Mary Boyd
The Fortunate Isles: Life and Travel in Majorca, Minorca and Iviza

The Fortunate Isles: Life and Travel in Majorca, Minorca and Iviza
Mary Boyd

The Fortunate Isles: Life and Travel in Majorca, Minorca and Iviza


"I hear you think of spending the winter in the Balearic Islands?" said the only Briton we met who had been there. "Well, I warn you, you won't enjoy them. They are quite out of the world. There are no tourists. Not a soul understands a word of English, and there's nothing whatever to do. If you take my advice you won't go."

So we went. And what follows is a faithful account of what befell us in these fortunate isles.

    M. S. B.



We had left London on a tempestuous mid-October Saturday morning, and Sunday night found us walking on the Rambla at Barcelona, a purple velvet star-spangled sky overhead, and crowds of gay promenaders all about us.

When the Boy and I had planned our journey to the Balearic Isles (the Man never plans), our imaginings always began as we embarked at Barcelona harbour on the Majorcan steamer that was to carry us to the islands of our desire. So when we had strolled to where the Rambla ends amid the palm-trees of the port, it seemed like the materializing of a dream to see the steamer Balear lying there, right under the great column of Columbus, with her bow pointing seawards, as though waiting for us to step on board.

When at sunset next day the hotel omnibus deposited us at the port, the Balear appeared to be the centre of attraction. It still lacked half an hour of sailing time, yet her decks, which were ablaze with electric light, were covered with people. Ingress was a matter of so much difficulty that our inexperience of the ways of Spanish ports anticipated an uncomfortably crowded passage.

There was scarcely room on board to move, yet up the species of hen-ladder that acted as gangway people were still streaming – ladies in mantillas, ladies with fans, ladies with babies, and men of every age, the men all smoking cigarettes.

Fortunately a recognized etiquette made those whose visits to the ship were of a purely complimentary nature confine themselves to the deck. When we descended to inspect our sleeping accommodation it was to find an individual cabin reserved for each of us; and to learn that, in spite of the mob on board, there were but four other saloon passengers. These, as we afterwards discovered, were a French honeymoon couple and a young Majorcan lady who was accompanied by her dueña.

Rain had been predicted, and was eagerly looked for, as none had fallen for many weeks. Yet it was a perfect evening. There was hardly a ripple on the water, and the air was soft and balmy. Behind the brilliant city with its myriads of lights rose the dark Catalonian mountains. Clustered near us in the harbour the crews of the fishing boats made wonderfully picturesque groups as they supped by the light of hanging lamps. And over all, high above the tall palms of the Paseo de Colon, the statue of Columbus pointed ever westwards.

Looking at the sparkling scene, it was difficult to credit that Barcelona, with its surface aspect of light-hearted gaiety, was under martial law, even though we had seen that alert-eyed armed soldiers guarded every street and alley, and knew that but a day or two earlier bombs had exploded with deadly effect where the crowds were now promenading. It was hard, too, to believe that at that moment the interest of all Europe was centred upon that sombre fortress to the south-west of the town, within whose walls, only five days earlier, Ferrer had, rightly or wrongly, met the death of a traitor.

The warning siren sounded. The visitors reluctantly scuttled down the ridiculous hen-ladder. The moorings were cast away, the screw revolved, and we were off – bound for the Fortunate Isles.

Out of many wondrous nights passed on strange waters I remember none more beautiful. We were almost alone on deck. So far as solitude went the Balear might have been chartered for our exclusive use. The second-cabin passengers had all disappeared forward. The French bride and bridegroom had found a secluded nook in which to coo; and the vigilant dueña had led her charge into retirement.

We three sat late into the night watching the lights of the beautiful city of unrest fade away into the distance, while over the sinister fortress of Montjuich the golden sickle of the new moon hung like a note of interrogation.

The Spanish coast had vanished. The ship's bow was pointing towards Africa, and wild-fire was flashing about the horizon when at last we descended to our cabins. The lightning was still flashing, but it was far in our wake, when we awoke about four in the morning to find the Balear sailing along on an even keel, close by a mountainous coast whose highest promontory was crowned by a lighthouse.

Having dressed and refreshed ourselves with biscuits, and chocolate made over a spirit-lamp, we went on deck while it was yet dark, and watched the land gradually become more and more distinct with the broadening dawn. The Boy, who had early recognised something British in the build of our steamer, made the interesting discovery from the unobliterated lettering on her bell that, though now known as the Balear, the vessel had begun her career as the Princess Maud, one of a line of steamers coasting between Glasgow and Liverpool.

As the steamer skirted the picturesque coast we tried, not very effectively, it must be admitted, to pick out the bays and headlands history connects with Jaime, the valorous young King of Aragon, who, accompanied by a great fleet, set sail from Barcelona one September day early in the thirteenth century, determined to wrest Majorca from the tyranny of the Moors, who for hundreds of years had dominated it. But when we had decided that it must have been round that point that his ships, with all lights extinguished, had crept at midnight to anchor in this bay, the appearance of yet another point and another bay made us waver. Still, there could be no mistaking Porto Pi, with its beacon tower on the point where the Moors, warned of the approach of the enemy, gathered in force to resist his landing.

