Next to a small white plastic table near the waters of Mallorca, at El Molinar, one of the oldest marinas in Spain’s Balearic archipelago, there is a group of fishermen pouring anis into small shot glasses and barking at each other in good-natured, animated chat. And in what seems to be a break from social norms tolerated only on islands and seedy bars, the drinking has started at 9 o’clock in the morning. I watch as they play some esoteric card game and slap each other on the back, and there is something enviable in their unconcern. They speak in a malleable, operative mix of MallorquÃn and Castilian Spanish, and the years of Mediterranean sun have turned they their skin deeply weathered, like a wrinkled saddle.
It could be said that these men unknowingly represent the antithesis of the trendy strobe-saturated discothÃ¨que culture for which Mallorca and the Balearic Islands are often better known for today. And they don’t seem to notice the posh yachties in Palma either, who seasonally skim across the surface of local culture in their bubble of recession-proof wealth. These old men simply set their nets in the calm evening waters of the sea, and return later to collect fish from them. Quintessential homebodies, they confidently forecast the weather by looking at the morning sky. And although they do not have an air of meanness, it strikes me that their social circle is almost impenetrable, and that they are not likely to open up to smiling foreigners.
The Balearic Islands, comprised primarily of Mallorca, Menorca, Formentera and Ibiza, can be difficult to define succinctly. At times, the local can be perceived as closed, not always receptive of the wide-eyed wanderers who think their island is cool. And while the island chain typifies the romantic idealist’s arid Mediterranean paradise, its coasts are often peppered with over-advertised spaces chock-full of sunburned and stressed out vacationers and expensive, standardized food posited as local cuisine. The ocean and sun draw sailors and sun bathers in vessels ranging from skiffs to ostentatious super yachts and party boats with DJs spinning house music and plump, silicone-filled girls serving 15-euro mojitos. Places like Magaluf and Formentera thrive on throngs of unnaturally tan, gym-sculpted bodies, and the self-obsessed who wear things like slingbacks and Ferrari driving shoes. And the beautiful island of Ibiza, although picturesque in its own right, is a temporal concentration of hedonistic abandon deserving of its reputation. Because of the climate and proximity, and the occasional savvy MallorquÃn opportunism, the Balearics have long been a magnet for German and English summer vacationers and retirees, and throughout Mallorca there are enclaves of like-minded tourists and expats, piled together on beaches, glued to lawn chairs and overdosing on beer and ultraviolet rays. The result is often a disappointing mix of tacky shops, sanitized resorts, and restaurants with the single purpose of making a northern European feel at home.
Still, these islands hold hidden coves and a quiet natural beauty, delicious local cuisine, deep linguistic history, and beaches that rival any in the world. In Mallorca, the treasures are there, if you look for them.
I set aside two days to get lost by car, with the vague, initial idea of finding a lighthouse somewhere on one of the extremities of land. As expected, the roads got thinner and the hills turned to cliffs, and the sea of humanity thinned, with astounding views on either side. A strong, quickly moving summer storm blew through, and as the clouds slid away, I found the lighthouse at Cap de Sa Mola, just past the coastal village of Port D’ Andratx. Especially on an island, finding the outer edges of a land mass is comforting to me. Lighthouses are always built on precipices, as a visual aid for sailors, but I often see them as guides from the other side, from land looking out, to delineate and clarify where I am. From the extremities I define my place.
Looking over the cliff’s edge, the dark ocean churned after the storm and the waves crashed against the rocks and there was the scent of wet wood in the air.
Further inland, the town of Valldemossa seems to have slid down the Tramuntana mountain range, resting in silence. The sky is pierced by a few stony monuments, most notably La Cartoixa, or Real Cartuja, now a secularized Carthusian monastery where Chopin once lived and finished his 24 Preludes (his piano is displayed inside). The streets are narrow and nowadays, in conjunction with summer festivals, there are ribbons of pastel paper draped from balconies and rooftops, and banners depicting the cherished saint Catalina ThomÃ¡s. As I walked through the steep and narrow passageways just after siesta time, a parade of drummers marched, breaking the silence of the town, led by a whistle-wielding man with a baton, pouring chalices of water on passersby.
I stopped by a small, cluttered wine bar in the center of town, as I do. Inside, there was a slightly drunk, chain-smoking old man pouring wine out of a tap in a wooden barrel. It was immediately evident that he was very proud of the handmade, slightly sweet red wine he was serving. He spoke in the same MallorquÃn-peppered Spanish as the fishermen in El Molinar, but he seemed to have become more open to sharing his local treasures. It could have just been the wine. I said yes to everything he put on my table.
“Where is this wine from?” I asked.
“Around here,” he said. I took the hint and decided not to interrogate him about any possible bootlegging.
