Anna Hyman reports on a weekend break in Palma, Mallorca
It is 6.30 pm, three weeks before Christmas, and I am walking along the Passeig des Born wearing a lightweight jacket. It’s a treat not to be bundled up in my usual duvet-type winter coat. I don’t even have gloves on.
Overhead white Christmas lights twine through plane trees, large glittering orbs hanging from their branches. It’s magical.
I’m in Palma, Mallorca’s capital, on a weekend break. Even without the sparkle of those Christmas lights Palma is turning out to be a fantastic winter destination. I’ve been here many times in the summer but why have I not been in the winter before? After all it is only a couple of hours’ flight from the UK. The city is some eight kilometres from the airport so a taxi didn’t break the bank and the airport bus at about €2 would have been even cheaper. The summer visitors have gone and even with the lure of the brightly lit shops and the Christmas decorations Palma is hardly crowded.
We had arrived the night before and after a drink had set out to wander the narrow, cobbled streets of the old quarter behind the cathedral before adjourning to the restaurant Forn de St Joan, Calle de San Juan in La Lonja district of Palma for dinner. Located in a 14th-century building it has been transformed into a fine dining restaurant noted for its tapas. However, we chose from the main menu; my grilled turbot served with a risotto of Saracen wheat and courgette was absolutely delicious, and turbot at €24 something of a bargain compared to London prices.
Churros and architecture
Next morning we were retracing our steps along those streets, more like alleyways, under a clear blue sky with a warm sun, peering into little shops and through doorways of the old nobles’ houses to the atmospheric balconied courtyards. I found one of my favourite shops –an Aladdin’s cave of sobrasadas (the island’s highly spiced sausages) of all shapes and sizes hanging from every available hook vying for space with jars and tins crammed onto shelves along with wines, olives, nuts, sweets and cheese. Colmado Santo Domingo is a foody’s idea of heaven.
Purchases made we continued our exploration, pausing only long enough to watch churros being made by a street vendor. The temptation was too great and we succumbed to a bag of these Spanish ‘fritters’ munching as we walked along window shopping.
Palma is centuries old. Parts of it date back to a long period of Arab rule, and examples of the intervening styles of architecture – Gothic, Renaissance, baroque – are everywhere. Every now and again we would spot a building designed by Gaudi or Sagrera.
Our wanderings took us past the Arab Baths (well worth a visit); through the peaceful honey-coloured 14th century cloisters and into the church of San Francisco with its elaborately gilded high altar; into the delightful Bishops’ Garden where goldfish swim in their long rectangular lily pond beneath bougainvillea and citrus trees and to the impressive cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, known locally as La Seu. Built on the site of an Arab mosque it took almost 400 years to be completed. It sits close to the Royal Palace of La Almudaina overlooking the esplanade and the Mediterranean
After a late lunch two of us decided to take the opportunity for Christmas shopping whilst the more culturally minded headed off to Palma’s Modern Art Museum or the Joan Mirô Museum. We shoppers turned our backs on the city’s historic centre and headed off up Avinguda Jaume III . It was on that side of the city in the quarter known as La Lonja on Carrer Sant Feliu that we found Rialto Living. It is Palma’s first ‘lifestyle’ store –with a tempting array of furnishings, fashion and gifts, plus an art gallery and very welcome café.
Dinner that night was fun. Along one wall of Wineings tapas and wine bar on C. Apuntadores were some 48 bottles of wine. Diners are given a card to be inserted into a dispenser and a choice made from a selection of Mallorcan, Spanish or world wines. The cost is recorded on the card for when you are ready to pay at the end of the evening. Lengthy discussions with complete strangers about the merits of various wines added to the enjoyment of the evening as did the very tasty tapas dishes. Our wine bill averaged out at about €12 per person, each one of us going up several times.
Chopin and George Sand
As the weather was so glorious on our last full day we decided that we would hire a car and head up to Valldemossa about an hour’s drive from Palma. We could have taken the 210 bus from the city but we wanted, time permitting, to see if we could visit the house of the author Robert Graves at Deià now open to the public and we weren’t sure about the winter timetable.
We travelled through pretty countryside that in February would be adorned with the pink and white blossoms of the almond trees. Almond trees gave way to gnarled olive trees as we drove into the mountains to Valldemossa.
We were there early. You have to be there early in the summer preferably before the coaches start arriving. But in December the little town was near deserted and for about an hour we had its famous monastery to ourselves.
In the 1830s monasteries were confiscated by the Spanish government and the monastery at Valldemossa was no exception. It was sold to private owners who took in guests, which is why today there is an element of dispute as to which of the ‘cells’ the French novelist and feminist George Sand stayed in with her lover the Polish composer Frederic Chopin during their visit to Mallorca in 1838–39. She obviously appreciated the island’s beauty, but her comments about the Majorcan people in her book A Winter in Mallorca aren’t exactly flattering.
Apart from seeing the monastery’s apothecary, several monks’ cells and where Sand and Chopin lived there is also an excellent art gallery on the upper floor. The cost of the entry ticket also includes a visit to the old palace and a short Chopin recital (though the recital does not take place December or January). There are cafes and souvenir shops aplenty in the little town and I was particularly fascinated by one - ‘buy’ a glass for one euro and sample the various liqueurs – there are 24 barrels to choose from!
The first English edition of A Winter in Mallorca was translated by Robert Graves who lived not far from Valldemossa in the hilltop village of Deià. We found his house, Ca N’ Alluny, on the outskirts on the road to Sóller surrounded by a pretty, peaceful garden. It was here that he wrote, amongst many of his other noteable works, I Claudius. His ground floor study is just as he might have left it: glasses, cup and saucer on the desk, waistcoat on the back of the chair. In fact the whole house is as if he and his wife had just popped out for an hour. It is the most delightful place. The top floor has been converted into an exhibition of his writings and a 10 minute documentary of his life plays in a building in the garden. Graves died here and is buried in the small cemetery next to the church high in the village. It is a simple grave, just a plaque bearing his name, dates of birth and death and the word ‘Poet’.
A few hours later back in Palma we dined at Misa, part of the British and Michelin-starred chef Marc Fosh group of restaurants, located on Can Macanet in the heart of Palma's old town. We did get a little lost trying to find the brasserie, but we persevered and thank goodness we did the meal was stunning and restaurant manager Jaime could not have been more helpful.
Sunday, our last day in Palma, it rained! We needed shelter for our last few hours before our flight back to the UK. So we took refuge in Palma’s terrific aquarium built on the city outskirts. It houses the deepest shark tank in Europe, a steamy tropical rain forest and superb displays of coral. By the time we left the sun was shining again.
Winter is indeed a wonderful time to visit Palma – but it is such a delightful city and Mallorca so beautiful I may not be able to wait that long.