Above, birds swoop and hover on a strong, constant wind. Waves pound cliffs, which fall dizzyingly away beneath my feet. I am at Cap de Formentor, on the north coast of Mallorca, a wildly beautiful spit of land that stretches out for 12 miles just northeast of the town of Pollensa. Robert Graves, who adopted this Balearic island as his home, may very well have been standing in my shoes when he penned Rocky Acres decades ago. The pure, physical beauty of Mallorca is part of what drew him here to write more than 80 books of prose and poetry.
Standing here, I feel justified in abandoning the south coast, and the capital of Palma so quickly. Although much of Mallorca has seen a rise in development and a surge of tourists, the north has seen less, although it does attract its share of admirers: Artists continue to find this part of the world inspirational. I want to see the island through their eyes, searching out “art” in not only the obvious venues, like galleries and museums, but also in unlikely places, like in landscape, food and daily living. I leave windswept Formentor and start my pilgrimage in Deia, a hilltop village on the northwest coast, where Robert Graves lived. “Deia used to be a place where people came to work seriously,” says Tomas Graves, who was born and raised on the island and is the son of the famous poet.
Despite Deia’s isolation — or maybe because of it — writers such as Anais Nin, Kingsley Amis, and Jorge Luis Borges were seduced by the honey-colored stone buildings, the valley framed by pine, oak and olive trees, and the sea views.
“Nowadays few struggling artists can afford to buy a home here,” Tomas admits. “But the artists and writers brought it on themselves, basically pricing themselves out. They were so concerned with protecting the area and opposing the development that was going on to the south that they were successful in enacting strict zoning laws.” What may be bad news for struggling artists is good news for those seeking a pristine hideaway.
In October is the Tertulia Literary Festival. “The idea of the festival was to bring back some of the creative spirit,” says Tomas, who doesn’t lack for creativity himself. Tomas has gray hair and a face that is movie-star handsome. Or should I say rock star? Besides being a member in a band, Tomas has written three books.
The Tertulia Festival is now in its second year. “The festival certainly involves the local community and heritage, but it is also very outward-looking and international in scope,” he explains. English, Spanish and Catalan are the languages represented at the festival.
The town of Deia is almost a piece of art itself. The luxury hotel La Residencia creatively blends in with the town’s terra-cotta roofs and stone walls. Its art gallery displays a rotating exhibit of works. Artist David Templeton, whose large colorful portrait of Robert Graves hangs in the restaurant, conducts “art breaks.” Guests create art in the studio, explains David, a painter who has been living in Deia since 1978 and who is also in the band with Tomas and Tomas’ brother, Juan. “We also visit galleries in Palma like the Miro Foundation and the March Foundation.” Painter Joan Miro spent the last 20 years of his life on Mallorca. The March Foundation contains art collected by Juan March and is one of the most famous galleries in Palma.
“We don’t spend all our time painting, writing and playing music,” laughs David when I ask about the restaurants that have sprung up in Deia. Tomas and David recommend Xelini, where tapas are prepared with craftsmanship. That night, I eat plates of chorizo with raw onions and dates wrapped in crispy bacon.
No less creative but more elegant is El Olivo, part of the La Residencia hotel. Located in an old olive mill, the restaurant has wood-beamed ceilings and is lit by candles. Wine steward Eva Nadal typifies the adaptability and dedication of Mallorcans that I continue to encounter. “I first worked at El Olivo when I was 16,” she explains as she pours me a flute of cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. Eva, realizing her passion was wine, went to train in England, Germany and mainland Spain. But she missed Mallorca, so she returned to reign over one of Spain’s best cellars and, in her 30s, is one of the country’s few female sommeliers.
On my way to pollensa, another town with a strong cultural background, I stop in Soller, in the foothills of the Serra de Tramuntana, for a taste of Mallorca’s vibrant agricultural heritage. Cobbled streets lead to the main square,with its turn-of-the-century palaces and cathedral. While most cafes and restaurants are on the square, I visit a butcher shop and sample artisanal delicacies like sobrasada, a spicy cured pork pate, and bottifarro, pork with peppers. The nibbles, though delicious, can’t substitute for a meal. “Where can I eat well?” I ask Senora Oliver, the butcher’s wife.
“Well?” she responds, “or well?” She rubs her thumb and forefinger together.
I opt for the less expensive “well” and eat local olives, a big bowl of vegetable soup and crusty homemade bread at C’an Gata.
