You say Majorca, I say Mallorca. There’s more behind the famous rhyme than just spelling. The name Majorca was invented by the British – an anglicised version of the Spanish name for the largest island in the Balearic group. And it’s synonymous with sun, sea and booze holidays beloved by British teenagers.
But I travelled northeast – away from the infamous foam party fun of Magaluf and a one-hour drive from Palma airport, to Pollenca, a small historic town of 16,000 people. You’d never know that this peaceful, attractive town was what first put Mallorca on the tourism map in the early 1900s.
The old town is six kilometres inland so there are no multi-storey hotels or resorts here. Pollenca has all the charms of a Cotswold town, with narrow paved streets winding past old honey-coloured stone houses, bars and restaurants. These twisting lanes open onto a large central square. The Hotel Juma enjoys the best position in town, located on the main square and is the only hotel with rooms overlooking the plaza. It’s small, spotlessly clean and the hotel has remained in the ownership of the same family for five generations. Hotel Juma was responsible for the development of tourism in this part of the island and there’s so much history attached to the business that family member Toni Campins has published a book marking the centenary of the hotel.
Tourism flourished in Pollenca because Hotel Juma offered visiting artists a place to stay. The driving force for tourism was the travelling artist community and you’ll notice how many art galleries remain as you wander the lanes today. Paul Font manages a gallery devoted to locally-born artist Dionis Bennassar. Paul told me that Mallorca is Spain’s third-largest centre of art after Madrid and Barcelona and it established that reputation during the First World War.
“Artists from all over the world come here,” Paul explained. “The light is incredible there’s the mountains and the sea all in one little place.” The Pollenca School of painters were artists who worked in the Impressionist style and was established after a well-respected painter called Anglada Camarasa moved to the area from Paris. He brought his students and fellow artist friends. They came to visit and liked the light and scenery so much that many decided to stay.
Toni told me that Pollenca was quite isolated and, without any outside interference, the artists’ influence dominated. That created a special atmosphere and encouraged more creative people to settle there. I noticed that much of the art on sale was very brightly coloured and floral. Paul reckons it’s because of the island’s sunny location. “It’s an island in the Mediterranean, in the south, without contamination. We have a long summer.”
Hotel Juma was opened to accommodate these artists. Toni told me that some of the struggling painters who stayed there tried to settle bills with art. I can’t paint or draw but I can certainly see why artists have flocked here for decades. The surrounding landscape is varied and beautiful but even before you head to the mountains or beaches there are views worth capturing on canvas around town. One of Pollenca’s most visited sites requires a bit of a hike. The El Calvario Chapel is on a hill that was once owned by the Knights Templar. You reach it by climbing 365 stone steps – one for each day of the year. There are a few arts and crafts shops alongside so you can take a breather and cool down in the shade of the cypress trees that line the walk.
Each year on Good Friday, locals carry a statue of Christ all the way up these steps in a torchlight procession. And if you think that’s steep, on the opposite side of the valley on top of a high hill you’ll find an historic monastery that dates from 1340. It’s 334m above sea level so you need to be fairly fit to hike up there too. Toni’s son Joan, who now manages Hotel Juma, recommends a visit to the site.
“The Puig de Maria is very important to the people of Pollenca,” Joan told me. “It is 45 minutes walk to the top. Many locals visit the Virgin Mary statue there if they need to ask for something for the family or pray for a sick friend or relative.” There’s also a restaurant at the top, offering superb views across two bays and the valleys.
People have lived in the valley since before Roman times. On the edge of town you’ll find the old Roman bridge. Its three different shaped arches form a roadway that is no wider than a singe bed and its stonework makes it look like it was constructed from beach pebbles. When I visited, the bridge spanned a bone-dry, boulder-strewn riverbed. As I sat and drank the only water in sight from my Evian bottle, I tried to count the number of generations who must have walked or even marched across the structure since it went up in 120 AD. Now I watched five cyclists use it to cross the ditch. It can’t have been a comfortable ride – it’s cobbled.
