style, plants springing out of every corner, it definitely was "something special." Sitting at a side table with Carmela, I glanced at the menu in front of us. This menu was, in fact, the drinks list. Obviously, this wasn't the cheapest place in town. (Cocktails averaged at about 16 euro per shot.) Sliding the list to one side, I casually called over the waiter and requested the food menu. The waiter gave me a condescending look and then answered, "We don't serve food here sir. This is only a bar." "Sorry, we thought that this was a restaurant. Maybe another time," I explained in a squeaky, embarrassed voice. Like Adam and Eve, we skulked out of this little gem of a place that we'd just found - and lost. Moral of the story: Always read the fine print in the travel guide (in which it was actually described as a bar). In fact, even reading the large print properly would have prevented our faux pas. One morning we took a short bus ride to visit the Castell de Bellver. The bus dropped us off in the main street "down below," and on asking directions to the castle, the locals merely answered by pointing upward - interpreted as "you have to schlep up the hill." So began a pleasant half hour of mountain climbing under the hot Mediterranean sun. A winding road was followed by a never-ending series of steps and I must admit that after the physical effort invested in the trek, the castle itself was a bit of an anticlimax. Not looking forward to the return stroll, Carmela noted that there was a parking area adjoining the castle and that cars could actually reach the castle directly. We decided to try our luck and try and hitch a ride downhill, rather than foot it. Approaching a driver who was just getting into his empty car, I tried to ask him for a ride. My request obviously lost something in the translation, because his reply was, "If you walk about 20 meters in that direction, you'll find the steps leading down the hill." MANY PEOPLE come to Mallorca just for the sun and sand. Hence we felt that we should check out at least two of the beach hot spots. The first was the Platja de Palma - a four-kilometer stretch of sandy beach just to the east of Palma. This was a godsend for my dear wife, as since our trip to Thailand (more than eight months prior), she was now beginning to show definite signs of severe foot massage withdrawal syndrome. Plying their trade from beach chair to beach chair were a group of young Chinese women providing foot massages. I figured that five euros for a 20-minute massage was a cheap way to keep my wife happy and allow me to read in peace. The ensuing silence was punctuated only by Carmela's intermittent moans of ecstasy. The second beach - Illetes - was recommended by our hotelier friends. West of Palma, Illetes is a tiny cove which seemed a lot more cosy and family oriented than the more commercial Platja de Palma. Although both beaches could claim crystal-clear blue water, the sand left something to be desired. Coming from Australia, with its mile after mile of beautiful white sand, I still don't understand how Europeans can get all excited by their gray, dirty-looking sandy beaches. Having walked the length and breadth of Palma and seen what the big city had to offer, it was time to "get high" and take a day trip through the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, which runs down the western side of the island. Setting off at the crack of dawn (well when you're on vacation, 8 a.m. is the crack of dawn), we took the old narrow-gauge train to Soller, 28 kilometers northwest of Palma. The journey takes about an hour, dipping in and out of mountains and valleys on its slow trip north. The line was built in 1911, and I don't think the train has been upgraded since then. My guide book describes it as "out of an Agatha Christie book." Entering a series of tunnels, I expected to hear piercing screams as we were thrown into pitch darkness. When we emerged, I would not have been surprised to find all my fellow passengers draped over their seats with knives in their backs. Murder on the Soller Express. SOLLER BOASTS no specific must-see sights, but has a great relaxing atmosphere, as if village life revolves around a 24-hour siesta. After a quick breakfast in Soller's main placa, we took the tram down to the port. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering up and down the promenade that lines the horseshoe-shaped bay, having coffee at a beachside café at one side of the bay, window-shopping, a beer by the beach at the other end of the bay - it's a hard job, but somebody's gotta do it. In Port de Soller, I had superficially scanned the information on our next stop - Deia - and had the impression that this was a "small, quaint village." I warned Carmela that we might be "slumming it" with the locals for lunch. Arriving in Deia, we meandered around the backstreets and came across a small mini-market. Figuring that this was the only eatery in town, we asked for a plain cheese and tomato baguette, which we quickly devoured as we sat outside on a low stone wall. Yes, this was the simple Spanish village life that we had expected. Before we left the mini-market, I had asked the shopkeeper if, by chance, there was a coffee shop in this village. "On the main street," she answered, without batting an eyelid. After our lunch, we leisurely strolled down to the main street, in search of it. What a surprise to find that along this main drag there was coffee shop after coffee shop, interspersed with what looked like some pretty classy restaurants. Methinks I'd better reread my guide book. Quote No. 1: "...the mountain lower slopes are gentrified by the villas of the well-heeled and well-to-do." Quote No. 2: "Deia boasts two of the most luxurious hotels on the island." Never judge a "quaint village" by its cover. OUR LAST stop before returning to Palma was the town of Valldemossa. One of its claims to fame is that this is where the novelist George Sand and the composer Frederic Chopin lived together for four months. Classical music concerts are held daily in the monastery, and I'm sure would have been very enjoyable had we not arrived 30 minutes after the last performance. Knowing about Spain's rich Jewish history, I was interested in some of the historical Jewish sights in Palma. Although one of the tourist brochures I picked up recommended a "tour of the Jewish Quarter," on further enquiry I was informed that this tour offers very little to see. There are very few physical remnants of what was once - pre-Inquisition - a thriving Jewish community. We decided to forgo this mainly descriptive and virtual tour. Mallorca's Jewish population today numbers around 300. The community was founded in 1971 and was the first Jewish community in Spain to be officially recognized since 1435. On our second-to-last day in Palma, as we were wandering down a lane we'd just discovered, we came across a gift shop offering an assortment of local handicrafts. There, on one of the shelves, were small figurines of stereotyped religious Jews with tallit, kippa - the works. Intrigued, I entered and started chatting with the young shopkeeper, Clara. I was curious to know why this shop contained the only evidence we'd seen of a Jewish presence in Palma. Clara started telling me about the conversos or crypto-Jews of Palma - those who during the 14th and 15th centuries had secretly retained their connection to Judaism despite being forced to convert to Christianity. This was nothing new to me, but when I asked Clara to write down her name so that we could maintain contact, she pointed to part of her hyphenated family name and proudly stated, "And this is my Jewish name." She then went on to tell us that her mother was one of a number of people who are actively researching their Jewish roots. Carmela and I had goose bumps as we chatted with this young lady with whom we felt an instant affiliation going back centuries. This chance incident was more meaningful to us than any tour of the Jewish Quarter could have been. There are many places to visit and things to do on Mallorca - the numerous cave systems to be found scattered around the island; hiking in the mountains; villages, coves and beaches to be explored. Even though we weren't able to fit all these into our itinerary, what we did achieve was what we had hoped for: to see new sights, taste new foods and simply to relax and wind down.