Postcard from Palma de Mallorca III

On our recent long weekend trip to Palma we barely scratched the surface of the island. However, I like to understand a bit about the history of places we visit as it provides some context to its architecture. Although the island has long been a top tourist destination, it appears to have enjoyed quite a colourful and tumultuous history and been the holiday destination of choice for many invaders.

It’s thought humans have lived on Mallorca since 7000 BC, but little is known of these early inhabitants. After the Phoenicians and Greeks started using Mallorca as a pivotal trading post, the Romans took over the area in 123 BC although Mallorca’s famous sling throwers made that feat much more challenging than the Romans anticipated.

In 426, Mallorca was sacked and annexed by the Vandals. In 534, the Byzantine Empire conquered it and administered it along with Sardinia. During this period, Christianity boomed and many churches were built. North African raiders regularly attacked the region from 707 until the Emirate of Cordoba annexed it in 902.

The Caliphate’s rule ushered in a new period of prosperity. Many local industries were developed and agriculture was improved by  irrigation. In 1015, Mallorca came under the ruling of the Taifa of Denia, and was an independent Taifa from 1087 – 1114. Thereafter, the Pisans and Catalans laid siege to Palma for eight months. After the fall of the city, the invaders gave way and were replaced by the Almoravides from North Africa, followed by the Almohads in 1203. In 1229 King James I of Aragon attacked with 15,000 men and 1,500 horses, finally taking possession of Mallorca after a bloody three-month war and Jaume II started overseeing the region.

In 1276, after the death of James I, the kingdom was divided between his sons with James II became the king of Mallorca. In 1344, King Peter IV of Aragon marched into the kingdom and re-incorporated the island into the crown. From 1479 onwards, the Crowns of Aragon and Castile were united. Then, in 18th century, after the war of the Spanish succession, Mallorca became part of the Spanish province of Baleares in 1716 by the Decretos de Nueva Planta.

The island was a Nationalist stronghold at the start of the Spanish Civil War and consequently the subject of an amphibious landing in August 1936, intent on driving out the Nationalists and reclaiming the island. Fascist Italy occupied the region until its withdrawal from the island in1939 following the Battle of Mallorca.

Since the 1950s, the advent of mass tourism has transformed the island into a destination for foreign visitors and attracted many service workers from all over Europe, South America and Africa.

Aside from visiting the capital Palma, we also drove along the Island’s south-west coast visiting Port Andratx which is now quite an exclusive area though in the past it too was occupied by the Romans and subject to attacks from Barbary pirates. In the 16th century a system of observation towers was erected on the island as a means of protection against pirates many of which still exist here along the coast. We also visited Port Soller which presumably suffered from similar attacks. Now the only things the two ports have to worry about is the influx of tourists

Postcard from Palma de Mallorca I

You may recall that while my birthday was celebrated with a half-day in Toulouse during a business trip, my beloved’s merited a long weekend in Palma. I confess this was largely because Easyjet had just started to fly from Nice to Palma and he’d booked two return flights for Euros 84,00. Consequently I’d splashed out on a suite in a 5 star hotel in Palma Old Town along with a birthday dinner in its Michelin starred restaurant. What can I say? He’s thoroughly spoilt.

Unbelievably this was my maiden trip to Mallorca. My parents and sisters had visited the island in 1971 while I’d been improving my French, in France, with my penfriend. Thereafter, tales of Brits behaving badly in Magaluf had, in my mind, unfairly turned the entire island into one big Club 18-30. My beloved had visited briefly about 10 years ago, while sailing in the area with his then boss, but hadn’t really done the place justice with the description of his trip. I was prepared to be surprised.

On the day we travelled there was a slight hiccup, easily remedied, when I discovered my beloved had failed to book a hire car. We had an evening flight which put us at the hotel around 21:00 where, upon arrival, we gratefully sank into the plush low seating in the bar and allowed ourselves to be revived with an Aperol Spritz and a few tapas – heaven!

We were staying in a sensitively converted mission where a few of its former inhabitants were still in situ, though they were neither seen nor heard during our stay. Use of a restricted palette of colours and materials in the conversion had preserved the building’s sense of peace and tranquility and left the rooms feeling light and airy.

After a good night’s sleep in our spacious suite, followed by a copious breakfast, we were ready to walk all around Palma. And walk we did, covering some 15km while the sun shone and the mercury headed well above 20C.

We loved the maze of Moorish narrow streets in the historic district between Plaça de Cort and the seafront. We headed in the direction of La Seu, Palma’s famous and spectacular sandstone cathedral, and there was something surprising around every corner. A lot of the old mansion properties have been renovated and are now hotels, cafes and restaurants, although there’s still more to be revived. Within a 10 minute walk you’ll see all sorts of architectural styles which gives a sense of the history of Palma going back well over 1,000 years. Finally, you emerge from this labyrinth of lanes and suddenly the bay opens up before you. It’s quite magical.

It’s worth noting that the hugely impressive cathedral took an astounding 600 years to build, and due to its size and placement on the old city walls, is almost impossible to miss. It boasts one the world’s largest stained glass rose windows, and some of its 20th-century renovations were undertaken by famous Modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi. The cathedral stands on the site of a Moorish-era mosque, meaning that anyone kneeling at its altar is facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem.

Palma was particularly busy around its main tourist spots largely as a consequence of the numbers disgorged from those supersized cruise ships,. You know they’re the ones which look as if they’re about to topple over at any moment. There were three parked up in Palma’s port, plus there was a boat show in town and a cycle sportif, Mallorca312.

Palma’s labyrinthine streets provided some shade though we still needed regularly refreshing, taking refuge in some of the other main hotels’ shady gardens. Knowing we were having a multi-course tasting menu for dinner, we grazed on a few tapas over lunchtime to keep our strengths up.

Footsore and weary, back at base, while I dallied in the library, my beloved enjoyed a private pampering session in the hotel’s spa. Much refreshed we enjoyed our multi-course tasting menu. Mine was vegan while my beloved tucked into lobster, sea bass, fois gras and baby lamb. We both enjoyed our respective menus but did feel that on some of the dishes the chef had tried “too hard” and there were elements superfluous to our overall enjoyment of the dish.

We opted for the suggested wine pairing which gave us an opportunity to taste a generous serving with each course, all of which were Spanish, many local and mostly new wines for us. Luckily dinner took three hours otherwise I might have been rather unsteady on my feet on leaving the table. But after another good night’s sleep, we were ready for more sightseeing!