Mallorca is the largest of the Balearics and is almost the exact same size as New York’s Long Island. Considering its mountainous regions, the island has a varying climate. Mallorca even has one peak that is 4,741 feet (1,445 meters) high; these mountains have caves, two of which have lakes that are open for tourists to explore. Since 1983, La Palma, the island’s largest city, is the capital of the autonomous community of the Balearic Islands.
Route 1: Palma de Mallorca
The Balearic Islands, lying some 210 kms (130 miles) off Barcelona and Spain’s northeast coast, have a total land area less than half that of the popular Mediterranean island of Crete, yet such is their appeal that they now draw almost four times as many visitors every year. Each of the four major Balearics has its own atmosphere and attractions, but there is no denying that Mallorca is the major attraction, if only because it is the transportation hub that everyone passes through. On Mallorca, whether you seek quiet days on a sunny beach or the livelier scene at some of the island’s clubs and bars, the capital city of Palma de Mallorca is a good starting point for visitors to begin exploring the Balearics. Admittedly, most visitors probably are looking to enjoy the beach and/or nightlife, but Palma de Mallorca does in fact offer enough surprises to warrant a walking tour.
Start from its cathedral Santa Maria of Palma – a quite unexpectedly large structure for such a small city – that was erected between 1300 and 1600 and is basically Gothic in style, although its façade is a hybrid. A great canopy over the high altar now distinguishes its spacious interior, designed by none other than Antoni Gaudi (although typically only associated with Barcelona). Also noteworthy is the rose window, said to be the largest in any Gothic cathedral, as well as the chapel dedicated to St. Peter decorated in tiles by the Mallorcan artist, Miquel Barcelo. Then directly opposite the cathedral is the Palace of the Almudaina, originally the Alcázar of the Muslims, but totally converted into a summer palace by the Christian kings; although the interior is nothing to rave about, its gardens and view are definitely worth a visit. Until recently the Spanish royal family continued to spend their summer holidays here.
The palatial mansion adjacent to the Almudaina Palace is the Palau March, which belongs to the fabulously wealthy March family. Just a few blocks south of the cathedral and palace are the Arab Baths, which are one of the few surviving reminders of the Muslims’ time here between 902-1229. On your way there you will pass the Episcopal Palace, now home to a museum of Christian art. Just up the city from the baths you’ll come to the Basilica of St. Frances; its mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture reflect the fact that it was constructed between 1281 and 1700. Then, off to the west about 4 kms/2.5 miles is the Castell de Bellver, a 14th century castle, circular in shape with a lovely tower – worth of a side trip for its incredible views.
From here drop-in to the nearby Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation Museum, a modern building housing hundreds of works by this major 20th century Spanish artist who spent the final years of his life working in the adjacent studio. Of course, there are still many other museums in Palma for those so inclined. In particular, the gallery known as Es Baluard, which opened only in 2004 in a modern structure, built into a bastion (baluard) of the old walls and displaying modern art. An even more impressive collection of modern art is on view at the Juan March Foundation Museum; Juan March (1880-1962), a native of Mallorca, was something of a wheeler-dealer businessman and long one of the wealthiest men in the world; his son Bartolome (1917-1998) took up collecting the 20th century art, now on display in a 17th century mansion in the northeast quarter of the old town. There are still more museums and lots of old streets and novel shops to look into, but by now you have earned a rest stop at a café or a meal at one of Palma’s fine restaurants.
Route 2: Exploring the Island of Mallorca
Although Mallorca – which is 3,640 sq. kms (1,405 sq. miles) – comprises some 70% of the Balearics total landmass, it is in fact a relatively small island, with no point more than about 100 kms (65miles) from Palma. Mallorca is ringed with some of the finest beaches in the world that are most popular between mid-June to mid-September – keep in mind that some upscale hotels do have their own private beaches.