The road out of soller is lined with stone walls. On both sides of it are orange and lemon trees, the source for the marmalades and jams that the island is known for. The road continues, winding through the mountains. I come across Monestir de Lluc, a monastery where one can reflect on the beauty of the landscape, which includes several vertiginous peaks more than 3,000-feet high.
After much ear popping and gear shifting, my car reaches Pollensa, a village actually divided into two. Pollensa proper is set about four miles inland, which pro-vided it protection from pirates. Port de Pollensa is its gateway to the sea.
Much like Deia, the town has been attracting artists since the beginning of the 20th century, and it is enjoying a resurgence of creative activity. The Festival de Pollensa in July is a world-class music festival. The town is also home to several art galleries.
“When I was younger I didn’t like living on Mallorca,” says Joan Bennassar, an internationally known artist born outside of Pollensa. “It seemed too cut off from the rest of the world. But things have changed for the better.” After spending 20 years in Barcelona, Joan has returned.
“I am an inveterate collector,” Joan admits as he shows me around his modern home, filled to the rafters with sculptures and carvings from around the world. We cross the orange orchard that separates his house from the studio. His own massive sculptures of rudimentary human forms loom nearby. The studio itself is a testament to Joan’s energetic output: Hundreds of paintings line the walls, many of them works in progress.
“I find the number of artists and collectors and people interested in art that come here inspiring. There is a lot of energy, and you can feel it in the air. The people who come here are very much part of a vibrant and living cultural atmosphere that mixes both the new and the traditional. A good example is Son Brull.”
I take his advice and head to this new hotel, in a restored 18th-century convent. Owner Alex Suau comes from a family of traditional Mallorcan hoteliers, but he and his brother wanted to do something different with Son Brull. “I think the future of Mallorca is all about small country hotels,” Alex says as we sip freshly squeezed orange juice made from the hotel’s trees. “We didn’t want to be just one more traditional, slightly rustic farmhouse hotel.” Instead, within the framework of a convent, Son Brull is unexpectedly modern, with its dramatic lighting, contemporary furniture and original artwork.
Although I don’t intentionally look for it, art seems to be almost everywhere in Pollensa. Art from local and international artists hangs at the seaside restaurant, Ca’n Cuarassa, where I eat dinner. In the hotels where I stay, I am more likely to find a jar of jam, a bottle of olive oil or even a bag of sea salt rather than a chocolate by the bed. Mallorcans are proud of their local ingredients and with good reason. At Alex’s suggestion, I head to Sineu, 45 minutes southeast of Pollensa. Here I find the real Mallorca, where a Wednesday market attracts more farmers and housewives than tourists.
In the main square, Sa Placa, Guillermo Torrens sets up his stand where the justifiably famous Mallorcan salamis, pates and hams are displayed. If there is an indigenous artwork, it has to be the cured-pork products of this island.
“Pata negra! Pata negra!” exclaims Guillermo, while I nibble on pieces of sausage. He points to a poster of a black pig, and I understand. Pata negra is the breed of pig used to make these delicacies.
I wind my way past wooden cages full of guinea hens, rabbits and chickens, stopping at a stand piled high with glass jars. Golden apricots float in honey, as do toasted almonds and hazelnuts. Wrinkled figs, speckled with anise seed, float in anise liquor. Jars hold pure varietal honeys: wild flower and orange blossom. But I ask for one that I’ve heard so much about: almond-blossom honey.
“You are too early!” says Francisca, whose weathered face attests to years spent out in the fields. “Didn’t you see all the trees in flower?” she asks. How could I miss all the trees with pink blossoms? “Those are the almond flowers. You have to let the bees do their work, don’t you? Come back in two months.” “I would love to come back,” I say. I may return after the almond trees bloom.
La Residencia in Deia offers art breaks in March and April. These 5-day programs, led by painter David Templeton, cost 1,773 euros, 011-34-971-639011, www.hotel-laresidencia.com.
In Lluc, tap into your spiritual side while hiking and biking at Monestir de Lluc; rooms are 31-37 euros, 011-34-971-871525. Near Pollensa is Son Brull. The luxury hotel offers cooking classes and wine tastings. Rooms are 200-721 euros, 011-34-971-535353, www.sonbrull.com.
BOOKS AND MUSIC In Deia, the Tertulia Literary festival is held Oct. 27-31, www.hayfestival.com/tertulia/eng
Festival de Pollensa, a music extravaganza, is held every July, www.festivalpollenca.org
GET THERE Flights depart daily from Barcelona. Ferries leave from Barcelona and Madrid, www.trasmediterranea.com