Discovering Palma: The ancient and the sacred
With my mother in town this last weekend, it was time to go back to tourist status, a role I slip into particularly well having only been a fully fledged resident of Palma de Mallorca for less than a month. As such I am still very much in the discovery stages, and already I have ascertained that the sprawling and ancient old town of Palma contains as many hidden corners as it does winding multi-directional streets. And by far the most sprawling, seemingly unplanned and historically rich of all the quarters is that to be found immediately behind and to the East of the Cathedral: the old moorish heart of the city.
With the weekend’s festivities meaning closure of many of the main sites, we began our whistlestop tour of the city with one of the attractions that was open: the old Arabic Baths. And thus began a tour which focused on the ancient, and the sacred. The Arab Baths are not as fine and complete a monument to the previous moorish rulers of Spain as, say, La Mesquita in Cordoba or the baths in Ronda, but they are still a beautiful and historically poignant monument to a bygone age. Dating back to the 11th century and containing two halls – one for hot steaming and the other a warm ante-room, today the baths are little more than a stone archive, although one can easily decipher the moorish arches whose antiquated stone is dappled with the sharp light filtering through holes built into the domed ceiling. The best part of the baths for me however is the gardens of the adjacent Can Fontirroig manor – a lush spot which looks as beautiful in the winter as in the spring, especially when graced with the sun which happily accompanied our weekend.
Leaving the baths and unfurling one further winding street after another, we came upon the Convent of Santa Clara, a romantically austere building and church whose side chapels are filled with the gilded floats which will be paraded in the city’s Easter processions, and whose nun inhabitants bake traditional convent sweets for sale. Naturally we couldn’t resist the purchase of a marzipan, nor a bag of our favourite polverones – a fragile powdery biscuit named after the dusty nature of its constitution.
This led us swiftly onwards to yet another of Palma’s religious hot spots: the Franciscan Monastery whose stunning baroque facade dominates the Plaça de Sant Francesc with its exquisitely detailed depiction of the immaculate conception crowned with Saint George and the Dragon. But the Monastery’s greatest asset has to be the significant cloister set alongside the large main basilica. Drenched with sunshine, the multiple thin columns are amongst the most elegant I have seen in any of Spain’s many monasteries, and lend the cloister a special airyness which made our visit on this sunny afternoon especially hypnotic.
Happily those sugary sweets purchased a little earlier from the nuns of Santa Clara gave us the pick me up we needed – at least until we were able to end a thoroughly illuminating day’s sightseeing with a much needed authentic chocolate stop at Can Joan de S’Aigo – surely the perfect traditional way to end our dip into Palma’s history.
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