After two stops in smaller towns in the northern part of Mallorca it was time to hit Palma, the capital and biggest city of the Balearic Islands. I was here once in the 1970s when I was in the Navy but the only thing I remember – literally the only thing – was going on shore leave, getting drunk, and puking into the sea. My hope was that this trip would produce better memories. And it did.
Palma is a city of 400,000 people, somewhat isolated due its location on an island, but culturally it plays in the big leagues. The big deal in the city – a real “Wow!” moment – is the massive cathedral. On top of that, though, the city has some great art museums highlighting Picasso & Miró, among others, and a pretty nice beach. A great place to spend four days.
Palma’s recorded history starts with a Roman settlement in the second century BC. When the western Roman empire collapsed in the fifth century the city was first conquered by Germanic Vandals before they were in turn conquered by the Byzantine Eastern Romans. They were kicked out when the Moors conquered the Balearics in 902 and the islands remained a Muslim colony until James I of Aragon defeated them in 1229 and returned the island to Christian control.
The amazing site in Palma today is the Cathedral. As one moves around Palma, through the Old City and especially along the coast, you can’t miss it: the Cathedral is immense. To give you just a sense of the scale, the ceiling of the cathedral’s nave, the central isle, is 144 feet high, fully one-third higher than Notre Dame’s 108 foot nave. The cathedral was started immediately on James I’s victory in 1229 in gratitude to Mary for saving James’s fleet from being destroyed in a storm. They built it on the site of what had been Palma’s main mosque, which wasn’t unusual for the time. Apparently, though, one of the oddities of this is that when kneeling at the alter now you’re facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem. Huh.
Besides just the scale, though, a big part of the cathedral’s “wow” factor is that in 1901 Barcelona’s Antoni Gaudí (of La Sagrada Familia fame) was invited to take over a restoration project then underway. Over 13 years he made a number of cosmetic changes but he then abandoned the project in 1914, apparently in a dispute with the contractor. Part of the fun in walking around the cathedral was identifying which of the items in it were his; some were obvious, some less so.
Today Palma is a major tourist destination and in the summer the airport here is one of the busiest in Europe; in 2016 fully 26 million people passed through the airport. So there must be more to the city than just the spectacular Cathedral. And there is. Es Baluard is a great contemporary art museum built into the shell of the city’s Renaissance-era walls with great views over the port and Cathedral. The collection of Picasso, Miró, and Barceló – a contemporary Mallorcan artist – was well worth an hour or two.
And still there was more. The Palace of Almudaina – once the home of Mallorcan monarchs and today still an official residence of the King of Spain – is worth a tour. And two museums that grew from the holdings of a fabulously wealthy Palma family – the March Palace and the Museum of the Foundation of Juan March – hold more modern, mostly Spanish, art. In addition the Palace holds a spectacular but somewhat weird 18th century Neopolitan nativity scene. You see much, much smaller versions of these nativity scenes in Naples’ old town but this one was a lot bigger, the sort of thing royalty would commission (which is how this one came to be).
We had a great experience in Palma, and this time I didn’t act like a drunken sailor. In addition to all the cultural stuff and the kind of shopping we have to do when we’re finally in a bigger city for a few days I got in a couple runs, some time just relaxing in a couple of the city’s great little cafés, and even some time on the beach. There’s nothing not to like about Palma.