Few Mediterranean holiday spots are as often and as unfairly maligned as MALLORCA. The island is commonly perceived as little more than sun, sex, booze and high-rise. It’s an image spawned by the helter-skelter development of the 1960s, yet it takes no account of Mallorca’s beguiling diversity. In fact, the spread of development, even after fifty years, is essentially confined to the Badia de Palma (Bay of Palma), a thirty-kilometre strip flanking the island capital, and a handful of mega-resorts notching the east coast.
Elsewhere, things are very different. Palma itself, the Balearics’ one real city, is a bustling, historic place whose grand mansions and magnificent Gothic cathedral defy the expectations of many visitors. And so does the northwest coast, where visitors delight in the rearing peaks of the rugged Serra de Tramuntana, beautiful cove beaches, monasteries at Valldemossa and Lluc, and a string of delightful old towns and villages – such as Deià, Sóller and Pollença. There’s a startling variety and physical beauty to the land, which has drawn tourists to visit and well-heeled expatriates to settle here since the nineteenth century, including artists and writers of many descriptions, from Robert Graves to Roger McGough.
In 1983, PALMA became the capital of the newly established Balearic Islands autonomous region, since when it has developed into a go-ahead and cosmopolitan commercial hub of almost 400,000 people. The new self-confidence is plain to see in the city centre, a vibrant place – and a world away from the heaving tourist enclaves of the surrounding bay.
Finding your way around Palma is fairly straightforward once you’re in the city centre. The obvious landmark is the Catedral, which dominates the waterfront and backs onto the oldest part of the city, a cluster of alleys and narrow lanes whose northern and eastern limits are marked by the zigzag of avenues built beside – or in place of – the city walls. On the west side of the Catedral, Avgda. d’Antoni Maura/Passeig d’es Born cuts up from the seafront to intersect with Avgda. Jaume III/Unio at Plaça Rei Joan Carles I. These busy thoroughfares form the core of the modern town.
Mallorca is at its scenic best in the gnarled ridge of the Serra de Tramuntana, the imposing mountain range that stretches the length of the island’s western shore, its soaring peaks and plunging sea cliffs intermittently intercepted by valleys of olive and citrus groves and dotted with some of the island’s most attractive towns and villages. An enjoyable way to admire this spectacular scenery at a leisurely pace is to drive or cycle along the coastal road Ma-10, which runs from Andratx to Pollença – though be aware that some of the twists and turns are quite precarious. If you’re reliant on public transport, the easiest way to explore the north is to travel up from Palma to Sóller and use this town as a base, making selected forays along the coastal road. Sóller is within easy striking distance of the mountain village of Deià and the monastery of Valldemossa to the southwest, or it’s a short haul northeast to the monastery of Lluc, the quaint town of Pollença and the resort of Port de Pollença.
As far as beaches are concerned, most of the region’s coastal villages have a tiny, shingly strip, and only around the bays of Pollença and Alcúdia are there more substantial offerings. The resorts edging these bays have the greatest number of hotel and hostal rooms, but elsewhere accommodation requires some forethought.
The Serra de Tramuntana provides the best walking on Mallorca, with scores of hiking trails latticing the mountains. Generally speaking, paths are well marked, though apt to be clogged with thorn bushes. There are trails to suit all levels of fitness, from the easiest of strolls to the most gruelling of long-distance treks, but in all cases you should come properly equipped – certainly with an appropriate hiking map (available in Palma and at the Sóller turisme), and, for the more difficult routes, a compass. Spring and autumn are the best times to embark on the longer trails; in midsummer, the heat can be enervating and water is scarce. Bear in mind also that the mountains are prone to mists, though they usually lift at some point in the day.
It’s a dramatic, ten-kilometre journey southwest from Sóller along the Ma-10 to the beautiful village of DEIÀ, where the mighty Puig des Teix mountain ramps down to the coast. At times, this thoroughfare is too congested to be much fun, but the tiny heart of the village, tumbling over a high and narrow ridge on the seaward side of the road, still preserves a surprising tranquillity. Here, labyrinthine alleys of old peasant houses curl up to a pretty country in the precincts of which stands the grave of Robert Graves (1895–1985), the village’s most famous resident – marked simply “Robert Graves: Poeta, E.P.D.” (En Paz Descanse: “Rest In Peace”). From the graveyard, the views out over the coast are truly memorable.