Mallorca is one of the great European playgrounds. Over 6 million tourists visit this Balearic Island in the Mediterranean about 200 km (125 miles) from Barcelona off the coast of Spain. On a busy summer day, over 700 flights land at the Palma airport, and the harbor is packed with cruise ships. About 40% of the tourists are German, 30% British, and 10% Spanish, with the rest mostly consisting of northern Europeans. The traditional spelling of the island is Mallorca, but sometimes it is spelled Majorca. Either way, it is pronounced My-YOR-ka. Traditionally, the island was best known for its sunny beaches and hot discos, but there is much more to Mallorca than sand, sea, and sun.
Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, the others being Menorca, Ibiza, Formentera, and Cabrera. In summer, Mallorca is overrun with hordes of tourists, but spring and fall are both great times to visit since the weather is moderate and fairly dry.
Most cruise ships spend just one day in Mallorca, and passengers go ashore to explore Palma or tour the island. With only a day, you might choose to do a shore excursion, but if you decide to do some independent exploring of Palma, here are some ideas.
Palma is named after the Roman city of Palmyra in Syria, but it has both Moorish and European flavors. The city is dominated by its wonderful Gothic cathedral, La Seu, and most of the main sights are located within the area bounded by the old city walls, especially to the north and east of the cathedral. A half-day walk around the old city can start and end at the Plaça d'Espanya. It is a popular gathering point and is the terminating point for many buses and the train to Sóller. Grab your map of the city, and amble back towards the harbor from the Plaça d'Espanya, taking the time to have a coffee in one of the outdoor cafes. Both the cathedral La Seu and the Palau de l'Almudaina (Royal Palace) are on the harbor and worth a visit, as are the nearby ancient Moorish or Arabic Baths (Banys Arabs). As you stroll away from the palace area back towards Plaça d'Espanya, you might want to take the Passeig des Born, a tree-lined boulevard that many see as the heart of city life. Another must-see site on this walking tour is the old Gran Hotel, Palma's first luxury hotel, now a museum of modern art called the Fundació la Caixa. Its trendy cafe-bar is a good choice for lunch or a snack. Turn right off the Passeig des Born onto Carrer Unió. The Fundació la Caixa is on Carrer Unió near the Teatre Principal and the Plaça Weyler.
Other Palma sites worth a visit include:
- Basilica de Sant Francesc, a massive sandstone church built in the 13th century
- Castell de Bellver, a well-preserved 14th-century royal fortress
- La Lloyjs, a 15th-century seafront building that was once Palma's merchant's exchange
- Mercat Olivar, a covered market full of flowers, fruit, fish, and lots of local colors
- Parc de la Mar, a popular park near the cathedral
- Poble Espanyol, a Spanish Village theme park that serves as a microcosm of Spanish architecture, similar to the Spanish Village in Barcelona.
Most shops in Mallorca are open from 10 to 1:30 and 5 to 8:00 on Monday through Friday, and on Saturday mornings. Souvenir shops in the large resort areas stay open all day. The unit of currency is the Euro, but most major stores accept credit cards. The main shopping areas in Palma are along the Passeig des Born, Avinguda Jaume III, and Calle San Miguel. The district around the cathedral contains many interesting shops and boutiques. Linens, perfumes, and glassware are popular, and the Spanish leather goods are high quality. Lladro porcelain (and other porcelains) are often a good buy. Mallorca pearls are far less expensive but just as lustrous as those from the South Pacific. If you are shopping for Mallorcan pearls, be sure to inquire on your ship about reputable dealers. If you are souvenir shopping, you might look for a siurell, which is a clay whistle made in Mallorca since Arab times. The siurells are usually brightly painted white with red and green trim. Children love them, and they are cheap.
Outside of Palma are wonderful villages and great hiking and photo options. One of the most popular day trips is to Valldemossa, where some say Frederic Chopin and George Sand were the first Mallorcan tourists.
Mallorca's popularity as a tourist destination helped get its start from an unusual source. In 1838, the pianist Frederic Chopin and his lover, the writer George Sand, rented a former monk's cell at the Royal Carthusian Monastery. The couple and their illicit affair were the subjects of intense gossip in Paris, so they decided to take refuge in Valldemossa to escape the 19th century equivalent of today's paparazzi. Chopin suffered from tuberculosis, and they thought the sunny, warm climate would help him recover. Unfortunately, the winter was a disaster for the couple. The weather was wet and cold, and the Mallorcan citizens shunned them. Chopin's health declined, the couple feuded with the villagers and each other, and Sand took out her frustrations with a pen in the scathing novel, A Winter in Majorca.
Today the former monastery is a favorite shore excursion for cruise ship visitors to the island. The ride from the harbor to the mountain village passes through olive and almond trees as the elevation increases from the coast. The village is quite charming, and the ancient monastery is well kept. In addition to the cells occupied by Chopin and Sand, the church and pharmacy are both interesting. Some of the drugs and potions in the pharmacy look much like they did a hundred or more years ago.
After visiting the monastery and exploring the village of Valldemossa, tour buses drive onward to the northwestern coast of Mallorca. The drive along the coast is magnificent. Glimpses of villas along the steep, rocky coast are tantalizing. Some tours have a wonderful lunch at a restaurant along the way in Deià, the Ca'n Quet. After lunch, the buses head for Sóller, where guests catch the famous vintage train back to Palma.
In 1912, a train line was opened between Palma and Sóller, making the northwestern coast of Mallorca accessible to the city. Prior to 1912, the journey across the mountains of Mallorca made passage difficult, and the Palma-Sóller road was a terror to navigate (and still is!). The train ride today is much like it was almost 100 years ago. Vintage railcars with mahogany panels and brass fittings rattle along the track through numerous tunnels. The ride is neither fast nor exciting, but the vistas are spectacular, and the numerous tunnels along the way provide a glimpse of how difficult construction must have been. Some of the windows on the train are badly scratched, so be sure to get a seat with a "clean" window since there are many sites to see.
Five trains a day leave from Plaça d'Espanya in downtown Palma for Sóller. The 10:40 am train has a short photo stop but is often the most crowded. The ride is about 1.5 hours, traveling across the plain, through the tunnels in the mountains, and arriving in a lush valley of orange groves between the mountains and the sea. Sóller has a fine selection of pastry shops and tapas bar for the weary traveler, many surrounding the Plaça Constitució.
Tour buses arrive in Sóller after lunch in Deià. The train ride back to Palma is fun and gives an opportunity to see more of the beautiful island.