You’re right on the edge of town at the bridge and if you walk for five minutes you can catch the bus to the newer area around the port. The port of Pollenca doesn’t sound that attractive but it’s not as industrial as the name would suggest. It’s where you’ll find the major shops. The town centre is a bit dull, filled with some bland concrete buildings, but there are stretches of sand along the elegant promenade and you can imagine what it would have been like in the 1920s and 1930s, when well-heeled Brits travelled here to escape the UK winter.
Walking along the shaded seafront, it’s easy to see why it’s still popular, particularly amongst retirees. I met up with Virginia Perello from the town’s tourism office, who told me that Agatha Christie helped popularise the promenade amongst her readership. “British tourists know this as the Pine Walk,” she explained. “We don’t use that term but we’ve got used to it. Agatha Christie stayed in a hotel here and wrote about it and that’s why the promenade became famous. It’s where the oldest houses are. It’s nice to walk along the promenade in the evening and enjoy the views along the bay in the shade of the pines.”
As I explained earlier, I can’t paint. But as Pollenca is such an artistic community, I decided to ask some local artists where I would go to capture the best views. The small seaside village of Cala Sant Vincente proved a popular suggestion. It’s a ten-minute ride from Pollenca. Toni told me that the water is very clear and beautiful. “The view of the mountain changes colour a few times a day. It’s a different tone in the morning, afternoon and evening,” he said.
The beaches around Pollenca are beautiful but you might want to enjoy them when it is quieter in the low season. I shared a coffee in the town square in Pollenca with Joanna Greenfield from English-language magazine Talk of the North. She told me that the coves and coast can be ‘heaving’ in summer. “The nicest beaches are the smallest and those are the ones that get busiest. Often you have to scale cliffs to get to them. They are beautiful but I’d suggest that you get a boat and go around the bay. It’s a fantastic coastline to explore and there are lots of boats in the ports that will take you around or you can take one out on your own.”
American ex-pat Michael Saari had another suggestion. He recommended the 850m crescent of white sand at Formentor on the far northwest of the island. It’s around forty minutes drive from the town. Michael comes from Cape Cod, so he knows a good beach when he sees one. “It’s a bit of a drive on a winding road but it is beautiful, especially when you want to get away from the crowds. The mountain backdrop to the pine-shaded beach is incredible. At the end of the headland there’s a lighthouse looking down from 200m above sea level.” But be advised that car parking by the beach isn’t cheap at €9 and sun loungers can cost up to €50 per day. An alternative is to catch a boat.
If you’re not a beach type then walking is very popular around Pollenca, particularly in the cooler months from February until June and in September through to November. Joanna rates it highly. “The Tramunta Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s really stunning and if you enjoy nature, wildlife, hiking and birdwatching then it’s a paradise,” she explained.
I took a bus into the mountains and the road journey from Pollenca was spectacular. They are huge and their jagged, rocky peaks shoot over 1000m skywards. There’s plenty to discover within their deep gorges and valleys. The 135km long walking route is marked by stone terraces, where olive trees have grown previously. It’s an eight-day excursion for serious walkers who stay in hostels along the way.
Michael loves the mountain scenery just a few miles out of Pollenca. “You get to see some waterfalls, especially if you’re here in the winter,” he told me. “There are also some incredible geological rock structures. If you are from the United States like me you would use the word epic,” he told me.
Many people come cycle training around the area, which is surprising because it’s so hilly. I noticed a succession of serious cyclists in tight vests, colourful lycra and aerodynamic helmets shoot past me. And there were one or two redder faced visitors puffing away, pounding peddles as they wobbled down the road. “You have different levels of cycling which can be practised here,” Virginia explained. “There are flat routes to discover and cycle. If you want a challenge you can cycle along the mountains.”
I’m too lazy to cycle so I caught a bus to Palma’s bus interchange then crossed the road to buy a ticket for the train that would take me on the 27km ride to the pretty resort of Soller. There are only a handful of journeys each day and you can’t reserve tickets so if you’re in a large group, get there early.