If you are based in Palma and seeking beaches fairly nearby, the closest is the Playa Nova at the western edge of town; proceeding to the southwest are the beaches at Cala Mayor and Sant Agusti; to the southeast you will find good beaches at Playa de Palma, Ca’n Pastilla and El Arenal. If you are up for exploring the island with a vehicle, a prime destination would be its west coast. Set out by driving southwest to the town of Andraxt. On the coast below is its port town with scuba diving schools that you might want to check out later. Proceeding north from Andraxt you’ll take a spectacularly scenic road, above but parallel to the west coast, through the mountainous region known as Serra de Tramuntana. On the coast below are several fine beaches, and there are an unlimited number of walks you can take in the mountains.
As you approach the town of Banyalbufar you will see the Torre des Verger, a 16th century watchtower. A short distance up the coast is Valldemossa, the village where Chopin and George Sand (as you may know, a pen name for the female author Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), spent some winter months in 1838-1839 in the monastery here. The structure was built in the 14th century as a royal palace, and when it was abandoned, monks took it over. They were later expelled in 1835 and its rooms were rented out to visitors. Chopin left a piano here and today you’ll hear a pianist performs brief recitals during the summer months. The next town is Deià, well-known for many years since an international group of people in the arts spent an extended amount of time here; the most celebrated was the British poet Robert Graves, who basically lived here from 1929 till his death in 1985; his house can be visited for a fee. Next is the surprisingly lively town of Stoller, with modernist architecture on account of its Can Prunera Museum of Modernism and its renovated baroque Church of St. Bartholomew.
Continuing north – and for now ignoring the road that descends to the popular beach at Sa Calobra – you will pass the Monastery of Lluc, a pilgrimage site in honor of a statue of the Black Virgin Mary, the island’s patron saint; if you visit at noon or twilight, a boys’ choir will be singing. Soon you’ll arrive at Pollença, with its 18th century Church of Calvary, so named because pilgrims ascend its 365 steps on their knees; walk up and enjoy the view before taking a break at one of the town’s terrace cafés. Having come this far, you should continue out along the rocky promontory to the lighthouse that sits on Cap de Formentor, the northernmost point of Mallorca. Some of the island’s finest beaches are in this area. Although the excursion described here is not more than 100 kms (65 miles), there are so many other diversions along the way – picturesque villages, superb beaches, and scenic walks – that it could easily fill an entire day.
Route 3: Exploring the Island of Minorca
Minorca, only some 64 kms (25 miles) northeast of Mallorca and the second largest of the Balearics, offers quite a different experience from Mallorca, and certainly rewards at least a day’s visit. Sun-seekers and beach-lovers will find some of the finest beaches of all of the Mediterranean. Starting out from the capital city of Mahon (often referred to by its Catalan name, Maó), just a bit to the southwest is the beach Cala’n Porter; further along the southwest coast are Cala Mitjana, Cala Macarella, and Cala Turqueta; up along the west coast is the Cala de Santa Galdana; on the northeast corner is the Cala Algaiarens; a bit to the east along that north coast is the Cala Pregonda; meanwhile, just north of Mahon is the Cala Mesquida. These are just some of the beaches that stand out, and thus can be crowded in high season. Some of these do require short walks from parking lots, but the setting, beaches, and beautiful seawater are more than worth the slight effort.
Mahon, perched on cliffs overlooking a grand harbor, is probably most visitors’ base and is a most pleasant, laid-back city, with its local architecture reflecting the decades from 1713 to 1802 when Great Britain ruled the island. People are fond of pointing out the very un-Spanish sash windows, while the gin produced – and consumed – here is said to be a British legacy. Many will be content to sit on the Plaça d’Espanya and enjoy an ice cream along with the passing scene, but even if you have not come here for more churches or museums, you should make the effort to go over to Constitution Square with its 18th century English-style Town Hall and the Cathedral Church of St. Mary, noted for its great 19th-centuy organ on which organists give free recitals during July and August.
