Sunday, November 16, 2014

Visiting Spain--Mallorca, palms and sunshine

We set sail from Barcelona in Catalonia, eastern Spain, for Mallorca on a tour with Gohagan Travel and the University of California Alumni Association. Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, four inhabited islands and some tiny ones, in the Mediterranean east of Spain. They are currently Spainish, but like much of the area, were once Phoenician, Carthaginian (Punic), Roman, and Moorish, Catalan, independent--at least--before becoming Spanish.  

You'll see the spelling Majorca. Same place. The residents spell it Mallorca, so I will too.

coast of Mallorca

Located 160 miles from the coast of Spain, they have a mild, Mediterranean climate. None of the islands gets much rain, about 14" a year, comparable to Los Angeles. The summers are hot and rainless, though often humid due to the surrounding sea. Winters are cool and moist. Most winters the temperatures only drop to the middle 30's. Infrequently, frosts and snow occur even at sea level, keeping the island vegetation subtropical rather than tropical. Our guide remembered three frosts in his life (approximately 50 years). Those frosts, rare as they are, keep tropical plants from surviving in the Balearics.

Why is frost so important to the distribution of plants? Because it tears apart the plant's cells. When water freezes, it expands. Examples of damage from the expansion of water are the cracks in concrete sidewalks that develop in winter and the glass jar of lemonade or water that breaks in the freezer. Inside the cells of plants, expanding water breaks up the tissues, killing the cell. Only a minority of all the world's plants have evolved cells that resist freezing damage, so most plants die when the water in their cells freezes.

The mild climate makes the Balearic Islands a European vacation destination. My interest and photos feature the natural vegetation and history but there's a thriving tourist industry devoted to yachts and sandy beaches.

Palma, Mallorca
Harbor, City of Palma, Mallorca
The largest city on Mallorca, and in the Balearics, is Palma. That name emphasizes their climate. While a few palms grow along the Mediterranean coast of Europe, for example in Barcelona, the number and diversity of palms increases as frost frequency decreases. Mallorca is about as mild as Europe gets.

palms, Palma, Mallorca
palms, Palma, Mallorca
palm with fruits, Palma, Mallorca
palm with fruits, Palma, Mallorca
Palma, Mallorca
bay, Palma, Mallorca
Palma was a very pretty and interesting city. The cathedral, Santa Maria de Palma, dominated downtown. As is typical in Spain and Portugal, the cathedral was erected on the site of the mosque when Christians retook the island in 1229. Often the mosque lay atop a previous Christian church which was built over the Roman temple and the Roman temple over the Punic one, and so on.  Of course replacing the monuments of the predecessors was a powerful statement by the new regime. I wondered, though, whether in many places, the previous most-important building occupied the best site, so that there was no better location for a big building in the immediate area, so the placement of the new monument combined politics and practicality.

Started in the 13th century, the cathedral took several hundred years to build. In 1851 an earthquake knocked down the western doors. Those were replaced with the art of the time, so the cathedral is an interesting mix of styles.
cathedral, Palma, Mallorca
Cathedral of Santa Maria, Palma, Mallorca
Also typical of the towns along the Mediterranean was the fortress overlooking Palma. From time immemorial, pirates have raided these coasts. Towns and villages watched the sea and built fortresses into which they could run should unfamiliar sails appear. The Bellver Castle was built by King James II of Mallorca between 1300 and 1311 to protect Palma. (Mallorca was an independent kingdom between 1276 and 1343, after which it was absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon.) Unfortunately I don't have a distance picture, looking up to see it on the hill. I imagine residents would look at such fortresses as comforting protections or the heavy hand of the occupier, depending on the date and their personal history.

Bellver--the name means lovely view in Catalan--is a handsome piece of strong stonework, more complex than my photos indicate.

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca
Palma from Bellver Castle
plant growing from the fortress wall, Mallorca
plant growing from the fortress wall
false yellowhead, Dittrichia viscosa (sunflower family, Asteraceae)
The old walls looked like crumbling, sterile pavement, and yet, plants were growing there. Above is sticky inula, Dittrichia viscosa (sunflower family, Asteraceae) called sticky inula in my wildflower book and false yellowhead by Wikipedia. It reminded me of goldenrods (Solidago) and was common along the coast.

These next plants I cannot identify and it is harder to tell from the photos that they were growing on the castle wall, but they were.

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Humans build great structures, but plants will retake the space, given just a few years undisturbed.

I thought Mallorca very interesting, from its botany to its history to the present role as an island resort.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Allen, B. M. A selection of wildflowers of southern Spain. Edciones Santana, Malaga Spain. 1993. print.
Consell de Mallorca Malorcan history (accessed 11/6/14)

Kathy Keeler


  1. Well written post! You described very beautifully Mallorca, palms and sunshine. I must say that you enjoyed in this country from the core of your heart. Thank You!

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  2. Mallorca is wonderful place in Europe where you can buy luxury villas. The beautiful beaches, the fabulous climate, the fascinating culture and the great restaurants are attracting people to this city.
    Palma de Mallorca