The electrified, narrow gauge train runs along some main streets in Palma city, which seems quite unusual. Ten minutes later you’re leaving the city, passing through allotments and then the route opens out into countryside .The mountains appear as a backdrop but quickly draw nearer and nearer until you’re plunged into darkness as you enter the first of thirteen really narrow, single-track tunnels. It seems like there’s only a few centimetres gap between the red rock and the wood and glass of the carriage. But as you re-emerge into the bright, sunny daylight, the scenery is stunning.
You’ll pass in and out of the shade of cypress trees as you fly past isolated farmhouses and orange groves. The slow train climbs an average gradient of 2% on a 7km stretch of the route and then stops at a station. There was some collective muttering and a few people stood up to take pictures out of the carriage window at the expansive valley scene unfolding outside, just below the platform. One passenger gingerly stepped off the train to take a picture and seconds later, the rest of the carriage, myself included, filed out like photo-seeking lemmings. It was ok – it was a scheduled stop.
After an hour on board, you’re in Soller. You can take a tram from Soller village to the newer, but still pleasant, seaside town. There is not much there except nice cafés lining the town’s curved promenade, but you can admire some impressive yachts in the marina. There’s money around here. The tram is very slow and if there’s more than one of you it’s cheaper to get a one-way ticket and then take a taxi back to the station in the village. You’ll see the same scenery from a car.
I caught the bus back to Pollenca over the mountains and the driver showed his skills in smoothly circumnavigating the switchbacks and sheer drops over the limestone rocks and oak-filled valleys. Even though the bus seemed to be climbing up in first gear for an eternity, until Soller was a mass of red tiled roofs on the valley floor, the mountains were still rising high above the road. You can marvel at the white golf ball-like radar station balancing 1600m on top of a mountain peak as you drive past below. How did they get that up there and how do the staff get to work?
The bus deposited me just outside the main town, next to the Pollenca emblem. The cockerel has been used in the coat of arms since the Middle Ages and you’ll see them everywhere. There’s a giant sculpture of one of the birds on the roundabout on the by-pass. It’s fairly easy to get to Pollenca now there’s a dual carriageway from Palma, which runs to a few kilometres below the town. In the past, the place was more isolated and that’s why the artists found it appealing. They were left to their own devices.
Mallorca is only 150km off the coast of Barcelona and Mallorcans speak Catalan rather than Spanish. But Joan and Toni told me how the islanders use different words to Catalan speakers on the mainland. The Pollenca accent is said to be so distinctive, business owners in Palma will immediately identify locals on a shopping spree. With that potential for misunderstanding, you’ll be pleased to know that all locals working in tourism that I met had good English skills.
It’s worth planning your Pollenca visit around some special events. Joan says locals have a lot of fun on 17th January. “Young people cut a very large pine, maybe 22m high. It is planted in the square and for two or three hours, they have to try and climb it. The tree is soaped, so it’s very difficult.”
The major summertime event is held on 2nd August, when there’s a re-enactment of an historic battle between Moors and Christians. “It’s very traditional in many places around the Mediterranean,” Joan told me. “We celebrate the victory over Turkish pirates in the 16th century.” Joanna agreed that it is worth seeing and the spectacle is broadcast on national TV. “The event fills the streets with the sounds of guns, rockets and bell ringing. 1,500 Moors attacked Pollenca under the leadership of a pirate called Dragut in 1550. A hero called Joan Mas jumped out of his house and called residents out to fight. They won the battle and since then it’s become an important story for the locals,” she told me. Joanna said that people dress up either like Aladdin, to represent the pirates, or in white pyjamas. “There are crowds and lots of drinking,” she laughed.
One local tradition that you might not expect to hear in Majorca is the sound of bagpipes. Joan has learned to play and says that the instrument is growing in popularity. “It was forgotten and wasn’t appreciated. Usually one person plays a bagpipe, while another plays the flute with one hand and a small drum with the other. The bagpipes are in demand at celebrations and outdoor processions.” Pollenca’s artistic community also includes performance arts.