There are also several small towns and villages worth stopping at – Fornells, Es Mercadal, Es Grau – but the only other city of consequence is Ciutadella, over on the northwest corner; it has preserved its Spanish character and its old quarter has many fine old buildings – churches, mansions, museums, and shops. Even if you have not come to Minorca to see old structures, you owe it to yourself to visit at least one or two of the historic and significant sites that remain from Minorca’s Bronze Age Talayotic culture (1300—800 BC). Similar megalithic (large stone) monuments are found throughout the Mediterranean, and the different types are said to have been used as meeting places, tombs, watchtowers, or altars. Several of the Talayotic sites are only a short distance from Mahon – the two monuments at Trepucó are barely 2 kms south of town – but the one to visit is the Torre d’en Galmés, just a bit to the west; its visitors center provides a brief video explaining what you can see. Not far to the east of this site is the Talati de Dalt site, while the largest of all the sites is Son Catlar, over to the west and on the inland road to Ciutadella. If you’re up for one more, check out the nearby Torralba d’en Salord. It’s important to note that these are Stonehenge-type monuments, not Ancient Greek temple type, but their age, size and brute power is very impressive. Not to mention that just driving around Minorca’s countryside will reveal a side of the island that led UNESCO to declare it a Biosphere Reserve – definitely adding another dimension to your stay on Minorca.
Not all the islands have shared exactly the same experiences throughout history, but their general history is similar. Although the Phoenicians were the first people historically to occupy the Balearics around the 7th century BC, the islands had long been inhabited since at least 6000 BC, from people of mainland Spain. By the 2nd millennium BC the inhabitants were constructing rough stone towers known as talayots and so these people are sometimes known as the Talayotics. According to some ancient historians, these people went around more or less naked, perhaps anticipating the topless bathers who now flock to the Balearics’ beaches. Recognized for their skill at using slings as efficient weapons, these indigenous inhabitants were employed as mercenaries by the Carthaginians who had taken over the Balearics from the Phoenicians. By 123 BC the Romans had taken over from the Carthaginians, and continued to hire the natives as slingers. The Romans valued the islands for their harbors and food products, including wine, olive oil, rabbits, and snails.
For some centuries thereafter the Balearics pretty much shared the same history as the rest of Spain; the Romans gave way to the Visigoths and Vandals, and in the 6th century to the Byzantine Empire under which Christianity flourished. Starting in the 8th century AD, Muslims from North Africa took over the islands; at first they allowed the islands a fair amount of autonomy, but in 902 they took complete power. However, the islands’ exposed location in the Mediterranean left them prey to pirates and even an invasion attempt by a largely Italian “crusade” in 1113, but after sacking Palma, the capital of Mallorca, these invaders withdrew and soon after other Muslim rulers took over. The Christian king of Aragon conquered the islands in the 13th century, and although at times recognized as a semi-independent vassal state, by 1350 the Balearics were absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon; the one eventually ruled by Ferdinand II who formed the core of modern Spain by marrying Isabella I of Castile in 1476. At this time the Balearics were again left exposed to frequent attacks by pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa and by Turkish raiders from the eastern Mediterranean.
One of the Balearics, Minorca, however, happens to have its own footnote in history. In 1713, as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht settling the War of the Spanish Succession, Great Britain, having seized Minorca during the war, was given possession of it; this was the same treaty that gave Britain possession of Gibraltar. During the Seven Years War, the French took Minorca from the British in 1756, but the British took it back in 1763. A Spanish-French force took over Minorca in 1782 while Britain was preoccupied with its war in America and Spain formally took it back in 1783; the British briefly occupied Minorca again from 1798-1802, but from 1803, Minorca, along with the rest of the Balearics, remained the sole possession of Spain.
For whatever reason, the Balearics supported the Nationalist cause of Franco at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and Mallorca in particular became the site of a major battle between Nationalist and Republican forces. The Nationalists prevailed and used Mallorca as a base for attacking the mainland during the war. Although the Balearics hardly flourished under Franco’s rule, and despite some boycotting of Spain by foreigners opposed to Franco, tourists came in enough numbers to contribute to the islands’ prosperity. Since Franco’s death in 1976, tourism has come to play an even larger role in the Balearics’ economy, calling for workers from the Spanish mainland, South America and North Africa. The culmination of all of this interesting history is what the Balearic visitor experiences today – a vibrant, cosmopolitan society alongside a quietly self-confident indigenous people.