Monday, August 8, 2016

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

The last stop on our seven day Mediterranean cruise aboard the MSC Poesia was Palma de Mallorca, in the Belearic Islands of Spain, but unfortunately, we didn't arrive until nine at night.  The sun was slowly setting and it was almost dark.  We didn't have to be back on the ship until four, but who in their right mind was going to stumble around a port city in Europe in the middle of the night?  I don't care how nice a place is, after two in the morning, the only people out and about are looking for trouble.  And most of the bars closed in Palma at midnight, so that's when we went back to the ship.

Palma is where the rich and famous go to be ― well, you know, rich and famous.  It's a very popular stop on the Filthy Rich Sailing Circuit, along with Newport and the French Riviera, and the harbor is filled with luxury craft like out of some James Bond movie.  Only, it aint a movie or a music video.

"But, of course, that's Eric Clapton's super yacht Blue Guitar.  He comes here every year."

But here's the good news: after talking to some European friends who know the best places to vacation around Europe, we discovered that many families go to Mallorca for their vacations and are able to find very reasonably priced rentals and hotels.  Mallorca is a pretty big island ― 45 miles by 60 miles, covered with mountains and ringed with rocky cliffs and sandy beaches.  Palma is the capital city, and that's where most of the island's 500,000 residents live, along with the golden ones.  But the island has some nice getaway spots for normal people.  So, while living there might cost you an arm and a leg, staying for a week is definitely doable.

Basically, Mallorca is one of the Vacationlands for the world's elite. Villas go for about $3 million.  And while Italy is incredibly lovely, you notice in the first five minutes that you are back in upscale Spain.  It's clean and polished to a lustrous shine.

We bought the round trip ticket for $30 per person to get bused into the old city center from the Barcelona ship terminal on the west end of town.  It was a nice, comfy ride along the Avinguda de Gabriel Roca coastal highway that showcased the fashionably trendy waterfront, lined with snazzy marinas, like the Real Club Nautico de Palma; hipster restaurants like Barca Samba and the Hard Rock Cafe; and flashy, chic, ultra-modern hotels like TRYP Palma Bellver. The driver said that the bus would be returning to the ship from the drop-off spot every thirty minutes until three in the morning.  We had eaten a nice last supper on the ship and we were raring to go.

There were trippy, mostly surrealistic, sculptures by the likes of Spain's patron saint artist Juan MirĂ³ dotting the harbor-side parks, museums and landmark buildings.  It was about seventy degrees with wispy clouds painting the sky. The sun had just set and everything looked edible.

They dropped us at a bus transfer area along Av Adolfo Suarez, next to a manicured seaside park where people were lounging on the grass and enjoying an enchanting evening.  Behind us sat the sparkling city and the majestic, two tiered, tan limestone Cathedral de Mallorca (La Seu), with its 50-plus spires glowing in the twilight like the pin cushion entrance into Heaven.  I mean that.  I don't think I have ever seen a more imposing, and yet alluring, structure.  Maybe it was the way it was subtly lit from the ground and its pointed towers.  Or maybe it was its enchantingly unique Catalan Gothic architectural style.  One thing for sure, its size was definitely out of this world ― weighing in at almost 400-feet-long by 200-feet wide, and standing 145-feet tall ― a good seventy feet taller than Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma is one of the wonders of the world.  And at night it will totally blow you away.

It's so big, one name is not enough.  During our short visit we heard it called at least five different names.

I don't usually spend a lot of time describing individual structures we visit on our trips, but this one was truly special.  Erected on the bones of the old Roman citadel, the Cathedral was the dream of James 1 of Aragon (northeastern Spain) in 1230, and was completed 371 years later in 1601.  Now, just think about that.  The United States is only 240 years old.

The cathedral was encircled by a huge stone veranda that could hold an army.  Everything about the scale of the church and its surroundings was gargantuan, a realm where humans are but tiny little creatures.  Even sounds are swallowed by the towering monument dedicated to Palma's Patron Saint San Sebastian.  Having been built on top of the city's main mosque, it faces Mecca, rather than Jerusalem.  There was a long lagoon that resembled a castle mote between the church and the Mediterranean Sea, and the holy temple seemed more like a fortress than a church.

We stood at the front corner of the cathedral, admiring its three enormous arched naves and The Rose window, one of the world's largest stained glass windows, containing 1,236 pieces of glass and measuring almost forty feet across.  Its design was a bewitching geometric pattern of stars within stars; red roses; and purple, blue, and yellow blossoms.