“Try this,” he said, sliding over a plate of Mallorcan goat’s milk cheese and thinly sliced, cured ham. “It’s made from goats right over there.” He pointed out the window to the other side of the valley.
“Have you tried sobressada?” he asked (I had, but pretended otherwise). “Here’s some salchichas. No, they’re not Spanish.”
I spread the sobressada, a rich spread made with minced pork, fat and paprika, on pieces of bread, and he added to it a bit of honey and I gulped down more of the sweet wine.
It should be mentioned that I could understand about half of what he was saying, at best. But because of his effortless conviviality, I felt comfortable and privileged and before long, slightly drunk, and his utterances were becoming a source of happy confusion.
Consistent with the contemporary renascence of once-repressed provincial languages in Spain, the MallorquÃn will likely speak a variable dialect of CatalÃ¡n with a healthy dose of Spanish vocabulary. Road signs and neighborhoods are almost all expressed in CatalÃ¡n, a language that may look to outsiders like a cross between French and Spanish, but with the diphthongs and intonation similar to Portuguese and the clustered consonants of English. At least since the rule of the Crown of Aragon, CatalÃ¡n has been central in the culture of the area (although forced to near extinction on occasion). At its height (the 14th and 15th centuries), the once-powerful Crown was a sort of maritime confederacy, having mastered much of the Mediterranean, including Barcelona, Valencia, Mallorca, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and even parts of Greece and southern France. The oldest collection of maritime laws is written in CatalÃ¡n. When Christopher Columbus persuaded those in power to shift their attention west, to the Americas, it began to loose its broad influence. Today, our wine-pouring barman represents the newest resurgence of the CatalÃ¡n language in Spain, with a local Balearic flavor.
Continuing along the narrow road with hairpin turns, there is the vantage point at Sa Foradada. The observer feels suspended above the sea and little group of moored yachts, the shiny water reflecting a piercing light like a giant piece of aluminum foil. In the afternoon the heat is oppressive, and one has no choice but to mount a counter-attack of cold beers. Near the cliff’s edge is an open air bar, serving cold drinks. Each evening, there is a quiet collection of locals and tourists, gathered in groups under palapa-style sun shades, talking softly and clinking glasses together, all collected for the simple pleasure of watching the sun fall into the ocean (yes, they clap at the end).
On the northwest side of Mallorca sits the port town of SÃ³ller, with its stony houses clinging to the rocky coast, and it is balanced on the edge of old world beauty and modern tourist trap. For the most part, the local municipality has so far managed to preserve, probably by accident, a refreshing display of coastal village life. Despite the obvious, sentimental old-looking things, like the train from Palma, heaving with hanging cameras and bored faces, SÃ³ller can’t help but enchant the visitor when its not trying. Its horseshoe-shaped bay and promenades filled with obscenely pleasant eateries, the marina, and its labyrinth of small streets all conspire to charm even the most jaded traveler. There are yachts pulled up to stone quays stern-first; chatting people sitting on terraces under tilted sunshades; another high-profile lighthouse at the edge of the bay; palm trees; and wooden fishing skiffs that never seem to leave their moorings. The mouth of the marina is a channel of churning water, and sailors in transit slide in on boats, lines in hand and looking to stock up on supplies. In times like these, I encounter again the strong pull to the sea and a craving for seafood.
I stopped by a beachside restaurant, ordered some grilled Merluza (Hake fish), caragols (snails with herbs), pa am oli (grainy bread with squeezed ramellet tomato, olive oil, thinly sliced cured ham, and a pinch of salt) and a cold glass of bubbly cava. And I watched walkers and families and couples creeping along at the unhurried pace of a small town in summer.
In some ways, SÃ³ller offers a view of Mallorca in microcosm. Its rural tranquility and grand views of cliffs and multi-colored ocean water are pleasant and leave a lasting impression, but approaching are signs of standardized tourism and myopic development, like lines of plastic sun chairs and resorts preoccupied with trendiness. The Balearic Islands have long been a focal point of intense vacationing, and some locals are increasingly taking advantage of the money thrown at them, resorting to blatant pandering, like a seal balancing a ball on its nose for cash. But for me, the most rewarding way to visit these islands is through independent pursuit of the unsuspecting local resident who happens to be concerned less with devising ways to squeeze euros and dollars out of foreign pockets and more with the simplistic way of life he has always known. And this is an ideal that grows less tangible in a developed society under the strain of economic recession. But it is always there.
About the Writer:
Shawn is a freelance writer with particular interests in travel, food and wine, and Spanish culture. He graduated with a BA in Creative Writing and Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, and currently teaches English to elementary school children. His work has also appeared in www.madbudget.com, and he writes for his blog,A Casual Notebook, and currently lives in Madrid, Spain. Follow Shawn on twitter @casualnotebook
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