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Majorca Mixes Cultures

June 05, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

VALLDEMOSA, Spain — Composer Frederic Chopin lived in this village on the island of Majorca in the Balearics and composed music in the cell of an old monastery he shared with a French baroness who wrote under the pseudonym George Sand.

Just up the coastal road on this Mediterranean island in the village of Deya, the English poet Robert Graves lived for more than 50 years while he wrote such classics as "I, Claudius" and "The Golden Fleece" and presided over the area's intellectual life.

Picasso lived nearby and painted in a farmer's cottage.

On the craggy coast between Valldemosa and Deya the Archduke Salvador of Austria built his estate around a 16th-Century watchtower and wrote one of the best historical guidebooks on Majorca and the other islands of the archipelago.

The Christian era began on Majorca after the Muslim Middle Ages, which followed the Romans and the prehistoric Talayotic civilization.

Intriguing Resorts

All this is part of the ambiance that is bringing an increasing number of U.S. visitors to an island that English and German vacationers have made one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean.

To this mix of history and culture has been added a variety of resorts tucked along the coves, bays and sandy beaches.

More than 20 marinas and sports harbors on the island take care of sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Scenic and historic sites along the coast can be explored from horseback, with horses available for hire.

We came upon the monastery where Chopin and Sand lived after taking a spectacular narrow-gauge train ride for about an hour from the capital city of Palma to the fishing port of Soller.

Privately Owned Railroad

This is the only privately owned railway in Spain. It was funded by practically the entire population of this fishing port in 1905, and replaced stagecoach service in 1912.

A total of 13 tunnels had to be cut through the Sierra Norte Mountains along the rail line's 27 kilometers.

The train winds toward the mountains through orchards and farm lands, almond and carob trees, slowly climbing above the roadway. A lookout stop is 1,000 feet above Soller.

By bus the village of Deya is about six miles down the coast. Thousand-year-old olive trees grow along the road, with root clusters like giant sculptures.

The Robert Graves home is at the edge of the village. He settled here in 1929 after graduating from Oxford, holding several university professorships and writing his first volume of poetry in England.

He died here shortly before Christmas in 1985 at the age of 90, and is buried in the Deya village churchyard. Family members still live in the home.

Wanderer's Rest

Son Marroig is the Archduke Salvador's estate a couple of miles south of Deya. Salvador was the son of Leopold II, but left court life to wander in the Mediterranean aboard his yacht. He bought the estate in 1870, naming it after the daughter of the Marroig family who had been kidnaped by pirates from the watchtower.

The archduke invited titled and literary friends to enjoy the Majorcan sunsets from the tower, and while sitting there he worked on many of his books about the islands and the coast of North Africa.

Within the village of Deya, between the sea and a 4,000-foot mountain chain, a 16th-Century manor house has been converted into La Residencia Hotel, one of the most luxurious hideaway resorts of the Mediterranean.

Only 65 guests are accommodated in view rooms furnished with antiques and four-poster beds. La Residencia is set within a 30-acre estate, its pool nested above the beach and dramatic coastline. The restaurant serves nouveau Mediterranean cuisine. Doubles start at about $180 U.S.

Chopin and Sand were among the first to start the early 19th-Century pilgrimage of famous names to Majorca. They arrived in 1838, the year after their romance began in Paris.

Chopin was 28 and had left his war-torn Polish homeland, although his heart was always there. His music was already famous, but he was troubled with the beginning of the tuberculosis that was to end his life in Paris at age 39.

Searching for Health

Sand, whose title was Baroness Dudevant, had been shocking Parisian society with her love affairs as well as the themes of her novels. She brought Chopin, along with her son, to Majorca in the hope that the southern climate would help her nurse him back to health.

They were forced to leave comfortable quarters in Palma when locals learned that Chopin might have tuberculosis, a disease dreaded as contagious and incurable. They also had to leave a farm home near the city.

Finally they found two adjoining cells that were fixed up for them in the Carthusian Monastery of Valldemosa, no longer owned by monks. During the winter they lived here, and Chopin composed many of his classic preludes on an old piano.

Sand was later to write a bitter condemnation of what she felt was the inhospitable nature of the island people in her book, "Winter in Mallorca."

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