Palma, the Majorcan capital, has seaside charm, stylish accommodation and wonderful food, says Beverley Watts
Sliding into my boutique hotel’s rooftop hot tub at midnight, I drink in the view of Palma’s illuminated Santa Maria cathedral. I am alone under the spangled sky with a glass of rather good local wine and have just munched a whole plate of pan de cristal (feather-light toasted crusty bread smudged with tomato and extra virgin olive oil) which was divine.
Majorca’s capital is a laid-back location with a picturesque old town. It’s hard to believe it’s just half an hour from the wild antics and anonymous high-rise hotels in Magaluf – this former Moorish walled citadel is a different world.
Named Palmaria by the Romans in 120 BC, the Moors brought Muslim influence to the city in the Middle Ages before the Spanish arrived as the Renaissance dawned. Palma is dominated by the 13th-century cathedral (known locally as Sa Seu and built to fit 14,000 people).
Until 50 years ago, its ancient sea wall was nudged by the Mediterranean but now a seawater lake on reclaimed land reflects its Gothic splendour.
Inside Sa Seu I recognise the quirky style of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí in the 20th-century canopy, but it’s the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, remodelled by painter Miquel Barceló, that’s really avant-garde.
Completed in 2008, this surreal ceramic cave is a dramatic vision of the New Testament story of The Feeding Of The 5,000, with fish heads, fruit and skulls. Is it plain scary or hauntingly beautiful? You decide.
Right next door – overlooking the Bay of Palma – is the Palau de l’Almudaina, an Arab fortress converted into a ceremonial palace for the Spanish Royal Family. As cruise ships glide by, it’s easy to imagine former banquets in the Great Hall, with its huge triple hearths and massive tapestries.
I’m using my Palma Pass (palmapass.com) to see inside as many beautiful buildings as possible. The old Arab quarter, with its narrow shady streets, is full of museums, ancient palaces and lush, hidden courtyards.
The Museu Diocesa, tucked behind Sa Seu, is stuffed with religious artefacts accumulated over centuries of Catholicism, including an unexpected 1622 altarpiece depicting Christ’s circumcision.
It’s worth going to the Museu Fundación Juan March just for its glorious patterned marble floors, but this elegant mansion also houses the work of Miró, Dalí and Picasso. The Palau March Museu has sculptures by Henry Moore and Rodin in the garden – all this and I’ve barely moved down the street, so rich are Palma’s treasures.
Beach and buskers
I take a short stroll along the palm-lined promenade to Platja Ca’n Pere Antoni beach for a paddle. It’s great to feel the soft white sand between my toes but then I pop on my sandals to cross Placa Major, Palma’s main square.
Portrait artists, assorted buskers and human statues vie for your attention and I spot a turbaned genie sat on a flying carpet. As he grasps his magic staff, I wonder how long he can stay suspended ‘in mid-air’ (only those with strong bladders need apply).
I’m keen to see Mercat de l’Olivar, the bustling indoor market with all kinds of local produce, including Serrano ham and fat oysters. The building has an exciting, busy hum and a cafe con leche for around £1 at the Can Jaume bar is a frothy delight.
There’s a Saturday morning flea market but if you love a department store, visit chic Realto Living and classic El Corte Inglés. Avinguda Jaume III is lined with shops and but do delve into Palma’s twisting back lanes. Take home carved olive wood, traditional ikat woven fabric or gleaming Majorcan (artificial) pearls.
In the Placa de Santa Eulalia, I drink freshly-squeezed orange juice at Cafe Moderno before heading to the Basilica de Sant Francesc, a former monastery, now a school on the upper level. The voices of children fill the cloister at break time but otherwise there’s a quiet serenity and a spooky chill in the empty church. Light a candle in peace for a lost loved one.
An excursion to Valldemossa, the Carthusian monastery where composer Chopin lived in the winter of 1938-39, having been diagnosed with consumption, is the perfect spot to listen to a piano recital of his music.
I stop off at the Deia home of I Claudius author Robert Graves, then it’s back to my hotel’s terrace for another evening dip.
Where to stay
A friendly boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town is the perfect base. I split my stay between:
*Norwegian Air (www.norwegian.com) flies from Gatwick to Palma between March and October. Fares from £53.90 return.
Great for food lovers
Try The Raw Bar at The Hotel Cort – the ‘ceviche de corvina’ (marinated drum fish) is as perfect as the ‘pan de cristal’ bread. Casa Maruka (www.casamaruka.com) has great daily dishes such as ‘paletilla de cordero’ (succulent lamb). KOA (http://www.koapalma.com) is the place for cocktails and tapas. Lunch at Hotel Tres has to be the tangy avocado, mango and prawn salad.
Great for ramblers
Hop on the Soller Railway vintage train (trendesoller.com) to explore the scenic hills below the Serra de Tramuntana mountains where in March the almond blossom carpets the orchards like snow. Hiking tour info at www.newsmallorca.com.
Great for culture vultures
Listen to a piano recital of Chopin’s music on a trip to Valldemossa, the Carthusian monastery where the consumptive composer lived in the winter of 1838-39. Also stop off at ‘Ca N’Alluny’ – the Deia home of I Claudius author Robert Graves. The house is maintained as it was in the 1930s.