AS those who have read poor George Sand’s account of it will attest, winter in Mallorca hasn’t always been regarded as the ideal time for a visit. Those who arrive at Palma’s airport and head straight to the beach will equally argue that, once the temperature of the Mediterranean has dropped those vital degrees, there’s little point in staying on. But behind the island’s well-developed façade of sun, sea and sand, lies a capital city whose casco antiguo (old city) is a miniature take on Barcelona (only a great deal safer), a Michelin-festooned gastronomy where chefs raise an eyebrow at the concept of ‘locally sourced’ (it has ever been thus), and wide expanses of open countryside lying beneath the challenging peaks waiting to be explored. All in a climate which, short of global warming notching up a gear, offers year-round sunshine.
What Chopin’s lover was unable to accomplish in the winter of 1838?9 was to travel around the island to appreciate its multi-faceted assets. A winter stay in Mallorca should combine a period in the capital city, Palma, with a rural stretch. ‘There’s nothing more delightful than enjoying Christmas lunch on the terrace overlooking the Mallorcan countryside,’ says the successful businessman and hotelier Jim Dunn, who first bought a house on the island 15 years ago. ‘And Palma is a year-round city. The shopping is exceptional especially if you’re interested in interiors and fashion.’ Mr Dunn, who divides his time between ‘boltholes’ in Sussex, Provence, Belgravia and the pretty Mallorcan village of Puigpunyent, where his country-house hotel, Son Net, is located, says designer label prices are ‘10% cheaper than in London’.
The musical and arts scene in Palma is lively throughout the year, with festivals, jazz, opera and ballet, but the ideal way to idle away a few days is just to potter. The old city is divided into two by the higher and lower parts, and it’s all thoroughly walkable. The former is comprised of a medina-esque labyrinth of shady streets laid out during the island’s Moorish occupation. Remnants of ancient walls and buildings remain, although most of the casas señoriales (Mallorca’s aristocratic lineage consisted of just nine families, each of whom would have houses in Palma and the countryside) are well-preserved examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
There are heavy Modernist touches from when they started reshaping the city at the turn of the 20th century. ‘One of the surprise blessings of the vast growth in mass tourism on the island,’ explains Terence Panton, who is a devoted Palma resident and director of Engel & Völkers estate agents, ‘is that when everyone was busy over-developing the coastline, they forgot about Palma. It was left untouched. Now the local government is spending money on re-forming the buildings and preserving their heritage, which might have been ruined had the attention in the 1960s and 1970s been on the city.’ My Palma guide, a Mallorquín called Frank (‘the origin of my name is a total saga’), was able to illuminate some of the history of the buildings that I have, to my chagrin, scooted past on previous trips (mostly to the shops Mango and Massimo Dutti via Mallorca’s most famous fashion export: shoes by Camper). He was also helpful in orientating me (‘It’s easy! If you get lost, go downhill. You’ll eventually end up in the sea’).
We spent three hours zig-zagging around the city, dashing up narrow alleyways of the Call, the old Jewish quarter where, in Calle Pelleteria, the marks of crosses following their expulsion from the island can still be seen carved in the mellow, sandstone walls. The grand old Palma houses are built around a patio which, when the solid wooden doors are left ajar, can be glimpsed in passing. Jules Verne was clearly taken by these features, which he described rather whimsically in his novel Clovis Dardentor. The prettiest, Ca’n Oleza, is private, but many open during the festival de patis, which takes place during late spring. Another option to appreciate the interior of the patios is to stop for a coffee in the Gran Café Cappuccino, which is housed in a 20th-century palacio (Calle Sant Miquel, 53).
One of Palma’s best food markets is held in the shabby-turned-chic working-class district of Santa Catalina, a short walk along the seafront from the old town. The capital’s chefs can be seen buying their produce here (it’s open daily except Sunday). A trip could incorporate a visit to Mallorca’s answer to the Tate Modern: the Es Baluard contemporary art museum a relative newcomer to the Palma arts scene is housed in a 16th-century fortress on the waterfront.
The tourist office (www.newsmallorca.com) is a hive of ideas as to what to do on the island during the winter, not least on its agenda being a map it’s had printed highlighting local producers that are open for visits (available from www.illesbalearsqualitat.com). From producers of sobrasada, a spicy pork sausage only found on the island to olive oil makers in Sóller and tastings of the local grape, there’s enough variety to see and taste the best of the island.
However, the highlight of the countryside calendar in Mallorca occurs during late January through February when the island’s four million almond trees are in bloom. According to one legend, an Arab king planted the trees to try and placate his Scandinavian-born queen, who missed her native land’s winters. The carpet of white blossom is said to look like a blanket of snow that’s fallen on the ground.
‘It’s definitely one of my favourite times of year for walking on the island,’ says Valerie Crespí-Green, a nurse and Mallorca resident of more than 30 years, who is also the author of Walk & Eat Mallorca. ‘Not only is the almond blossom a glorious sight, but the island’s wild flowers Balearic cyclamen, giant orchids and freesias are often out at the same time.’ She outlines 10 walks in her book, most of which require nothing more than a pair of trainers and an appetite (they route around good, local restaurants). Her favourite walk travels along the camí de s’arxiduc, a bridlepath laid out in stone for the Archduke Salvador, which starts in Valldemossa and finishes in the artistic enclave of Deià.
The local authorities on the island are making an effort to ensure that the walks are well marked. ‘Things have changed lately: the paths have been formalised and restrictions on rights of way have tightened,’ explains Miss Crespí-Green. ‘But from time to time, you still come across landowners offering glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice.’