It was getting hungry and I was keen to discover the taste of this wonderful part of Mallorca. I met up with Antonio who runs Authentic Mallorca. All of his goods, whether food or gift items, are handmade on the island. The olive oil aroma in the shop was deliciously sweet, created in part by the handcrafted olive wood items including chopping boards. The olives looked good but an unusual looking drink caught my eye. Antonio’s shelves were packed with liqueur bottles each containing a forest of herbs. He told me that it is called hierbas and it is produced in dry, sweet or medium varieties. It’s usually drunk as an aperitif and he promised that if I tried it I’d want more. “The drink contains around twenty different herbs and flavours from the island including fennel, lemon, pine and camomile. They are left in the liquid for a year,” he said.
You also see lots of almond liqueur. Almonds are the main nuts produced on the island and growing those trees became a major farming activity towards the end of the 19th century. The almond liqueur was like Baileys – creamy and perhaps a little sweeter. They also use almonds in sweets. “You’ll find turron on sale in many places. It’s a bit like nougat,” said Antonio.
As you are in a part of Europe with decades of tourism experience you can get any international food readily but some of the distinctive local dishes are worth trying. There are plenty of seafood choices in the area and the squid is outstanding. Meat eaters might like the paprika-seasoned sausage dish, sobrasada. Joanna loves it but accepted that the description doesn’t do it justice. “They use the rest of the pig and churn it all up and turn it into a sausage,” she told me. “You see it hanging in all the butchers. It’s red and very meaty.”
You won’t starve in Pollenca if you’re vegetarian either. Locals love a type of ratatouille called tumbet. “It’s a typical dish,” explained Antonio. “We use all the seasonal vegetables that we have in the area, including potatoes, aubergines and green peppers. It can be eaten with meat or served as a healthy vegetarian dish,” he told me.
Joanna recommended trying the pastry dish ensaimada. “It’s like an English iced bun,” she said. “They make it by mixing pastry and a layer of lard which is rolled together into a big sausage and then they curl it, before putting it in the oven. It rises into a fluffy bun and they sprinkle it with icing sugar. It is eaten for breakfast.”
Many people will expect tapas in Spain and Mallorca offers both the larger dishes like meatballs and smaller bite size snacks. Gabriel Tarda has operated La Birreria, a wine bar and tapas restaurant in Pollenca, for two years. His bar is one of twelve businesses offering the incredible Thursday Tapas Trail. You get two pieces of tapas and a drink in each bar for €2.50.
I really liked both the food and the atmosphere and the bar was clearly popular with locals. I suspect that visitors don’t know about it and wouldn’t believe they could get such a great deal. “We spoke to the different bars and agreed to create a route,” Gabriel told me. “People thought Thursday was a good day because there is no football on the TV. I’ve noticed a lot of women come together with their friends. Husbands stay at home with the children one week and then the next week the men come. Couples alternate.”
As I walked into the bar the food on the counter was arranged like an arts display – so colourful with the different toppings from prawns to cold meats and peppers creatively stacked onto the bread bases. “We like this because people buy the food with their eyes, not by the smell,” Gabriel explained. The tortilla was delicious. Gabrielle says it’s because they buy free-range eggs and all the produce from local sources.
I’d never considered Mallorca for a holiday previously because I wrongly associated the island with all-night partying in resorts and I’m a bit old for that! Whether you to want to get outdoors and active or just want a relaxing winter break in a picture perfect town near beautiful beaches or mountains, I’d recommend Pollenca.
Hotel Juma kindly accommodated me for this trip. To get to Pollenca you’ll need to fly to Palma airport. There are many low cost flights and you can get a one-way fare from Birmingham, London or Edinburgh for as little as £25.
When you land at Palma, catch the shuttle bus outside from the airport into Palma and then take a second bus from the transport interchange straight to Pollenca.