The Times Walking Correspondent, Christopher Somerville, is currently walking with us in Mallorca. Here is his first blog, accompanied by some photos. More to come over next few days - watch this space!
Day 1 - a jolly crew of 12 has assembled in Port de Soller, a seaside town cradle by dramatic peaks and ridges on the mountainous north-west coast of Mallorca, to spend a week walking with RWH leader Alf Robertson, a tough, competent and dryly humorous Aberdonian who's prepared to adapt his pace to ours. We're all sizes, most shapes, and of varying walking experience, and we all want a damn good week of walking, talking and socialising in this beautiful island.
Day 2 - Off at 0930 for Alf's introductory walk, a 13 km circuit via a high-perched farm for 'freshly-squeezed orange juice and cake,' as he seductively puts it. We soon shake off a German walking group with a burst of cheerful banter, and start up a cobbled track, one of thousands restored to useability that snake around the Mallorcan mountains. We climb gently through orange and lemon orchards heavy with fruit, past vineyards and through olive groves set with fantastically gnarled old trees. Pink spikes of tasseled hyacinth, fennel bushes smelling of aniseed, carob trees with twisty green seed pods, rosemary spewing over the ancient stone walls of cultivation terraces. By the track we spot a mirror orchid, or 'Mirror of Venus' (what a gorgeous name!), its deep blue 'eye' delicately fringed with red lashes.
Up at the Can Prohom farm we flop under a tree with fresh orange juice and fruity slices of cake. Further along, the track passes under a fig trellis slung between farm buildings scabby with age, and on through pine groves to our lunch stop in a little secluded amphitheatre of olive terraces. We nibble our picnics and chat, while Alf catches 40 winks. Then it's a long descent in 31 degree heat, down a silent back road into Soller. Some of us complete the circuit back to Port de Soller with Alf from here; others linger in Soller to admire the art exhibition in the railway station. Picture by Miro, ceramics by Picasso - yes, really! The owner of the art works is also a press and railway baron in Mallorca.
Then a rattly ride in a wooden tram back to the coast, a blissful cool swim in the sea, and a nice dinner all together looking out on the harbou
Day 3 - Soller to Deia.
One of the nice things about a RWH holiday is that you can have a day on your own if you choose. After breakfast the group tramped off for a hike in the hills behind Port de Soller, while Jane and I struck out for a day at a slower pace where we could stop at every flower and tree to have a nice long look. We decided to walk to Deia, where English poet and writer Robert Graves lived for over 50 years. It was going to be even hotter than yesterday, but the well-waymarked GR 221 path passed through forests for most of the way, so we'd have the shade of the trees.
A winding road leads from Port de Soller up the the Far de Cap Gros, the lighthouse that guards the western headland of the bay. The keepers had it tough up here in the old days - they had to stand their watch in the cramped confines of the lantern, and if anything went wrong during a storm it could take them half a day to struggle down to the town.
GR 221 led us on from the lighthouse through drifts of white and pink rock roses and glades of resin-scented pines. There were glimpses out over head high thickets of spurge - acid yellow, blush pink and intense dark green - to the sea and a very craggy coast that fell away below. We reached the farm at Can Prohom where we'd had elevenses yesterday, and swallowed down another of their wonderful cold glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. It was like setting off a bomb in the taste buds. We practically danced along the next section, a really delightful stony path through olive groves and cool stretches of woodland, with the tinkle of sheep bells coming up from small patches of grazing.
We passed old farms with pantiled roofs sun-faded to a rosy cream colour, and new villas that only megabucks could have built. The trail ends in the neat and prosperous little town of Deia, set with its face to the sea under a mighty shelf of mountains. We weighed the merits of a hurried scramble round Robert Graves's house (now a museum) followed by a rush for the bus, against those of a leisurely glass of cold beer on a shady terrace and an inexpensive taxi ride home. Culture, schmulture - that was a no-brainer.
Back in Port de Soller there was time for a swim before meeting up with our RWH chums. They'd had a great day's walking, too. Dinner out al together at Cas Pages restaurant, and a good sense of the group quickly bonding.
Day 4 - Cuber Lake and Biniaraix Gorge
The group disembarks from the bus into a cold and windy morning beside Cuber Lake, hiigh in the mountains under sharply cut peaks as choppy as a limestone sea. On the highest summit of all, Puig Major, gleams the mosque-like dome of a military early warning system. The big reservoir of Cuber feeds water down to Palma, capital city of the island. Jumpers on, fleeces zipped, and we are away along the lakeside. A cheerful and, we think, fast-striding group of Irish ramblers who are staying, like us, at the Marina Hotel, are set to do the same walk as our group today, and Alf has done a deal with their leader to let us get a head start so that we're not treading on each other's heels all day.
Soon the path leaves the lake and winds through a stony upland where feathery asphodel nods in the wind. Scrawny mules and sheep with softly clonking neck bells crop the spiny vegetation. Nightingales shake out beautiful droplets of song from the scrub bushes. We climb to the big cairn with its crucified Christ at the Coll de l'Ofre, the highest point of today's walk. A turn off the track brings us to a wonderful view down the chasm of the Barranc de Biniaraix, the gorge we'll be following this afternoon, to Soller spread out 2,500 ft below.
