Daily Mail – 8 June, 2019
For decades I’d thought of Mallorca simply as bikini scattered beaches, noisy discos, much revelling, and rampant romancing. And, if that’s what you want on holiday, I expect there’s a lot of it to be found there – although the romance might depend on your luck and age.
But there is another, quite different Mallorca, that I’d never known about, but which, as we drove our hire car away from the airport at Palma, almost immediately appeared on the horizon. It’s the Tramuntana Mountains, which stretch along the entire northwest coast and where jagged peaks reach higher than anywhere in the entire British Isles.
Just sixty miles long and ten miles wide, with valleys and slopes coated with home oaks and larches, the Tramuntana seems to belong on a quite different island from the neat olive and citrus groves everywhere else.
In fact, it’s so different it even has a slightly cooler, damper, micro-climate – which is, of course, what makes it so verdant – beautiful enough to have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And that has been a godsend. Protected from the ravages of development, the whole area has remained a wilderness, and is now a magnet for mountain hikers and leather-lunged cyclists.
Being neither walkers nor cyclists, our general destination was Port de Soller, a small resort about three miles on from the pretty, busy little town of Soller, which lies in the valley that leads down from the mountains to the sea. It is also where every garden has lemon trees.
Had it been anywhere else, Port de Soller, with its almost lagoon-like harbour, might have been ruined by commercialisation. But, although used for centuries to export the local citrus fruits, its remoteness at being locked out of the rest of Mallorca by the mountains, saved it from over-development.
The Romans got their shallow boats in here, of course, and the Normans and, when they conquered Spain, the Moors came, too. Then in 1561, after the Moors had been pushed out of the country, the women of Soller, saw off a smash and grab slave raid by North African pirates.
Known as Es Firo, they still celebrate that in Soller over three days in May, a commemoration that looked to us like a lot of fun as children and teenagers with garishly painted faces dressed up, they took part in jokey battles. It’s almost their Bonfre Night.
Palma, the capital of Mallorca is less than forty miles away, but, until just over a hundred years ago, the only road connecting Soller to the rest of the island was a tortuous, rutted switchback through the mountains.
Then in 1911 the entire population of the Soller region clubbed together (with outside help) to burrow a tunnel through the Tramuntanas and lay a narrow-gauge railway line – and then a single-track tram extension link to the port.
Both train and tram are still operating – the train being a Thomas the Tank Engine wooden carriages creature. The one we travelled in wore, I noticed, a plaque saying that it had been built in 1929.
The people of Soller obviously care about their history, so, not for them some brash modern railway terminus a couple of streets behind their originally medieval church of San Bartomeu.
Instead they decided to convert a seventeenth century fortified 16th century mansion, making it, they claim, the oldest railway station in the world – but one that also manages to host a little art gallery, showing works by Joan Miro and Picasso.
Of course, there is now a perfectly good road tunnel into Soller, too, but this being protected mountain country, driving anywhere else in this neck of the Mediterranean woodsis akin to riding a switchback.
Heading south along the high coast road we passed through the spectacularly pretty little town of Deia, where Robert Graves of I Claudius fame, had a home. But, when we decided to visit the only other accessible beach at nearby Valdemossa, the drive down the cliff involved negotiating over twenty hairpin bends. Plum, my wife, tells me the views were magical.
The only other road out of Soller is northwards and slightly easier, but no less beautiful with the views becoming almost alpine when we got above tree level.
The ancient monastery at Lluc was our destination, in a visit that caused us to step back slightly in time, as we watched old Spanish ladies from a tourist bus kneel and cross themselves before an 11th century black statue of the Madonna and Child.
More adventurous guests in our hotel would strike out for the hills every morning, sturdy with their haversacks and walking boots. But, apart from a day trip to Palma to visit the biggest cathedral I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a few, we were content to idle most of our holiday away just watching the people go by.
Not that there isn’t much else to see, from the tethered flotillas of yachts in the harbour, to the quaint little orange tram, like a cast off from an old movie about San Francisco, on the traffic free road. And always there’s the sea as it crashes into foam at the foot of the sheer, towering cliffs beyond the town.
As for the evening, sitting in a different outdoor restaurant every night (£65 being the average price of dinner for two) we would watch mesmerised, again and again, as the sun set directly between the two lighthouses that protected the entrance to the port.
It was good to discover how mistaken I’d been about Mallorca.