Mallorca: Playtime in the Mediterranean

Allison came to visit!

I promised I’d take her to a Spanish island, so we decided on Mallorca, Menorca’s bigger sister out in the Mediterranean.

Fine white sand beaches and clear turquoise waters: paradisiacal cliches but truly marvelous when they are right in front of you, complete with the caw of seagulls and murmur of water sliding in and out almost imperceptably — not like the crashing, salty rush that Canary beaches experience, but rather a more tranquil pool-like body of water.  We were brave and managed to dip more than just our feet into the water, still almost ice-cold from the winter months. The weather, however, was fortunately just perfect.

Home of Rafa Nadal and a hot destination for German biker tourists (there were definitely more of those that we saw than normal locals around), Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic islands. It’s also home to some magnificent caves that are part of the island history. We managed to visit one of them, the Cave of Artá.

Its imposing entrance akin to la boca del lobo, the mouth of the wolf, the cave is accessed by a narrow, dank passageway until it suddenly opens up into a vast, dark, and elaborate interior, formed by the passing of millenia. Artificial lights illuminate the cave so that visitors can get a glimpse of the giant stalagtites and stalagmites that jut out from the floor and ceiling, and which create a sense of awe and eerieness.

I tried to imagine the natives thousands of years ago fumbling around in this cave, in the dark with only their torch lights, warily anticipating any creature, human or devil, that could be lurking around the next jagged formation. After entering the “gateway to hell,” we were even given a small light show at the cave’s deepest part, complete with the haunting choir music from Mozart’s Requiem, I think it was.

There was even an upside-down sheep. See it?

I felt like a vampire surfacing from the dark cold of the cave into the glaring, scorching sunlight of day as we finished our tour.

The first two nights, we stayed in a small town called Alcudia, up on the northeastern side of the island. A typical tiny Spanish town, it has a square, churches, castle walls, and interesting shops. We explored it one calm evening as the sun was setting and as the winds picked up their usual night-time chill.

Having a rental car on an island makes beach-hopping a must. We were able to visit three different beaches in the same day, at different ends of the island, traversing from the north all the way to the south. From tiny coves where hardly any tourists ventured, to long, sprawling beaches, the water is always a crystalline turquoise, so still and shallow that you can see small fish darting about your feet.

The “miradores”, or viewpoints, offer incredible panoramic views of the island.

A vacation is never complete without some beer-guzzling while watching a Real Madrid game. Without beer, in particular.

On our last day, we visited Palma, the main city in Mallorca. The city is tranquil and filled with old colonial-style houses enclosing lovely courtyards and orange trees. The people are unhurried, tourists sip on coffee outdoors, locals have their beers and tapas during lunch hour. Mallorca has a beautiful maritime walkway as well as one of the most gorgeous Gothic cathedrals in Europe, built on a pre-existing Arab mosque.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1229 but was only finished in 1601, and in 1901, Gaudi took over its restoration until he abandoned the project in 1914. Its interior is even more impressive than its exterior, its soaring naves boasting a style which makes it much more dynamic than most Gothic cathedrals. It’s not as austere or rigid-looking; the textures, the abundance of light and, above all, the candelabra lamp designed by Gaudi hanging ornately above the altar space add to its singularity. The stained glass windows are also heavenly.

After strolling through its winding streets and ducking into an old 4-story English bookshop, we sit down for a lazy lunch in a high-ceilinged bar right next to the large open windows. Beef ratatouille with potatoes and a slight afternoon breeze drifting in make for a perfect slow afternoon. We end our trip shopping for Majorica pearls, which are unique to the island.

The surprise trip turned out to be…

….drumroll…Oporto, Portugal!

In Portuguese, it´s Porto, which translates as “port.” Apt name, as its coastal location and its river Douro lend to the city some beautiful views and beaches within a metro-ride away from the center. Even though “charming” is an over-used word to describe most small cities and towns in Europe, Porto really was exactly that, but with many ruined buildings and old grungy neighborhoods thrown in the mix. Adds to the historic charm.

Red rooves, the up and down of hilly cobble-stoned streets, small French-style cafés everywhere…

We finally managed to locate a world-famous bookstore, Livrería Lello, where some of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot. One can see its resemblance to Hogwarts; its snaking ornate wooden staircase is its prize attraction.

FOOOOOD. How can one ever write about a destination without mentioning the food? Especially Portuguese food, with its amazing seafood dishes — codfish, bass, sea barnacles, octopus, shrimp, you name it. The salt taste of the sea makes it seem as if these sumptious creatures were caught only minutes ago. Also, good food is much cheaper here than it is in Spain.

We decided to splurge and order the most expensive fish I’ve eaten ever, a huge oven-baked sea bass buried in sea-salt. Even though the fish alone was 46 euros, the entire meal was actually pretty reasonable, considering it was also my first time trying barnacles fresh out of the sea and seasoned by mother nature. They look pretty weird but are mighty tasty.

Javi putting on his photo-face. The fish was accompanied by a stewy rice with spinach, beans, and a delicious red sauce. After paying the bill, we took a stroll in an attempt to digest the entire fish that we had just eaten, and decided it might have been better if we had gone instead to this restaurant here:

A trip to the beach and bike-riding. Sun, breezes, a long boardwalk, exercise… The weather was perfect, water was cold.

Cabeleireiro = Hair salon. These were everywhere, which led to our non-stop repetitions of “Cabeleireireireireireiro.”

We went on a small cruise of the Douro and got to see some of the bridges connecting both sides of the city and the pretty houses overhanging the water. Also enjoyed just lounging on a bench by the riverside, watching the gondolas drift by, sipping on iced cafe con leite, observing the cable car going up and over the river.

The notable difference between the Portuguese and the Spanish surprised me a bit, in our interactions with waiters, tourist information points, hotel clerks, and even strangers. I mean, they do live on the same península and speak similar languages. But the Portuguese seem much more reserved and professional and speak English exceptionally well. The Spanish generally give off much warmer personalities and love to chit-chat; it only took a funny comment or a thumbs-up from a Spaniard like Javi to get the waiters to crack a smile and show their neighborly hospitality.

Porto’s also home to some interesting ceramic art. We popped into a small ceramics workshop in a little alleyway manned by a busy Portuguese lady. Some of the tile art was quite beautiful, with simple scenes of the city and its river.

Who can resist a city where old trolleys still run regularly?

April Showers

I have a lot of posting to do! I´ll find the time one day to just sit and blog about my trips. In the past couple of months, we´ve made it out to Prague, Morroco, and Athens, so a lot of pictures are pending. The school year is fast coming to an end, and warm weather has more or less finally arrived in Madrid, probably followed on its heels by blistering heat. When school ends in mid-June, I´ll be flying out immediately to Philadelphia, and then about a week later to Vermont, where I´ll start the Middlebury graduate school summer program.

I´m excited to go back to school, excited to go to Spanish boot camp and read a crapload of books, and yes, even though I promised that that Lorca thesis during senior year was the last paper I´d ever write, I´m excited to start thinking again. I’ve heard a good many things about the program, so hopefully I’ll be coming back to Madrid (for the last time?) with some new insights and better Spanish.