From here it's literally downhill all the way, descending gently on a rubbly path through pine and ilex woods. Frogs croak, ' 'Ere, 'ere!' from a scummy water tank. The path winds down, beautifully designed in a series of shallow cobbled steps. It was built for pilgrims to make the long, demanding climb to the mountain monastery of St Luke - we, wimps that we are, are sauntering down what to them must have been a very demanding upward slog. The track clings to the gorge walk, folding and re-folding on itself like a concertina bellows, passing under great rock faces where the limestone exposed by recent falls is bright orange rather than the weathered grey we are used to. Far below appear tiny plateaux of green grazing, with tile-roofed buildings and olive groves. We pass through these mountain settlements and carry on downhill, with views of thousands of miniature terraces rising up the steep slopes of the gorge, each one built with labour and effort we can only marvel at in order to retain enough water to nourish a single olive tree.
A man appears below us, steering a motorised barrow on caterpillar tracks up the path. It bounces hard and comes down with a crash on every step. The box it contains is upside down, and is labelled 'Fragile! Treat like glass!'
A rushing river joins the path in the lower part of the gorge, and we follow it by footbridges and little cascades of water through the twisting narrows of the canyon walls. Down in the outskirts of Soller we enjoy a long cool drink in the Bar Molino before making for the tram and the ride back down to Port de Soller. No sign of the Irish all day, but I suspect we'll be hearing them from the direction of the hotel bar before this holiday comes to an end.
A day for the group to scatter and follow its several noses. Some went strolling to the lighthouse. Most opted for the spectacular train ride through the mountains to Palma, where some inspected the Cathedral and others inspected the beer festival. No-one told me about that, damn it!
Jane and I found a track through the pine forests on the east side of Port de Soller, leading to a round tower on a headland. It was built there 400 years ago as an a early warning system against pirate attacks. Moorish corsairs from the North African coast had raided Port de Soller in 1561, turning up in the bay early one morning hoping to spring a surprise. But the townsfolk were waiting for them, and gave them a bloody nose. We've been noticing flags with the Islamic crescent flying side by side with flags of St George all over the Soller district - they betoken the festival that's taking place next Monday to commemorate the defeat of the pirates. 'Moors' storm ashore and battle local gallants on the beach. Lots of dressing up, lots of banging, crashing and swaggering, lots of shouting, fireworks and beer-swilling, and probably some tears before bedtime.
It was breezy up at the tower. We sat on a promontory above sheer cliffs and watched the sea. More of the same on the way back, on the shady terrace of the Nautilus restaurant (well worth seeking out) where the tapas were delicious (dates wrapped in crispy bacon, salted pimentos? Yes, please!) and the view sublime over a dark blue sea flecked with whitecaps where seagulls were circling like midges above a trawler returning to port.
Dinner together, with many stories swapped.
A lazy day, as it turned out. We opted for a solo walk while the group hiked to Deia - that's what we intended, but we got completely waylaid by the wonderful Botanic Gardens in Soller and never made it any further. Hours of sauntering among orchids, sages, medicinal plants and exotic trees. Great black shiny bees with iridescent blue wings bumbled about, pollinating the plants. Amusing names of plants included cat's head, prat's orchid, sex-scented herb, cow's tongue and scrofulous dog - I think.
Two frogs in gold and green had a croak-off on a lily pad, and two striped water snakes slipped in and out of shoals of tiny fish, licking their lips (if they had had them).
Here is the final installment of Christopher Somerville's time on a walking holiday with us in Mallorca.
Day 7 - Mirador de ses Barques to Cala Tuente.
The bus drops us off at the Mirador de ses Barques high above Soller. From the lookout we have a really fine view down over Port de Soller stretching round its almost complete circle of a bay. Harbour, town, lighthouse, forests, tower, headlands all present and correct - features we've all come to recognise over the week of walking under the excellent 'benign dictatorship' of Alf Robertson. 'Right, come on,' says our leader, 'we've walkies to do.' Someone (Tobsie) growls, 'OK, Barbara Woodhouse!', and we're off on a rocky path heading north through olive groves in the shade of an ancient stone wall.
Soon the path dips into the hidden cleft of Valle de Balitx. At the bottom we find the farm of Balitx d'Avall guarded by its 'monster', a twisted olive tree shaped like a demonic bull, charging at us head down with hollow eyes and sprouting horns. We gulp down cold orange juice in a shady nook and carry on through the forest up a steep little zigzag to a cool breeze at the Coll de Biniamar.
Soon Alf leads us off the main track, down a grassy side path and round a precarious clifftop to our 5-star picnic spot, an eyrie shaded by a pine tree overlooking a most beautiful bay of still blue water under a wide cloudless sky. Six hundred feet below, a fishing boat lays a sweep of net through the sea, then retrieves it as the silver catch thrashes and plunges in vain. Alf curls up with his book while we, serenaded by nightingales, chat and daydream and admire the view.
On at last (but too soon) along the final section of path, over a shoulder and down to a bar and a beach - the former shady, the latter in full sun. Purple-pink jellyfish pulse gracefully through the turquoise shallows, so our swim is rather a truncated one. Afterwards we laze, soaking up the sun on a driftwood log among yellow-horned poppies until the bus comes. A spectacular ride round impossible road bends and up through a lunar landscape of water-sculpted limestone, and we are back in Port de Soller with a mighty appetite for our farewell meal.
A quick mention of the GPS system we used for walking in Mallorca, the Satmap Active 12 (www.satmap.com). It’s the best walker’s GPS we’ve found and everyone in the group was interested in this. You buy and insert into the device a chip containing the whole of the island at the familiar walker’s scale of 1:25,000, and Bob’s your uncle.
The holiday has been a magical week of sea, sun and scenery, we all agree. Alf has led us expertly, knowing just when to apply a pinch of scoutmaster and when to go with the flow. The group feels like a bunch of friends by now, and Jane and I are already looking forward to choosing another of these active, delightful RWH adventures.