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The majestic Mallorcan capital, a favourite for Spanish royalty, is once again an urban destination of choice for those who love the Mediterranean
28.08.15 - 12:38 -
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Passionate about Palma
The cathedral of Santa María, in one of the most famous views of the city of Palma. :: A. Forbes
I jostle slightly to find a space at the bar. A creamy espresso in a scratched, cloudy glass is put in front of me, together with toasted tomato bread and a soft, sugar-dusted curled roll, a classic Mallorcan ensaimada breakfast pastry.
It’s a little after eight in the morning, but here in Palma’s Santa Catalina Market, the world is wide awake. Traders are busy, and a fishmonger opposite is already weighing lobsters for his first customer of the day.
It probably doesn’t get much more uncontrived than this; and only the day before I’d enjoyed a fabulous lunch in an adjacent market bar that celebrates Mallorcan traditional country dishes including rice stews, cured sausages and tasty lamb. In this part of the city one would be hard pressed to believe much has changed in Palma in the last quarter of a century.
Revitalised Palma
But change most certainly has come to Palma. Once the forgotten capital of this tourist island, Palma de Mallorca has once again regained its chic and elegant style. The former dilapidated streets of the old town are now punctuated by upscale boutiques, fancy restaurants and small luxury hotels. Palma is now more than just one of Spain’s biggest airports serving its coastal resorts – it is again the destination.
Leaving the hotel earlier that morning, it felt as if the old town of Palma was barely stirring. The Mallorcan sunshine was already promising another glorious day, but the historic alleyways were empty, still wet from the labours of the dawn street cleaners. For me this is one of the most wonderful times of day to enjoy the old town.
My morning stroll took me through evocatively-named streets like Calle Conquistador, whilst the warm sandstone of the ancient courtyard mansion houses and churches would occasionally ignite with colour as shards of sunlight penetrated the narrow lanes. At this time of day the old city has a romantic, renaissance atmosphere – something truly unique in Mallorca.
Before long, one inevitably reaches ‘La Seu’, the striking Cathedral of Santa María of Palma, the postcard image that many associate with this royal capital. Early in the day, as the carriage owners groom their horses, waiting for the crowds arrive, is a magical time to enjoy this gothic architectural wonder.
Aristocratic heritage
Every year the Spanish Royal Family come to Palma and its Palacio de Marivent for their annual summer holidays, continuing the city’s prestigious history of aristocracy and royalty.
Some of the mansions of wealthy aristocrats have been converted into small luxury hotels, creating a new era of quality tourism for this classy Mallorcan metropolis.
My upscale refuge in the city was the Sant Francesc Hotel that opened this spring. Found within a converted 19th century Mallorcan mansion, this 42-room boutique design hotel overlooks a quiet square with the Sant Francesc Basilica and period houses as neighbours.
The grand historic house has been given a new lease of life by interior designer María José Cabré who has created chic, uncluttered spaces. Original features such the classic courtyard windows, the historic staircase and some exceptional ceiling frescoes have been restored; while a curated collection of contemporary paintings and photographic art bring modern style and energy.
The hotel’s smart rooftop pool terrace offers a panoramic view, all the way from Mallorca’s Tramuntana Mountains, across Palma’s terracotta rooftops to the gothic cathedral and towards the city’s glorious Balearic beaches. It’s a timeless perspective of Palma enjoyed from one of the places that reflects the city’s 21st century renaissance.
Mallorcan kitchen
Eating out has been equally elevated, with a rich choice of places to enjoy Balearic and Catalan dishes; ranging from busy pintxos bars, to chic restaurants such as Simply Fosh, by Brit chef Marc Fosh. Offering a classy, urban feel, this elegant restaurant is found within the old town’s 17th century Hotel Convent de la Missió. Front of house Jaime and his team immediately make you feel welcome. The creative and sophisticated dishes, like gnocchi with summer truffle and wild garlic; or cod with beurre-blanc and grapefruit are served with finesse and a thankful lack of pretension.
I enjoyed another notable meal just out of town at the Sa Torre Mallorca Resort. The place came highly recommended, yet when I realised it was a Hilton I was simply expecting a shiny generic hotel, run with corporate efficiency. Yet what I found was a characterful, noble 14th century Mallorcan estate – a former family property with its own neo-gothic chapel, and among the beautiful gardens, an ancient windmill, iconic of the island. Guests enjoy plenty of facilities including two beautiful swimming pools, but I was there to try the new summer menu – a gourmet treat that was unexpected and really memorable.
Back in town, one of the joys of being in the centre of Palma is that the city is at your feet. No need for a taxi, since pretty much all that counts is within walking distance. That’s certainly true of not only the beaches; the world-class galleries, museums; and iconic architectural gems; but also for the bars!
One is never far from a fancy gastrobar, or some really fascinating hole-in-the-wall type place that has escaped the gentrification and Palma’s upward climb to elite luxury.
The morning after
One of the reasons for my early morning walk through old town, then across the luxury shopping district centred around the ‘Passeig del Born’ boulevard and onto the city market was to clear my head. I’d spent the evening at La Sifoneria.
Another recommendation, this narrow bar, when as guests you squeeze in between wine barrels on one side and crates of colourful siphons on the other, is a place where all sense of time is easily lost. Take a few sips of the very reasonably-priced local wines and before long you’re in deep conversation with fellow clients or the owner. It’s not until the morning after that you realise that maybe you tried more local tipples than you thought!
So that’s why I am at Palma’s Santa Catalina Market – not just for a traditional breakfast, but for the local interpretation of ‘hair of the dog’. The barman reaches over and pours ‘Ron Amazona’ from a dark green bottle, tied with string, sporting an elaborate label. Here local rum with your espresso makes for a fortifying ‘Café Amazona’ – a kill-or-cure antidote to the night before.