Ah, we’re just finished what seemed like back-to-back public holidays, so of course, that meant that it was also time for a bit of a getaway. I left London behind (with the intention to return in time for the Royal Wedding) and spent a week on Mallorca, with most of the time in the north of the island, and a couple of days in the southern capital, Palma.
If Mallorca doesn’t say anything to you, you’re either (1) not from Europe; or (2) not living in Europe. It’s the largest of the Balearic Islands, off the eastern coast of Spain and in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Mallorca (mah-york-a) is famous for it’s clear blue seas, sandy beaches and some rather notorious tourism – which is why we all know it. Well, that last one is not entirely fair. Mallorca has made huge efforts to go all posh, and now boasts exclusive upmarket villas and offers a lot to the more discerning visitor. Yes, time to put away the bucket and spade and think traditional foods, local drinks and some interesting places to visit.
Now, let’s be honest. I expected to spend the best part of the Easter weekend on a beach, reading and eventually retreating to the shade of the pine trees that line the coast when I had had too much sunshine. But…that was not to be.
The weather was, for the first three days, what we like to call “changeable”. This meant it changed from mist to cloud to rain, and then occasionally the sun would make an appearance. Meanwhile, it was pushing 30 degrees back home, which I knew because my friends were sending emails of themselves basking in the sunshine of Hyde Park.
However, I had rented a car and headed inland to see the mountains. One of the most surprising things about Mallorca is just how varied the landscape it – high mountains in the west (with precarious roads that need to be navigated very, very slowly!) to inland plains and sandy beaches. In the extreme north, the coast gets very rugged, with dramatic rock formations jutting out of the sea. As you can see below, the coastlines are many and varied.
In my view, one of the most spectacular parts of the island is the Cap de Formentor, where a truly tiny road snakes through pine forests up to sheer cliffs and on to the lighthouse at the end of the island (bottom two pictures). Quite breathtaking.
Breathtaking, and rather alarming to drive along! Thank goodness the car was about the smallest and most nimble on offer in the rental place. There was no chance of getting a BMW or a Hummer round those hairpin bends! But you need to get up into the hills to see some of the most spectacular scenery and some truly beautiful monasteries and churches. Well worth it.
With the mountains explored, and still very grateful for the tiny car (which turned out to be small enough to park anywhere in the most narrow streets imaginable), it was time for a bit of a change of scene. It wasn’t getting beach-hot yet, so we headed inland to the area known as Es Pla (literally “the plain”).
This is the fertile, agricultural heart of the island. Bumbling around the small towns that dot this landscape, I managed to mangle everything in Spanish as well as the local Catalan. It might look easy written down, but I got pretty tongue-tied, and soon discovered that a big smile and mastery of gracias will still get you pretty darn far. Say it in Catalan (gràcies) and you get a little further. Interesting!
So what are the foody highlights? Mallorca is known for its almonds (the flat, sweet, round variety). These are recorded as far back as Roman times, and even today there are many varieties that are apparently unique to Mallorca. Boom time came when the island’s vines were affected by the phylloxera plague more than 100 years ago – farmers moved over to almonds, and a new industry took off. Almonds make appearances in perfume, as well as a tasty cake – gató d’ametlla – made with almonds and oranges, and served with almond ice-cream. It’s big, fluffy and delicious.
Another, perhaps more glossy, sophisticated and modern item is sea salt, which is produced in the south of the island around Ses Salines. This is what the locals call flor de sal, literally “sea blossom salt” which is prepared by filtering sea water, and leaving it in outdoor “lakes” and allowing the hot sun to do its work. The crystals are then harvested as they appear. This salt is valued for its higher-than-usual mineral content, and comes all packed in rather attractive, modern packaging (like these). What’s not to like?
Nearby Menorca also makes one rather major claim to fame – that mayonnaise was invented there and is named after its capital, Maó (formerly known as Mahón). Salsa mahonesa. See it? Of course the French don’t agree, but I like the Spanish version of events. In any event, Mallorca today has a very tasty garlic sauce, allioli, which tastes sublime with patatas bravas. So tasty that I didn’t care how much I stank of garlic.
And no piece about Mallorcan food is complete without the ensaïmada…but more of them another day. I’m sure you can guess what I’m up to.
