Mallorca’s reputation as a hedonistic holiday destination is enough to make more cultured-types reluctant to go there. But if you steer clear of the seedier seaside developments, then this little Spanish island has so much to offer someone on a short break – from modern art and delicious cuisine to spectacular mountain scenery, ancient cave complexes and beautiful pine-shaded beaches lapped by pellucid waters.
Capital of culture
The Balearic Island’s answer to Barcelona, Mallorca’s capital Palma is a smart, arty and cosmopolitan seaside city overlooking a huge sweeping bay by the same name. It’s a delightful mix of old and new and offers something for everyone from culture and history to beaches and bars. Strolling along its streets is one of this pretty city’s simple pleasures with wide promenades and narrow cobbled lanes winding through the old town, and cafes and bars spilling out into hidden squares.
Almost every corner seems to house an understated but delicious Tapas restaurant. I heard from a local that Bardia is one of the best so I stopped by for some delicious plates of tapas – mouth-watering meatballs and chicken croquettes were among my favourite morsels, washed down with a large jug of fruity sangria.
The city also has an impressive array of high-street shops and upmarket boutiques that would satisfy even the most discerning consumer – my fashionable friend asked me to confiscate her credit card while we were there and our luggage had noticeably expanded on the way home.
Most of Palma’s best sights can be visited on foot too. The imposing Gothic cathedral, restored by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi, sits right at the edge of the city’s atmospheric old town and a short walk along a wide waterfront walkway takes you to the 14th-century Islamic-style Palau de l’Almudaina, via great views of the fountains and bay beyond.
One of the first things that struck me about the city was its penchant for modern art, with many strange sculptures to be found scattered across the city, adorning street corners, or housed in galleries and museums. I later discovered that Palma has close associations to renowned Catalan artist Joan Miro – there’s even a main street named after him – and his former house on the outskirts of the city is now a museum dedicated to his life and works. I went to see his studio and accompanying state-of-the-art building designed by top Spanish architect Rafael Moneo. It contains many of Miro’s works and memorabilia, including sketches on the walls, and there are also a number of sculptural delights spread around the grounds.
More Miro masterpieces can be found at Es Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which is a highlight of any visit to Palma. Opened in 2004, the gallery is housed in a renovated fortress overlooking the bay, a pairing that perfectly exemplifies Palma’s successful blending of past and present.
The architecture of the building is a work of art in itself – combining the original renaissance fortifications with a modern structure of white-washed walls, glass and steel. It holds permanent exhibitions including works by the father of modern art himself – Pablo Picasso. Even when the main gallery is closed, visitors can wander past steel and stone sculptures to the sublime cafe terrace on the ramparts – a great spot to relax and take in the harbour view.
Beyond Es Baluard, there’s no shortage of small galleries and large art museums in Palma. Hidden in the narrow lanes behind the cathedral are a clutch of little galleries showcasing the work of contemporary artists. At Sala Pelaires, which was the city’s first contemporary gallery, you can view the work of leading Spanish artists, while Galeria La Caja Blanca has a more avant-garde international flavour. Fans of modern art should not miss a visit to Palau March with its courtyard full of startling and odd sculptures by the likes of Rodin, and rooms painted by Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert. Also well worth a visit are the La Caixa Forum – a modernisme building housing an exhibition centre that celebrates the movement – and the Museum of Contemporary Spanish Art.
Above and below
As well as being a great city break destination in itself, Palma has reliable connections by bus and rail to the rest of the island, so it’s a good place to set up base. The most stylish way to exit Palma is to catch the vintage train across the plains and upward into the cool folds of the dramatic Serra de Tramuntana mountain range.
The wooden train has been trundling this route up to the charming mountain town of Soller since 1912, and as it climbs, the carriages cut so close to fig and lemon groves that you can almost grab one. The journey is a scenic one, chugging between sky-high escarpments and weaving above pine-forested valleys. It stops at a good vantage point where the passengers dutifully disembark to try and capture a souvenir of the awe-inspiring view over the lush Soller Valley.
Soller is a beautiful town with a pleasant square, and there’s ample opportunity for nature and walking enthusiasts to amble through the surrounding stunning terrain on marked hiking trails and visit the pretty botanical gardens. Like Palma, Soller was also touched by the modernistas. Gaudi’s disciple, Joan Rubio, left a stylish mark on the town in the form of an unusual facade for the baroque church and intricate metal lattice-work for the former local bank. From the town, a rattling tram will take you down to the tranquil port nestled in a protected bay below. A sense of calm pervades in Port d’Soller where the sea is hemmed in by high cliffs and children play in the still, clear shallows.
For yet another perspective on the island, I had the chance to dive into the crystal-clear waters around Illetas, just ten minutes’ drive west of Palma, with the friendly folks from Hippocampes dive centre. During a short shore dive from the white crescent beach, I saw a surprising array of life living between colourful sponge-covered rocks, seagrass gardens and sandy beds including trigger fish, wrasses, starfish and even an octopus.
Diving is a great way to cool off in the heat of Mallorca’s summer, when temperatures can soar around the island. I found another pleasant escape from the heat of the midday sun in the Coves de Campanet, situated beneath the green foothills in the north-west.
These caves date back to a time before humans walked the earth, and are well worth a visit to marvel at the subterranean complexes’ strange and beautiful rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. Unlike some underground caves I’ve visited, access is on foot and has been created sensitively so that the caves can be experienced in their natural state without garish lighting or theme-park like distractions.
Some stretches of Mallorca’s coastline have been disfigured by development but there are still lots of places where you can enjoy the natural scenery without a hotel spoiling the view. Aside from the sheltered turquoise cove in the upmarket little resort of Illetas, my favourite beaches are at Cala Mondrago, part of the protected Mondrago Natural Park in the south-eastern corner of the island.
In a deep enclave in the coastline, there are two wide swathes of soft white sand with clear water that’s perfect for snorkelling and swimming. The far beach is backed by pine forests, though the water can get a little wavy, while the main beach is sheltered from the wind and has a cafe and a restaurant. A number of walking trails wind inland through the nature reserve and along the pine-studded ochre-coloured coast to high clifftops with breathtaking sea views. Though this is meant to be a protected area, there are actually two hotels here tucked behind the treeline, and the place is incredibly peaceful and idyllic once the daytrippers have disappeared.
Nearby, the coastal town of Portopetro is a lovely place to take a walk and grab a bite to eat along the shore. Just inland, the narrow, cobbled and honey-coloured streets of Santanyi are built from the local sandstone and are also a delight to explore on foot. I visited on Saturday when the bustling main square was overflowing with local natural produce and arts and crafts. I returned for dinner in the square where the day’s stalls were replaced by jostling tables belonging to the plethora of restaurants and cafes, with live music leaking from a bar only adding to the happy atmosphere. The nearby church Sant Andreu Apostel is huge and well worth a peak for its elaborate interior decoration.
Mallorca in short
In short, while Mallorca has acquired a bad rap as a kind of little Britain-on-sea, that is far from the full story. Yes, I did see a group of lads at the airport wearing Magaluf t-shirts (a resort to avoid at all costs) but Mallorca is actually a wonderful island with all the ingredients for a colourful and memorable city, beach and walking break all-in-one.