FALLING FOR PALMA IS INEVITABLE. For the ridiculously tall palm trees that line the rejuvenated waterfront; the characterful Old Town with Moorish architecture; and for the funky yet low-fi vibe of the place. In Portixol, the tanned houses with sun-faded, forest-green shutters span the curving bay, and there are only three shops (plus a tobacconist), all of which sell fishing kit. This barrio is bookended by Nassau Beach Club, with sunbeds and raffia umbrellas on the sand, and the harbour, where shiny Sunseekers are moored alongside bobbing wooden boats. Borrowing a bicycle from Portixol hotel – the first proper design bolthole to open in the city 17 years ago – I take the path that runs along the beach, following the shoreline past paella-eating diners at El Bungalow and behind the thrumming Purobeach club, all the way to El Arenal. Rollerbladers and teenage boys on scooters whizz by.
‚This is our Ocean Drive,‘ says Mikael Landström, the Swedish owner of Portixol hotel, when we meet up later in the bar. He and his wife Johanna bought the place as a wreck when the area was completely run down. ‚It’s not easy to find property right on the sea here (since the coastal road was built in the 1960s), and we thought it wouldn’t be long before it started blooming.‘ It’s taken some time, but things are now looking peachy in Portixol. The couple renovated the hotel from top to bottom: there are 25 rooms, the best of which have balconies with views of the pool and beyond. There’s a tiny spa, a boutique that sells the same lovely pinstripe robes as in the bedrooms, and a restaurant under a bamboo pergola that buzzes with locals at lunch. The seafood – octopus carpaccio, seabass ceviche, grilled scallops – is delicious.
Top spots for equally fresh fish are harbour-side Ola del Mar, where the most sought-after seats are out on the front terrace, or the traditional Sa Roqueta, where I sit at a linen-covered table and order a steaming silver tureen of crayfish, langoustine and mussel soup. The Prosecco bar is full of bronzed elbows jostling day and night at the counter for smoothies, snacks and glasses of sparkling wine (at weekends, book ahead for a spot on the tiny, sea-facing balcony). But it’s Santa Catalina to the west of the city that’s garnering a reputation as the real foodie quarter. Unlike the rest of Palma, the roads are arranged in a grid formation: it was one of the first areas where new housing was built when the population grew too large to be confined inside the now-demolished city walls. Along those streets is restaurant after restaurant after restaurant, unassuming places with wooden tables, director’s chairs and blackboards with chalked-up menus.
At Bunker’s I perch on a stool under a white awning to tuck into melt-in-the-mouth tuna tataki with fennel salad, calamarata pasta with squid, and strawberry sorbet with basil, ginger and grappa ice-cream, all made by chef-owner Luigi Valdambrini in his open-kitchen. Next door is Duke’s, which was set up by two Mallorcan friends and named after Hawaiian surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. It feels like a smart beach shack with a menu that mixes Japanese curry and burgers. At the end of pedestrianised calle de la Fábrica, Patrón Lunares plays up to its heritage as a former social club for retired fishermen: lobster-cage lights and nautical flags hang from the ceiling and a series of portraits on the walls include co-founder Javier Bonet’s grandfather, a local angler. ‚We wanted to make it a homage to the people from the sea, so we’ve tried to keep the same spirit,‘ says Bonet.
The area feels vaguely hippyish and a touch studenty, and the architecture is a hotchpotch of colour. There are a couple of charming vintage furniture shops worth a look (both named after their owners Ariela Shöneberg and Frida Watson) and a great food market, the Mercat de Santa Catalina, where you can munch on traditional tapas or sushi after picking up waxed-paper parcels of jamón ibérico. One artisan-pasta stand, La Sorrentina, offers yacht delivery, which shows just how much the island has changed over the years.
The Old Town is still the beating heart of Palma and Hotel Cort is in one of its loveliest squares; there is a huge gnarled ancient tree in the middle where visitors stand around licking dripping ice creams and watch just-married couples come out of the town hall. From the cherry-red exterior, Hotel Cort looks like a café with people-watching tables outside that are full from breakfast (flaky croissants, scrambled eggs with ham and cheese) until last orders (the corvina ceviche is fantastic). Inside, there’s a Soho House-meets-the-Balearics vibe with blue-and-white Mallorcan Ikat fabrics hanging on walls and thrown over armchairs (similar textiles are sold around the corner at the Rialto Living store), patterns of monochrome tiles on the floor in the restaurant, and suites with sitting rooms that have little libraries, vast velvet sofas and Juliet balconies overlooking the Plaça de Cort. Nearby, Hotel Sant Francesc Singular, in an elegant 19th-century mansion, has a sophisticated and grown-up feel, with its tonal taupe colour palette. It has what is surely a contender for the biggest and best rooftop terrace in the city, and a pool in the shadow of the beautiful looming basilica.
Exploring the warren of narrow backstreets and cobbled squares unearths shoebox-size delicatessens with ensaimadas (a traditional coil-shaped cake) in boxes tied up with string, and Mimbreria Vidal, a shop stuffed to the rafters with raffia baskets. I deliberate over a jumpsuit by Spanish designer Sita Murt and pretty seagull-print dresses from Barcelona-based Medwinds.
The city is often compared to Barcelona, and it’s easy to see why, with its Gaudí-like, Art Nouveau buildings, restaurants with modern riffs on tapas and a mini Rambla full of florist stands.
My favourite find is Viveca, an interiors shop in an alley of converted garages near Gerhardt Braun Gallery. The owners are 20-something sisters Carla and Camila Güell, who moved to Mallorca from Madrid four years ago. Inside are Kantha quilts folded over bamboo ladders, one-off artworks made by their father from discarded wood, and second-hand Danish chairs. ‚It’s impossible to start something like this in Barcelona or Madrid because it’s too pricey,‘ says Camila. ‚It’s too expensive to even pay the rent,‘ adds Carla. ‚Here, tourism brings in the money, and the island is small enough that people hear about us by word of mouth.‘
In a similar way, word is spreading about the Mallorcan art scene. Its greatest legacy is the Pilar and Joan Miró Foundation (the Catalan artist spent the last years of his life in Palma and left his studio and unfinished works for visitors to see), which stays relevant with its residency programme. Sound artist Susan Philipsz created a piece here before she won the Turner Prize in 2010. But it’s also attracting international collectors, including Anita Zabludowicz, Manuela Wirth and Ursula Hauser, who come for annual events Art Palma Brunch, Palma Photo and Nit de l’Art, where galleries stay open until midnight.
There’s also Es Baluard Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; installations at a medieval merchant-guild hall Sa Llotja; the Museu Fundación Juan March, which has a permanent collection of works by 20th-century Spanish vanguard artists, and a handful of high-profile galleries such as La Caja Blanca, founded by sibling duo Eva and Amir Shakouri-Torreadrado. ‚The art scene is growing here, which is quite curious,‘ says Eva, who has worked on projects with Irish artist Richard Mosse. ‚It was quite insular for many years, but now it’s opening up to the world. It doesn’t boast about what it has though; people just eventually discover it.‘ Which is exactly what can be said about Palma.
Source and Published / June 2016: www.cntraveller.com