Yes, the Es Pla area is really rather lovely, and here, amid the corn, oats, fruit orchards, olive groves…rather excitingly…you see a lot of vineyards! Wine! Yes, Mallorca makes wine!
As Mallorca is not so large, it doesn’t produce the huge amounts of wine that are needed for bulk production and export. However, there are some decent types, and it’s worth doing a little exploration and trying a bit of the local production.
We popped in to Bodegues Ca’n Ramis in the pretty town of Sencelles, and also picked up a few bottles of the award-winning AN/2 wine from Anima Negra. But perhaps most exciting of all, in one restaurant, I spied a bottle of white Merlot from the Son Prim estate.
I asked the chef for a wine recommendation to go with the meal, and he suggested another Mallorcan white, but I couldn’t resist asking about this white Merlot. Would it go with the dish? He was rather taken aback, said that it was actually his first preference, but that as it was quite unusual, he didn’t think we would like it. So much so, that he even said we could send back the whole bottle if we didn’t like it. Happily, we took the plunge, and it was great. It had a very apparent richness, a sort of buttery quality and depth of flavour that you don’t (or I don’t) usually associate with a white wine. Lucky this was also on sale in a wine shop, so I’ve now got a bottle hidden away at home.
If all that wine isn’t quite enough, at the end of the day and after all that wine tasting, you can also sit back in the heat and enjoy a glass of pomada made with a type of gin from the neighbouring island of Menorca….but more of that some other time (again, you can guess…). Suffice to say, to many can be dangerous.
Around the rest of Es Pla, it’s just a case of pottering around and taking in pretty villages, cafés, restaurants and fields of fruit, vegetables and goats. The attractive town of Artà is home to many artists, and the beaches along the bay of Muro are long, sandy and go from dunes into a bright blue sea. Really, picture perfect.
Later in the week, the sun did finally make an appearance, and it became proper beach weather. While Mallorca might heave in the middle of summer, it is perfect in April. Long stretches of sand, not too busy, and (realising that this is sounding repetitive) lots of bays with clear, azure water. Swimming was….possible, but it did take a while to get acclimatised to the still somewhat fresh waters of the Med. The old story – chilly at first, but fine once you’re in.
The area we stayed in was a little on the touristy side, but it was a hope, skip and jump (or, more accurately, 5 euro in a taxi) to the incredibly scenic town of Alcúdia, which boasts a couple of lovely squares and a clutch of very decent restaurants. This was all the more amazing given that this was not all that far from some of the more extremely “all inclusive” tourist traps. I find it odd that people sometimes don’t want to venture just a few more minutes to somewhere more pleasant, but it’s nice to feel a little smug as you are sitting on a shady plaza sipping the local drink.
And to round off the trip – all that time in the countryside, by the sea and in small towns was nice, but I had to spend a couple of sun-soaked days checking out the Mallorcan capital, Palma. It’s a pleasant place – the skyline is dominated by the cathedral which juts out of the old town. There are plenty of leafy avenues and grand buildings with high-end stores and a large number of bakeries selling ensaïmadas. And, rather helpfully, it’s got a lot of very classy bars for a drink in the evening (such as the excellent Nicolás on Plaza Mercat), as well as lots of good restaurants. The up-and-coming neighbourhood of La Ljota has some interesting places to eat, which tended to be rammed with locals as well as a few more adventurous tourists. I also popped in to the Mercat Olivar, which the guide book dismissed as being of no interest, but it was a treasure trove of little shops and stalls selling just about any item of food you can imagine. I’ve got a little something from there I’ll post shortly, but let that be a lesson – the guidebook often ain’t right!
Much to my delight, the trees all over the city were also sporting jaunty little oranges. I always find it amazing that they are left handing on the trees, as they look so tempting, and are just asking to be picked. However, I did restrain myself from taking them, just as I managed to resist reaching over the fences of houses all over the island and taking lemons from their trees. Can’t imagine that a little Mallorcan granny would have been too impressed to see my hands reaching over her garden wall…
And finally, something that is bound to appeal to animal lovers out there.
Mallorca seems to have a very, very big number of cats. These creatures seem to be everywhere. Towns, countryside, shops, cafés, tourist hotspots, church steps…all lazing around in the sun, and tolerating the occasional pat from a passing visitor.
All in all, a great little trip. Now, can you guess what sort of things I will be blogging about for the next few days? Hmmm…