We wanted to go inside to see the cathedral's claim to fame, a piece of the actual True Cross that was used to crucify Jesus, but the church closed at six.  So, we walked along the wraparound stone deck and took in the beauty of the night.  A large fountain in the lagoon blasted water in a splendid white cascade.  Street lamps illuminated the palm tree-lined walkways in the Parc de la Mar, the city's lovely seaside botanical park, and ships of all sizes bobbed up and down at anchor in the moonlit Punta des Gas harbor.

We had no real plan, so we just strolled behind the cathedral and followed a stone street called Carrer de Sant Bernat.  It was softly lit with iron lanterns attached to the smooth walls and the brown polished street cobbles shined in the ethereal light like shadowy glass. The narrow street was empty and silent.  It could have been a scene from the 14th century; it definitely had that feel of ancient mystery.  I half expected a monk in a black cowl robe to come walking toward us, his head hidden and bowed in reverent worship.

A silver BMW suddenly broke the imaginary moment as it came around a corner and pulled in front of a beautiful stone house.  An electric gate opened and the sleek luxury sedan glided inside.

We had no idea where we were going but it sure was pretty, so we kept walking down a maze of stone alleys, past lovely houses, many with interior gardens, and each with an expensive car parked in its courtyard entrance.  This was definitely where the other half lived. And while there weren't many people out and about  mostly dog walkers  those people we did encounter were dressed handsomely and greeted us with a neighborly nod and a smile.

We blindly followed narrow alley after alley, soon losing all sense of direction, walking past countless small churches, museums, galleries and parks.  Occasionally, we came to a little plaza ringed with outdoor cafes, where people sipped wine, eating a late dinner and listening to local musicians expertly strumming guitars.  Palma had quickly gotten into our blood and we just kept cruising along like we were being carried down the river of joy.

We eventually came to an area of modern institutional buildings where there was a hospital and graduate school.  Students lounged along the perimeter walls listening to rap music and just being young and excited. The smell of weed wafted through the air like perfume.  The kids weren't threatening, but they weren't very friendly, either.

"Where are we?" asked Inna, sounding a bit uneasy.

I hadn't been paying any attention to where we were going for quite a while and I realized I had absolutely no idea where were were.  I knew we should start heading back toward the water, but there were no visual cues and I didn't know which way to go.  It was amazing how quickly we had gone from drop dead gorgeous to we better be careful now.

This is probably a good time to talk about navigating in a strange town ― especially at night.

If you are in a foreign place and get lost, the first thing you can do is ask directions.  But a lot of people don't speak English, so that doesn't always work.  What I usually do is use a major landmark as a visual guide  the biggest church or the castle is always a good bet.  But if you are enclosed in an area of tightly-packed buildings, you can't see beyond the nearest street.  And you can't count on your old friend Google maps either, because you don't have an Internet connection. So, what do you do?

Before we leave for a trip, I go to a website called  Avenza Maps.  They provide what are called GEOPDF maps for about $1 a map.  I download the maps for the places where we will be going onto my phone.  And when we get to, in this case, Palma de Mallorca, with one simple click of a button  poof  up comes a map of the city.  And it works because it is navigating by satellites in orbit over the earth, not the Internet. So, it does the trick pretty much anywhere.  We have used Avenza maps all over the globe and they have always served us well.  It even has the little blue dot that follows your path like with Google, and it worked like a charm in Palma.

We made our way back to the center of the old city and stopped at a popular outdoor cafe in a bustling central plaza ringed by large oak trees.  It was nearly midnight on a Friday in Palma, and the place was jumping with young and old alike.  People were quite happy, but not loud.

We had walked several miles at that point and the cold San Miguel beers were just what we needed.  Everybody spoke English, including our waiter, and we asked some college kids sitting nearby what it was like to live and go to school in such a sweet spot.  They were from all over Europe ― Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, England and Spain ― and they just looked to the stars and nodded in satisfaction. Clearly, they were enjoying the ride.

The cafes soon began closing.  It was like someone suddenly flipped a switch.  And by the time we got back to the Royal Palace of La Almudaina, the streets were empty except for the area along the harbor.  Street vendors were selling jewelry and clothing from makeshift stalls and early Saturday morning in Palma was still going strong.

We had no trouble finding our bus and we were back on the ship by one.  I can't say that we really saw Palma, or that I know what makes it tick, but I can say that we had a wonderful time there.  And in the end, that's really all that counts.

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