Spain’s got a bit of a bad reputation. As holiday destinations go, aside from major cities such as Madrid or Barcelona, much of Spain is viewed as a bit tacky. Especially the coastal areas and islands, which can be seen as the last bastion of red top 2.4 family units or ‘it were great in the 80s’ Brits abroad.
It’s cheap, close, and familiar.
Being a Brit myself, I have seen how much my countrymen have spoilt parts of Spain, and had tempered my expectations of Mallorca – seeing it as a convenient destination to get a last week of sun before I hunkered down into the gloom of the British winter.
I needn’t have done so, for Palma is a city so beautiful, and old, and grand, that it could certainly rival any of the obvious choices for a city break.
In a death match between Palma and some of the more famous grand old European cities (Prague; Barcelona; Brussells; Budapest; Venice et al), not only could Palma hold her own – I propose she’d actually come out on top. And here’s why…
She’s good looking.
The historical centre is both impressive and charming. The (mostly traffic free) stone streets are flanked with tall, elegant facades – all long windows, shutters and balconies. You can even spot several great examples of Gaudi’s fantastical art nouveau creations.
Gothic, baroque and medieval structures all compete for your attention, a pace any faster than a snail’s being impossible, as you walk along looking everywhere but in front of you. Here and there are cool and quirky bars and independent galleries selling everything from old masters to contemporary street art.
Then onto the spacious tree lined avenues with sumptuous high-end boutiques, and plazas fringed by carnederias and tapas restaurants. All wrapped in the golden Moorish ribbon of the ancient city walls, sealed in a bow by that most iconic of Mallorcan structures – the cathedral.
She can cook.
Unlike many more obvious cities, it’s incredibly hard to eat badly in Palma.
You can eat food every bit as good right next to tourist landmarks, as if you’d scoured the backstreets looking for a gem.
We spied Misa hidden down a tiny alley off of Carrera de la Missio, and were tempted in by the soft candlelit glow emanating from its airy courtyard as much as by the menu. Traditional European dishes are reinvented with lots of flavour and exquisite presentation. And be prepared to be both surprised and delighted if you try one of the quirkier dishes. M went out on a limb with the chilled tomato soup with strawberries as a starter, and was not disappointed.
Aside from the obvious tapas restaurants (the portions are huge by the way, bring some friends), there are also an abundance of really good Asian restaurants, particularly Japanese. I know it may seem contraindicated to visit Spain and not eat Spanish, but this is a city break remember, and you wouldn’t visit New York and only eat hot dogs.
Two Asian eateries worthy of a mention are Daruma Sushi, who offer a lunch menu for just €14. This included several tempting options. I went for salmon tartare, full of crunchy, piquant ginger, spring onion and wasabi to offset the smoothness of the salmon, followed by their special sushi selection (12, yes 12, pieces!), followed by ice cream with mango and raspberry coulis. We even got an amuse bouche at the start of the meal. The food is fresh and tasty and extraordinary value for money. Bi Bap is another good choice. A nicely designed little restaurant on Plaza del Mercat, they offer a mind-blowing array of dishes from every part of Asia. We started in Vietnam and Malaysia and finished in Thailand, via Japan. To be honest, we could have eaten the entire menu, and every dish was as beautifully prepared as it was authentic.
She’s very cool.
Aside from the super clubs (Pacha and El Divino have both introduced their iconic Ibizan brands to Palma), there are an abundance of very cool little bars to be found in the backstreets. Cafe L’antiquari can be found on some steps just down from La Rambla. L’antiquari is a bijou, bohemian bar, offering delicate fresh nibbles made with interesting ingredients native to Mallorca. The ambience and jazz music might fool you into thinking you’re in Brussels or Prague, however the staff are really friendly – even preparing us a list of must-see beaches on an order slip during their peak service hours, with smiles of enthusiasm and not a hint of tourist fatigue. Another great find was Amor de Madre, on Plaza del Mercat. This trendy little bar has a tempting and affordable selection of ‘Bocadillos’ – open sandwiches topped with different tapas, and the walls are lined with pieces by famous street artists such as Miss Vann. Again, despite the place screaming designer cool, there was none of the usual bravado you’d find in it’s equivalent in London or Barcelona, for example. Just good music, cheap beer, friendly people and art which brings a smile to your face.
Having a car in Palma is a good idea, as there’s so much to see and do all over the island. Being The Disorganised Traveller, however, naturally I forgot my driver’s license. This was fine as it gave me the opportunity to test out the public transport. Like in most of Southern Europe, this is frequent, reliable and cheapedy-cheap.
Rome2rio once again came to my rescue. If you’ve never heard of this website it’s time to get with the program. You can enter any two destinations on the globe, and it will tell you every means of getting there, including distance, time, available public transport, and cost. It also provides links to the corresponding websites and time tables.
If you’re getting sweaty in the city and fancy a rural mountain retreat with a picturesque hike to a hidden cove, you’d do a lot worse than a day trip to Deia.
Just a stunning, twisty-turny, 45 minute bus journey from Palma, even the drive is a mini adventure. Nothing will obscure your view of the sheer mountain drops down verdant mountains, save for the odd rustic village – reminiscent of Tuscany in all of their warm, chunky glory.
Deia is a lovely mountain village, with sturdy yet elegant country houses, their warm stone exteriors in sharp relief to the lush green of the surrounding countryside. There are several excellent restaurants, cafés and bolt holes, as well as the odd gallery and hollistic centre.
The hike to the beach, past well-loved houses and through fragrant pine forests, via a golden dusty track needn’t take more than 30 minutes. Even with frequent breaks to nose into other peoples vegetable gardens, take photos, and even get a teeny bit lost.
Deia beach is a small cove, flanked by two rustic seafood restaurants. The beach it’s self is stony, but once you gain access to the crystal clear waters (crab style is perfectly acceptable), you’ll be hugely rewarded by its clarity and abundance of life. Bring a snorkel kit and jelly shoes.
Also worthy of a visit is Es Trenc. An hour by bus from Palma, Es Trenc is partially nudist, so if you don’t like bodies this may not be the beach for you. I felt it added to the ‘anything goes – including my pants’ vibe. Es Trenc is a wide, white sand beach, with a cerulean sea view, and it’s multiple sandbanks mean there’s a constant, gentle surf. Bring factor 50 and a bodyboard.
She’s a lover, not a fighter.
There’s something undeniably gentle about Palma. From the way the light illuminates the city at dawn and at dusk, to the softly spoken and welcoming people; Palma feels as if all of her sharp edges have been buffed away.
Affluent but never gauche, design-heavy but accessible, urban yet rustic – Palma’s got the whole package. And then some.