Palma de Mallorca is every bit a city living for the present. Its vibrant city streets are bursting with a thriving cosmopolitan cafe culture and lined with all the latest shopping brands, at its centre it welcomes visitors through a state-of-the-art transport hub, and its galleries and architecture have very clearly embraced the modern art movement, from the avant garde to the daringly contemporary. Yet at its very core, Mallorca, and in particular its capital city, is an island rich in historical heritage, from the few surviving influences of the Moorish occupation, and the gothic spendour of grand churches like La Seu, through to the exquisite examples of modernista architecture which are bounteous in and around Palma’s centre.
Today we went on a voyage back in time, both metaphorically, and literally, starting the day by exploring Palma’s Moorish heritage, followed by a journey on Palma’s century old Ferrocarril de Sóller, a rickety old railway which takes visitors from the centre of Palma, through some stunning mountain passages, across to the idyllic little town of Sóller on the North coast of the island.
and its Moorish gardens
Unlike some of the cities in the South of Spain, it’s not always terribly obvious that Mallorca was once ruled by the vast Moorish kingdom of Al Andalus, before being wrestled back from Moorish rule by the Christians as part of the 2-century long reconquista in 1229. However, one not insignificant building sat bang opposite Palma’s iconic cathedral makes the connection to Mallorca’s Moorish past more obvious: the Palau de l’Almudaina. The palace is, in its very fabric, a manifestation of Palma’s long and complex occupational history, with its Roman foundations built in 123 BC, its Moorish enlargement, and a series of changes and refits being made to the building across the centuries, from the reconquista, right up to the last major restoration in the 1970s. Today, what was for centuries a royal palace for Mallorca’s Kings (for example when the kingdom of Mallorca was annexed to Aragon) is now largely a museum, but retaining as it does the essence of Moorish Spain, it provides something of a bubble of tranquility in an otherwise bustling city.
We started by exploring the beautiful gardens which extend horizontally along the lower terraces of the palace, from the bottom of the Passeig de Born to the sea. Stunning in their tranquility, and bearing all the hallmarks of a perfectly geometric Moorish design, these gardens are thankfully free to enter and consequently form the backdrop of one of my favourite walks in Palma. Meanwhile, inside the vast stone palace, a roof terrace planted with cacti and aromatic herbs provides a picture-perfect vantage out to sea, while at the centre of the palace, a courtyard garden is a regal proclamation of the building’s importance, with its stone lions and grand central water feature. The rest of the palace was a little sparse, what with its large lofty banqueting halls and various stone chambers. It was interesting to see how more recent inhabitants had attempted to introduce some comfort to the cold interior with large rugs and soft furnishings. Still it’s no surprise that today the palace is better used as a museum piece rather than as a place of work or residence.
The clock was ticking and up in the Plaça España, Palma’s main transport hub, a rickety old train was awaiting us. Passing under the Victorian-looking wrought iron gateway spelling out the name of the Ferrocarril de Sóller, we made our way onto a delightful wooden train which looks and feels like something straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. The railway, which these days serves largely tourists, has been running for 100 years, providing the remote Northern town of Sóller with a life-line link to Palma, originally so that the town could sell its bounteous harvest of citrus fruits and almonds in the capital. The trains which now take tourists along the 27 kilometre route are almost exactly the same now as they were then (save for the electrification of the railway in 1929). As you travel along the old rumbling rail track, initially through Palma, but then through the dense countryside before ascending through a completely stunning mountain pass, it feels like you have gone back in time.
The Ferrocarril de Soller
Around midway through the journey, the train heads into a narrow dark tunnel under a huge mountain (one of 12 tunnels on the journey) and coming out the otherside the train stops so that passengers can literally gawp in disbelief at the completely stunning panorama which unveils itself beyond the rail tracks. The vista is like none other I have ever experienced. The gigantic mountains, which rise up almost incessantly to the skies, make us, mere mortals, feel like tiny insects in their wake, while in the sprawling valley below, the idyllic town of Soller springs up amongst splatterings of citrus trees and almond trees in full bloom. Breathtaking is certainly the word.
From there, the train made its slow spiralling way down the mountain side before arriving in the centre of Sóller, where another rickety old tram awaited to take us to the beautiful little port, another natural harbour like the Port d’Andratx, but this time hemmed in by even larger mountains giving the impression of a cosy, idyllic port-side paradise. Down on the port, alongside pastel coloured buildings reminiscent of the French Riviera and next to the quietly lapping waters, rows of yachts and fishing boats, we sat out to eat another utterly hedonistic luncheon, sipping upon a chilled bottle of albariño and eating innovative tapas, such as “hairy prawns” coated in a crisp angel’s hair and dipped in wasabi mayonnaise, and a juice-dripping melon with salty-sweet serrano ham.
and the harbour
After lunch, and with time on our hands until the rambling little train journey back to Palma, a stroll along the harbour side turned inadvertently into a hike up the steep slops of the little streets between the shops and houses as our adventurous side kicked in. And once at the top where we could climb no further, we were greeted by a stunning view over the other side of this narrow natural harbour, so that while, one one side, we could look back to the tranquil little port, on the other we could look out to the severe ruggedness of a stark, sheer cliff drop down to an unforgiving sea thrashing against the rocks. Hard to believe that these two ocean environments were only a narrow strip of land apart.
and the other
With that discovery, we took a little tram back into Sóller, having just enough time to look around the little town centre, and gaze in admiration at the unusual Modernista architecture of the Sant Bartomeu church by Gaudi-fan architect Joan Rubio i Bellver, and also appreciate the unbelievably comprehensive collection of both Picasso ceramics and Miro lithographs which were held in beautiful galleries either side of the Ferrocarril railway station – can you believe the wonder of this place, where even the train station has an art gallery stuffed full of priceless Spanish art? And with that final hurrah we boarded the train home, allowing the rumbling train, the darkening evening and the pinkening skies to slowly lure us into a semi-hypnotic state of calm and utter satisfaction, as after a day of historical adventure we travelled, through the most stunning mountain passes, back to the future.
The Ferrocarril de Sóller is a must-see of Palma. For more details, look at the website here. Trains run every day, fairly regularly (5/ day in the winter, going up to 7/day over the summer).
In the meantime, I leave you with some more photos of the day…
Moorish arch at the Almudaina
The Port de Soller
The port viewed from a plant-filled balcony
The colourful buildings of the port
The church in Soller
And finally, the sunset on the journey home