The sun was illumining the wooded slopes about the ancient castle of Bellver, and shining radiantly upon Palma, lighting up the spires of the noble Cathedral and the encompassing city walls, and shining upon the mountains beyond, as about half-past six we entered the harbour, to find the wharf already busy with people.

We had left grey gloom in London and in Paris. Here all was vivid and sparkling. The air was exhilarating, the port, with its nondescript craft, was a feast of colour. Voices speaking the island tongue sounded strangely in our unaccustomed ears. Our first impression of Palma was one of brightness: an impression conveyed partly by the warm amber and golden tints of the stone of which the charming city is built.

On the previous night we had thought the Balear half empty; but with the morning many unguessed passengers made their appearance forward. The guardia civil, who was travelling with his little boy, producing a pocket-handkerchief, dipped it in a bucket of water and scrubbed his son's face till it shone, the child keeping up an excited chatter the while.

The honeymoon couple were early on deck looking out for the Grand Hotel omnibus. But we were nearly alongside the wharf before the young Majorcan lady, closely shadowed by her dueña, left her cabin.

After the manner of Spanish aristocrats when travelling, she was dressed in black, and carried a fan that seemed to go oddly with her smart hat. She had a beautiful figure, and the graceful carriage of her race. But an expression of discontent, as though she were already weary looking for something that might have been expected to happen but did not, lent an unbecoming droop to her well cut lips.

Her companion was a shrivelled little woman, whose gums were toothless and whose cheeks bore the pallor of enforced seclusion, but whose alert expression betokened generations of watchful patience. He would be an ingenious as well as an ardent lover whose attentions could escape the glint of those quiet eyes. A black mantilla covered her scant hair, a long semi-transparent shawl draped her narrow shoulders. In addition to her fan she held two parcels, one wrapped in green, the other in orange tissue-paper – a flimsy covering, surely, for a sea-passage.

We put ourselves in the care of the first porter who mounted the gangway – a handsome brigand with a slouch hat, curled moustaches, and yellow boots. Gathering up a mountain of light luggage in either hand, he tripped airily on shore, we meekly following.

A Spanish friend in London had recommended the Fonda de Mallorca (locally known as "Barnils'") as the best specimen of a typical Majorcan hotel, and there we had decided to stay until our plans for the next few months were matured.

As we left the harbour the hotel omnibus drew up in front of the Customs Office, and for the third and last time on the journey the solemn farce of the examination of our luggage was gone through. This time it was altogether perfunctory. Not an article was opened. The trunks, which followed on a cart, must have been treated with like trustful generosity, for their keys never left our possession.

As our baggage included a double supply of artist's materials requisite for a six months' stay, it turned the scale at three hundred pounds. Between Charing Cross and Paris the overweight was charged 15s. 6d. From Paris to Barcelona we paid 35 francs. From there to Palma it travelled free. But though we saw fellow-travellers in variant stages of exasperation over vexatious claims, we paid no duty anywhere. Even the China tea that, unknown to my men-folk, I had smuggled, travelled unsuspected. And as tea in Majorca is a ransom, and Indian at the best, I had, while my small store lasted, an unfailing sense of satisfaction in my contraband possession.

The Hôtel Barnils gave us a cordial welcome. The grateful fragrance of hot coffee was in the air as we were taken upstairs and delivered into the care of Pedro, the chamber-man, who was smoking a cigarette as he cleaned the tiled corridors with a basin of damp sawdust and an ineffectual-looking broom.

Our suite of rooms on the second floor consisted of a tiny salon, from which on either side opened a bedroom. The smaller had a window to the Calle del Conquistador, the larger overlooked the inner courtyard with its potted palms and ginger-plants. All three rooms were papered alike in a pattern of large black and brown leaves on a yellow ground. The effect was decidedly bizarre. To those of a melancholy temperament it would assuredly have proved trying, even though there was a certain relief in the collection of French coloured lithographs that further adorned the walls.

Our sitting-room, which, like the bedrooms, was paved with tiles, had a tall window that opened to the floor and was guarded by an iron railing. It had two red-covered easy-chairs, four fawn brocade small chairs, and a round table with a yellow and drab tablecloth.

In an amazingly brief space we were seated round that table drinking coffee out of tall glasses, and making acquaintance with the enciamada, a local breakfast dainty which is neither pastry, bread, nor bun, yet appears to enjoy something of the good qualities of all three. In form it somewhat resembles the fossil known to our nursery days as an ammonite. To picture a nicely baked and browned ammonite that has been well dusted with icing-sugar is to see an enciamada.

The little breakfast over, we went out to explore the city. Up the street of the Conquistador people were hurrying: men bearing on their heads flat baskets filled with pink or silver fish that were still dripping from the Mediterranean, and women carrying empty baskets. Following the stream, we found ourselves in the market, which is surrounded by tall, many-storied buildings.

