The golden age of Palma de Mallorca
With its palacios and promenades, chic restaurants and boutique hotels, Palma provides a modern take on its ancient past, making it a great winter-break destination.On the rooftop terraza of my hotel, I sit with my face to the late-September sun. The dust-pink tiles and palm trees under a thin blue sky give a touch of North Africa to the roofscape of this Mediterranean city. Behind me is the soaring facade of a Gothic cathedral, its rose window lit up in the evening light like some great exotic bloom.
Once, Palma de Mallorca was a low-profile destination. Palma was where you flew to for Magaluf or S'Arenal, if sun, sea and cerveza were your thing, or for Deià, if you were a Soho boho. But as for staying there, the idea occurred only to the most intrepid of Mallorca's several million annual visitors. Then the peseta dropped. Despite presiding over a mass-tourism machine, Palma had nothing to do with those rambunctious resorts; and its casco viejo, the historic nucleus of the island's capital, was as charming as that of any Italian Renaissance town.
Historically, Palma was the seat of the island's monarchy, aristocracy and ecclesiastical hierarchy – which explains its plethora of churches, convents and palacios with secret courtyards behind arched portals. By the late-20th century, however, Palma's old town fell into near-dereliction, a process mirrored by other capitals of tourist zones such as Málaga and Alicante. When I first came here as a student in the 1980s the old town was crumbling and its winding alleys smelled of urine.
Over the three decades since then the change has been vertiginous. The Paseo de Born, a tree-shaded avenue and the city's social axis, thrums with life; the voices on the street are German, Scandinavian and Russian. The shaded colonnades of nearby Carrer de Jaume III are flanked with designer emporia (Loewe, Herrera, Vuitton) and posh tapas bars, but I'm pleased to see the Bar Bosch (established in 1936) is still doing a healthy trade in hot chocolate and ensaimadas, the Mallorcan patisserie item that does for pork fat what the croissant does for butter. Business is also brisk at the Mercat de S'Olivar, Palma's produce central and a sensory spectacle to rival any of the great markets of the Spanish Mediterranean. S'Olivar is what the Spanish describe as de toda la vida (it's been there for ever), yet the market has moved with the times. At the stalls in the seafood section you can sit at the bar with a half-dozen oysters and a glass of albariño. Guiris (slang for foreigners) toting baskets jostle with locals at the organic, locally grown, heritage-variety fruit stalls.
I buy a slice of coca – a kind of pizza topped with onions and red peppers – and eat it under an olive tree in the square outside the market. A couple in an open-topped Merc with a foreign number plate speed through the square, overtaking a horse-drawn carriage. A metaphor, perhaps, for the fast-paced new Palma rapidly overtaking the old.
In terms of good accommodation, fine hotels have come along in waves. The pioneer among the bijou hotelitos, Ca Sa Galesa, was opened (in 1995) by a couple from Cardiff who realised that Palma's old-town palacios had possibilities. Then came the Scandinavian-owned properties Puro and Tres (both opened in 2004). And there the two ex-convents, Santa Clara and Convent de la Missió. Of all the old-town boutique joints, however, Palma appears to have left the best until last. Can Cera, which opened last June, is an immaculate refurb of a 17th-century mansion on the Carrer de Sant Francesc, while Brondo Architect (in the Calle Can Brondo) gives the design hotel a makeover, mixing hardcore industrial chic with retro style. Great new places are opening up in Palma all the time and it's hard to keep track of them all," says Maria, a friend and long-term Palma resident. We are sitting at a terrace table at the Bodega Gaudeix, a creative spin on the traditional bodega, opened last spring by Cristina Díaz and Maria Moreno. As we talk, Cristina brings stuffed baby squid, crunchy bull's tail and a ball of morcilla and almonds to our table.
Palma's cuisine has come on in leaps and bounds since the old days when dining options were largely limited to gloomy cellars where roast meat and fish were swilled down with cheap red wine. Foodie boutiques are the retail genre of the moment, reflecting a demand for authentic island products such as sobrassada sausage and Quely biscuits, artisan salt from Es Trenc and new-wave Mallorcan wines.
Meanwhile the restaurant scene has globalised. Kent-born Marc Fosh runs three of the best restaurants in town – one in Convent de la Missió – and it's a measure of Palma's newfound cosmopolitanism that Fosh's London-style eclecticism has slotted into the gastronomic mix. One night I eat a stunning Asian-inflected dinner at a bar run by Mexican chef Emilio Castrejón; the next there are pan-Hispanic tapas and cocktails at the Tast Club, a speakeasy reached through an unmarked doorway on Carrer de Sant Jaume.
The city's cultural menu is almost as promising as its culinary one. I embark on a crawl around a few of the 40-odd galleries that have mushroomed in central Palma. Close by is the Miró Foundation, near the Marivent palace, where the Spanish royal family discreetly spends its summer holidays. It comprises a trio of buildings associated with the Mallorcan painter's life, work and legacy, including his studio, whose loving state of preservation, complete with paint pots and half-completed works, seems to suggest the great man will be back at any moment.
But these turn out to be tapas before the main dish – a double helping of culture combining the city's finest single building and, very probably, its finest single artwork. Palma's cathedral (Sa Seu in Mallorcan) stands above the old harbour wall where, for centuries, the Mediterranean lapped at its feet until, in the 1970s, the sea was pushed back beyond the ring road. I spend an afternoon admiring the 14th-century edifice, where restoration has left the once-grimy stonework gleaming creamy white. Its masterpiece is Miquel Barceló's Capella del Santíssim. Barceló was given carte blanche in 2008 to overhaul an unremarkable side chapel. He slathered the walls with coruscated layers of paint and clay in a vision of marine life, fish heads and all, to create a tour de force in this great stone barn beside the sea.
I awake from a siesta to another balmy evening and a plan to visit Portixol. I've heard good things about this village a few miles along Palma bay, where a strip of locales around the beach has replaced the Paseo Marítimo. A glass of cava on the rooftop bar at Cocco leads smoothly into a Japo-Spanish dinner a few steps away at Can Punta, where Cristina from Gaudeix is on the next table enjoying a well-deserved evening off. The masts of yachts clinks gently in the harbour, black water glinting in the darkness.
Palma has none of Ibiza Town's nightlife-frenzy but there are good reasons for a gentle after-dinner exploration. One of these reasons is Nassau Beach, a prime example of a palmesano establishment that was never dreamed of in my student days: a chilled-out, upmarket beach bar. The Puro Beach opened in 2009. Then there's the Anima beach club, within a short walk from the casco viejo, and its neighbour, the excellent Nassau.
From my table there on the beachside terrace I can see the cathedral on its citadel above the sea, lit up in its grandeur against the night sky. That view, plus the warm sand between my toes and the large G&T in my hand, seem to offer further proof, if any were needed, of Palma's perennial charm and renewed allure.