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DESTINATION: SPAIN

Majorca on the Mild Side

Spending lazy days dining, hiking, beachcombing on the island's north coast, where 'wild' means natural beauty and passionate history--not partying

September 17, 2000|BILL SHARPSTEEN | Bill Sharpsteen is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

DEIA, Spain — The guy in the black beret alternated his pose between scowling disdain and yawning boredom. Slender, tall and middle-aged, he sat at Deia's hangout for local artists, Cafe Sa Fonda, looking like a caricature of the embittered painter who hadn't sold any work in years and was hiding from creditors in the tiny Majorcan village. After he left, a friend of mine who lives part-time in Deia casually mentioned the man's name. "Remember the cover of Santana's 'Abraxis' album?" she asked, implying that this was his artwork. "He painted a view of Deia's cove into it below one of the nude women."

That's Deia in a nutshell: a visible secret tucked away amid the splashier sights on Majorca, Spain's largest Mediterranean island. Or put another way, 8 million people a year visit Majorca and only a handful make it to Deia, a village perched on the island's north coast.

With two luxury hotels, one of them (La Residencia) owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson, Deia is hardly undiscovered, and the town's picturesque cove sees its share of sunbathers on any summer day. Still, the steep, narrow streets manage to absorb it all to the point where a nightcap at Sa Fonda still feels cozy and intimate. One night on our vacation last April, my friend Diane and I eavesdropped on gossip about an upcoming lesbian wedding and a hotel manager's firing, and we realized we were in the company of locals--mostly expatriate Britons--not fellow tourists.

We discovered Deia through our friend Shelley and her husband, Lanning, who live in London but spend two to three months a year here in a rented village home. They had talked about Deia as a hidden paradise.

So, taking their cue, Diane and I signed on for a week's rental of a flat in a 400-year-old building with a view of the village and the Serra de Tramuntana mountains. From that base we drove a rented car to the more visited parts of the island. Coming back to quiet Deia every night was a welcome alternative to taking digs in Palma, Majorca's party-hearty city.

The apartment had two bedrooms--Diane's 13-year-old son, Max, was with us--and a fully equipped kitchen. It had been described as newly refurbished; it had cool stone-tile floors, but otherwise was nondescript. The bathroom was small, and there was no TV; Max went to Shelley's place to watch videos.

Majorca, 145 miles off the southeast coast of Spain, and its fellow Balearic islands, especially Ibiza, have been attracting foreign artists, iconoclasts and other free spirits for centuries. The most famous visiting couple were the French novelist George Sand and her lover-of-the-moment Frederic Chopin, who wintered on Majorca in 1838.

On our first morning, Shelley led us down an ancient, mile-long path lined with stone walls, poppies and olive and lemon groves, to the cala, or cove. Some of the island's ubiquitous stone walls were erected 1,000 years ago by the Moors (North African conquerors) to terrace the steep hills for agriculture. The walls made every landscape look as though it were being excavated by archeologists.

At the cala, we joined Max and Lucas, Shelley's 7-year-old son, who had gone ahead of us, and at the beach's lone cafe we established the separation of tourist interests between adults and kids. The over-40 crowd stayed to evaluate the local cuisine while the boys, content with ice cream bars, roamed the small, rocky beach and hillside trails. Granted, Max's teenage hormones were at first more interested in the topless sunbathers than in beachcombing, but the more jaded Lucas steered him away. (Interestingly, by the end of the week even Max didn't look twice at the near-nudity.)

Lanning joined us for lunch, assuring us that most of the fish on the menu had been caught that day. The sea bass (lubina) and roasted red mullet were perhaps the best fish I have eaten, though no doubt the beach and the local wine influenced my judgment.

Max, a consummate consumer, pressed us for less dining and more shopping. Apparently he thought we'd go to a mall. Our first stop was Soller, just six miles from Deia. Of the two towns, Soller was less touristy, with a sleepy central square, Placa de la Constitucio, which was bisected by a quaint electric train line that runs to Port de Soller just a few kilometers away. (Another rail line goes through the mountains to Palma, 16 miles distant on the west coast.) Locals and a few European tourists idled at cafe tables in the sunny Soller square with the collective contentment of people grateful that the bakery was open on a Sunday.

Or perhaps they were just glad not to be in the thick of the Port de Soller scene, where we went next. Yes, the port has an idyllic harbor, watched by two lighthouses, but anxiety was in the air, the collective frenzy of tourists bent on finding the right souvenirs.

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