“You know… the longer I’m here, the more I realise that the busy resorts on Mallorca are just a very small part of the overall picture,” says Hanna Bornebusch, PR manager at La Residencia hotel.
e’re standing on the fragrant terrace of the hotel’s El Olivo restaurant on a warm September afternoon, with the sumptuous five-star hotel spread over the hillside behind and overlooking the beguiling village of Deià in northern Mallorca.
As Bornebusch says, the raucous party resorts on Mallorca are mere spots on this island of extraordinary physical beauty. Driving around it, the largest of Spain’s Balearic islands often feels more like a continent than an island — from the grandiose architecture and history of its capital Palma to the dramatic wilderness of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, to the lower-key resorts sprinkled along most of its varied and exquisite coastline.
My visit coincides with a weekend of contemporary artistic celebration called Nit de l’Art (Night of Art). Although billed as just one night, it actually encompasses several, and is a chance for Palma to flaunt its colours as one of the European hotspots of modern art. As you walk along Palma’s Carrer de Sant Miquel, just north of the Plaça Major, one of the best places to begin your appreciation is the Museu Fundación Juan March. Located in a grand 17th-century building, its showcase of work by 20th-century Catalan artists offers an impressive overview of local artists following in the tradition of the likes of Joan Miró.
A 15-minute walk away through Old Palma’s alluring streets, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Palma offers a taste of up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge artistic endeavour housed within a section of the 16th-century fortifications overlooking the city, its harbour and marina. Across the short peninsula by Cala Major, the Joan Miró Foundation is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon basking in the works and life of the Barcelona-born painter, sculptor and ceramist who made Mallorca his adoptive home and donated some 6,000 of his works to this museum.
Back in Deià, La Residencia hotel also celebrates Miró’s work with its Café Miró, where an astounding collection of some of his original artwork adorns the walls, while his designs also grace the Chinaware.
Deià’s artistic veins run even deeper, however. Celebrated poet Robert Graves made it his home and is buried in the town’s cemetery. It is surely one of the most scenic graveyards in Christendom, perched on a hillock surrounded by slopes dotted with grazing sheep amidst olive trees and looking northwest across the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. Among the various writers, painters and musicians who have been captivated by Deià are American poet Laura Riding and musicians Mark Knopfler, Mike Oldfield and our own Caroline Corr.
One can speak similarly of the other villages that sit like dazzling nuggets in the crooks and crevices of these magnificent mountains, whose tallest peak (Puig Major) is almost 400m higher than Carrauntoohil. Valldemossa — 10km or so south of Deià — is another impossibly pretty village, and it was here that composer Frédéric Chopin spent some of his most productive days, composing concertos and making sweet music in the winter of 1838-1839.
About the same distance from Deià in the opposite direction, the town of Sóller is arguably the region’s prettiest. A current claim to fame is that Irish actor Colm Meaney is among its residents. With a history as a town of major lemon exportation, its coastal port is still linked by a wonderful old-fashioned electric tram, and the croissant-shaped beach in its wide, protected harbour draws many tourists over Mallorca’s long, warm summers.
Driving through the interior of the island gives you some idea of its dimensions. Apart from the Serra de Tramuntana, Mallorca is relatively flat, with some hilly stretches near its southeast corner. Here, the coast isn’t quite as dramatic as the Tramuntana littoral, but it’s got charm, and enticing beaches have given rise to a number of low-rise resorts.
Chief among these is Cala d’Or. Literally meaning Golden Bay, it is really a series of inlets, each with its own character and with golden, sandy shores flanked by protective promontories. The snorkelling is superb anywhere around here (I even encountered two octopuses). The whitewashed town of Cala d’Or was purpose-built in the 1930s to the designs of artist and architect Josep Ferrer, when Mallorca was a haven from the Civil War ravaging the Spanish mainland.
Back in Palma, another creative Catalan — Antoni Gaudí, most famous for Barcelona’s Sagrada Família church — has left his mark too. Gaudí spent a decade here, influencing many buildings from the Art Nouveau period. Look up as you stroll along the Plaça del Mercat — a low-key square, perfect for watching Palma city life go by. Here, the Gaudí-esque Edifici Casasayas blends in beautifully with stout medieval buildings, modern commercial blocks, and the 14th-century Church of St Nicholas.
In Mallorca’s cathedral, you’ll see yet more of Gaudí. The second-largest Gothic cathedral in the world, it’s a veritable mountain of sandstone, and its proliferation of stained-glass windows has earned it the nickname The Cathedral of Light. When the sun shines through, it bathes the floor, pillars, pews and pilgrims alike in a kaleidoscope of colour. You can see how the tradition of incorporating great art into the fabric of society has been going on for centuries.
Then, hanging over the main altar in pride of place, you’ll notice a stunning piece of work by Gaudí — a baldachin (an enormous ecclesiastical mobile made almost entirely of coloured cardboard and paper). It was there long before the hard-drinking hordes arrived on this island and, one suspects, will remain in place for centuries to come.
Aer Lingus and Ryanair will fly from Dublin, Cork and Shannon to Palma, resuming in March 2022. Conor was a guest of spain.info and fundaciomallorcaturisme.net.
Where to Stay
Palma: The Icon Rosetó is a former nunnery in the heart of the old city and the middle of everything. The Plaça Major is around the corner and up the steps, the Plaça Mercat is virtually across the street and some of Palma’s best cafés, restaurants and traditional bakeries are on your doorstep. It features a charming courtyard for outdoor breakfast and a rooftop bar complete with a small but perfectly-formed swimming pool. Double room B&B rates start at €120 including taxes. iconroseto.com
Deía: La Residencia is luxury at its finest, blending into and clinging to the hills flanking Deía in a dreamlike setting. It’s a hotel with art in its heart, a marked absence of stuffiness and impeccable quality in everything they do. With 11 room categories, accommodation types vary greatly but double room B&B rates start at around €495 including taxes. belmond.com
Cala d’Or: In a resort abounding with accommodation choices, the Hotel Antares (+34 971 65 72 39) is a one-star wonder that delivers the kind of friendliness and value for money that many establishments struggle to achieve – and all without a website. It’s a 3-minute skip to the beach (Cala Gran), and with a huge variety of bars and restaurants on your doorstep, you’ll be hard-pressed to beat owner Thomas’ food and drink prices. Double room B&B rates from around €50 including taxes.
Where to Eat
Palma: Celler Pagés (+34 971 72 60 36) is a family restaurant serving the optimum melange of traditional Mallorquin hearty food infused with international Mediterranean vibes. Located just off the wide, leafy Passeig del Born, the service is warm, the wine is wonderful and you leave with a full tummy and a smile.
Central Mallorca: Ca’l Dimoni (+34 971 66 50 35) in Algaida serves true hearty fare in the heart of the island. The setting is rather like a ranch in hell (the name means ‘House of the Demon’), but in the best possible way. The mainly-local infectiously good-natured clientele seem to all know one another. Beautifully cooked lumps of beef and pork on the menu let you know that traditional Mallorquin cuisine is more turf than surf.
Cala d’Or: La Bodega is in the heart of Cala d’Or’s grid-patterned streets, its wine-barrel outdoor tables and desert-island shack façade tempting passers-by. Once seated, the atmosphere is totally tapas and the passion the owners have for wine and food is quickly apparent. Not the cheapest place in town and not expensive, but possible the best value for money. restaurantlabodegamallorca.com
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Visitors travelling by air must also fill out an electronic Health Control Form before arrival at spth.gob.es. You will get a QR code that you then need to present both when boarding and on arrival in Spain.