The other side of Mallorca
“He was a craftsman”, explains William Graves, as we stand at the front door of the symmetrical stone house surrounded by lemon trees and olive groves on the slopes of Mallorca’s Serra de Tramuntana mountain range. “He knew the weight of each word”.
William is the eldest son of the second marriage of one of Britain’s best-known war poets, Robert Graves who built Ca N’Alluny – meaning far house – in the village of Deia in 1932, and wrote his highly acclaimed novel I, Claudius to pay off the mortgage. After watching a short film about his life we step inside the cool building, where the large desk in his study is strewn with papers, books and pens, just as he left it. The top floor contains a museum devoted to his life and prolific literary career, which is wonderfully described by William as he shows us around. It’s all a far cry from the Mallorca I first experienced as a teenager.
Back then it was known as Majorca, because the hordes of Brits on Magaluf package holidays couldn’t get their tongues around the pronunciation of the double l. And while many visitors still by-pass Palma, the island’s capital and first city of the Balearics, to head straight to the beaches, the elegant port city is finally emerging as a destination in its own right.
With year-round flights it’s perfect for a short break, whatever the season, and there are countless ‘grown-up’ activities and sights that many people (and I confess I was one of them) might have shown little interest in first time around.
Compact, walkable and packed full of character, Palma is a popular port of call on cruise ships which allow passengers a few hours in town. But it takes much than a day to enjoy the city and its surroundings, and it’s worth straying off the well-trodden tourist route to scratch below the surface.
That said, some sights can’t be ignored and Palma’s main landmark is the majestic 14th century Sa Seu Gothic cathedral with its decorative 20th century additions by Spanish architect Gaudi, more famously known for his influences on Barcelona. This century another famous Spaniard, Miquel Barcelo, left his mark when he transformed one of the chapels into a cave filled with skulls, monsters, shoals of fish and rolling waves. Like Gaudi before him, his modern addition was greeted with controversy, but it’s certainly a talking point and shouldn’t be missed.
Also check out the Modernista architecture, or Spanish Art Nouveau, which is at its most impressive in Placa Weyler. The Gran Hotel, the first hotel to open in Palma in 1803, is now a chic art gallery, cafe and bookshop. A smaller, but equally beautiful facade, can be seen at the nearby Forn des Teatre bakery. While you’re there treat yourself to an ensaimada, the classic coiled Mallorcan pastry topped with icing sugar.
A great way to get around the city is with the Palma Pass, costing from €34 for 48 hours, and offering free public transport and complimentary or discounted admission to local attractions, including the hop-on hop-off bus tour.
Recent years have seen a welcome trend in historic buildings being given a new lease of life; many of them becoming hotels. Hotel Tres, in a narrow, quiet street off the main El Born boulevard, is a contemporary 41-room boutique hotel divided between a 16th century palace and modern wing, overlooked by a towering palm tree in the shady courtyard. The piece de resistance is the rooftop terrace and plunge pool that provide a stunning 360° view of the cityscape dominated by the cathedral. In a break from omnipresent tapas, the bar serves delicious Norwegian-inspired open sandwiches and imaginative salads.
Relatively new on the accommodation scene is Hotel Cort, formerly a bank, where all 16 rooms and suites are individually and thoughtfully designed with fantastic features that include a spiral staircase leading from the living area to the bedroom and a secluded private patio with a whirlpool. Even if you don’t stay, stop by at the restaurant with its al fresco seating area next to the ancient olive tree in Placa de Cort.
If you want to eat out, Koa is a bustling fusion restaurant in central Carrer de Sant Joan, where dishes include monkfish served with sugar snap peas and fresh mango and black olive paste followed by an amazing chocolate egg-style dessert that undergoes a metamorphosis when sauce is poured over the top. Alternatively, for a really authentic experience head to the unassuming Casa Maruka restaurant in Carrer Reina Maria Cristina and let the waiter bring a selection of dishes, such as melt-in-the-mouth tuna and regional ham.
When it’s time to venture further afield, travel back in time on the Soller Railway which has linked Palma with the small town of Soller since 1912. Up to six trains a day leave Placa d’Espanya and the scenic trip in rattling vintage carriages takes just under an hour. Soller is famous for its oranges, so don’t leave before trying a slice of orange cake or orange-flavoured ice cream. You can get a single ticket for €16, and take the bus back to Palma, or a return costs €30.
Another delightful spot is Valldemossa, one of the prettiest towns on the island. But try and get there earlier to avoid the inevitable crowds. It’s famous for its links with Chopin who lodged at the 13th century Carthusian monastery at the end of 1838, albeit only for three months. But it’s lovely to listen to the 15-minute concert that’s included with the entry free and explore the gallery showcasing the bright, surrealist works of Joan Miro who lived in Palma from 1956 until his death in 1983.
My personal highlight was visiting Robert Graves’ house, half an hour outside Palma and set in an idyllic spot 400ft above sea level. He was buried in the village in 1985 and a simple memorial marks his grave.
For anyone who still perceives Mallorca as a sun and sangria destination there’s so much more to it than that. It proved an inspiration to Robert Graves and provides today’s visitors with plenty to write home about.
A three-night stay at Hotel Tres is from €510 for two, including breakfast, and a similar stay a Hotel Cort leads in at €475. Norwegian (0330 8280854) operates daily flights from Gatwick to Palma from £53.90 return.