It was an animated scene. Everybody was busy – all the people who were not buying were selling. And round about were commodities that were strange to us. The fish-stalls, which were clustered in a corner by themselves, displayed odd fish, many of them repulsive-looking, and all, in our eyes, undersized. The meat stalls revealed joints of puzzling cut, and were garlanded with gamboge and vermilion sausages, as though the Majorcans' love of bright colours manifested itself even in the food they ate.

The more attractive aspect of the fruit and vegetables drew us up the alleys where the salesfolk sat placidly surrounded by huge gourds, radishes eighteen inches long, strange and unappetizing fungi. They had a varied assortment of goods, but the vegetable that appeared to dominate the market was the sweet pepper, or pimiento; everywhere it lay in heaps whose colour shaded from a vivid green to glowing scarlets and orange.

One or two ladies in mantillas were marketing, attended by maids whose hair, dressed in a single pleat, showed beneath the rebozillo that is the national head-covering of the country-women.

One piece of buying, and one only, did I venture on. The Man's favourite fruit is the green fig, a commodity that in London costs on an average eighteenpence a dozen. Seeing a woman with a hamper of choice fresh figs, I proceeded to try how Majorcan prices compared with those of Britain. Taking warning by the experience of a friend who, having asked for half-a-crown's worth of grapes in a foreign market, found himself confronted with the impossibility of carrying away his purchase, I discreetly held out the local equivalent of a penny and pointed to the figs.

The vendor, seeing that I had no basket, held a brief colloquy with a neighbouring salesman, which resulted in the production of a piece of crumpled newspaper. Signing to me to open my hands, she spread it over them and began counting the figs into it, carefully selecting the finest specimens from her stock. Having heard that food was cheap in these fortunate isles, I confidently expected that my penny might purchase four green figs: but instead of stopping at a reasonable number, the woman went on piling them up until I felt inclined to say "Hold, enough!" When she desisted, the paper held a dozen juicy purple figs, and half a dozen of the golden green ones that are considered the more delicate in flavour.

A Spanish proverb declares that to reach perfection a ripe fig must have three qualifications: "A neck for the hangman, a robe for the beggar, a tear for the penitent." These had all the required attributes: the slender neck, the rent in the skin, the oozing drop of juice. Better figs, we imagined, were never eaten than the experimental pennyworth we bought that October day in Palma market.

The mind easily adjusts itself to existing conditions. A few minutes later it scarcely surprised us to see an old woman buy ten fine tomatoes for a halfpenny – or to hear her demand an eleventh as just value for her coin.

Leaving the market square, we wandered about the narrow streets, which, with their tall old houses and quaint patios– the spacious central courtyards – are full of picturesque scenes. Palma is densely populated, and the moving crowds gave us the impression of a people good-looking and well dressed as well as healthy and happy. Few of the ladies we met wore hats, and to me it appeared odd to see a lady in a well-cut tailor suit wearing a mantilla as, accompanied by her maid, she did her shopping.

Many of the native women had their hair in a long pigtail, and wore either the rebozillo– a neat white muslin headdress, in form like a diminutive hood with a collarette attached – or a coloured silk handkerchief, or both. A small fringed shawl usually covered their shoulders. But it was in the matter of footgear that the Majorcan fancy appeared to run riot. Yellow boots, green boots, cream-hued boots, elastic-sided orange boots were displayed on the feet of otherwise sedately-garbed people of both sexes; and the children wore slippers of lively shades embroidered with gay flowers.

When a sudden shower, descending with tropical force made us seek shelter in a doorway whence we watched the passers-by, we had the opportunity of noting that, though all marketing dames wore smart boots, many of them had dispensed with stockings.

A sharp distinction seemed to be drawn in the dress of the classes. As we passed the church of San Miguel, troops of ladies who had been attending morning service were leaving it. With almost the uniformity of a livery, they wore black gowns of brocaded satin. Black mantillas covered their beautifully-dressed hair, and in addition to their rosaries, each carried a fan.

Our temporary shelter chanced to be close to the gate of Santa Margarita, and when the rain cloud had passed over, we went near to read the inscription graven in Spanish on the stone on one side of the gateway: —

By this gate entered into the city on the 31st day of December, 1229, the hosts of King Don Jaime I. of Aragon, Conquistador of Majorca. As a remembrance of that memorable occasion, on which Majorca was restored to the faith and civilization of Christianity, this gate, called "Bab-al-Kofol" in the time of the Islamite dominion, since then "Esuchidor" and "Pintador," and in modern times "Santa Margarita," was declared a national monument on the 28th of July, 1908, and restored at the expense of the State.

The records of the more ancient races who inhabited the island seem to have almost vanished. The Gymnesias, known as the people whose gracious climate rendered the wearing of clothes a superfluity; the Phoenicians, the Romans, even the Balearic slingers, are well-nigh forgotten, while memorials of the valiant young King of Aragon meet one at every turn.