Artà and Ses Païsses – Medieval and Bronze Age Mallorca

The town of Artà lies nestled in a valley in the rural north east of Mallorca.  It is not easily accessible without your own transport and as a result has remained largely untouched by tourism despite the treasures it has to offer.

A warren of Medieval streets winds inexorably upwards, culminating in 180 steep steps which lead to the town’s heart and highest point, the walled Sanctuary of Saint Salvador.  From here any efforts exerted in the climb will be rewarded with uninterrupted views across Artà’s terracotta rooftops to the mountains beyond.  There are plenty of shady spots to regain your breath and a café serving refreshments as well as a small modern church, built on the site of a 14th century original intentionally burnt in the early 19th century after it was used to treat patients during Europe’s last outbreak of bubonic plague.

Just below the Sanctuary squats the imposing church of the Transfiguration of the Lord whose bold, neo-gothic bulk dominates Artà’s skyline.  It is to the side of this church that the steps to the top of the hill begin, flanked by stone carved angels.

Artà is also home to a number of museums, including the interesting and eclectic Regional Museum whose exhibits range from natural history to archaeology.  It was at the museum we first learnt of Ses Païsses, the foremost Bronze Age site on the island which, despite its importance, is not particularly well known or indeed easy to find.  Armed with directions from a friendly curator, we drove our car to the outskirts of town, identified the correct side street and followed it through farmland to a clearing amongst trees.  A very reasonable 2€ entrance fee paid, we continued onwards to be greeted by the impressive mass of the settlement’s stone gateway.

Beyond the protective curve of the outer wall a number of structures survive, including an atalaia or watchtower.

As with so many ancient places, Ses Païsses exudes an atmosphere heavy with history.  The past is palpable; you can feel it in the stones, worn by centuries of human touch, hear the whispers of memories in the rustle of the surrounding trees.  It is the trees that for me brought the most magic, life in a place so long abandoned.

And so our visit to Mallorca ends.  Next up we head north, to the forests of Finland.

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Roman Ruins and Medieval Walls – Alcúdia, Mallorca a town full of history

Alcúdia, just in land from the north coast of Mallorca, is a history lover’s dream.  The atmospheric, winding streets of the old town are a great place to lose yourself, camera in hand, amidst the higgledy-piggledy, colourful architecture; every crossroads opening up to reveal a new and enticing path to explore.

Alcúdia is encircled by a fourteenth century late Medieval wall, built to protect the town from pirate raids.  It is possible to walk along sections of the wall and out on to the tops of some of the towers that stud it.  Here you get a bird’s eye view of the maze of streets and jumble of roofs below, catching glimpses of everyday life, washing on a line, a TV set framed by half closed shutters, children’s toys discarded.

Like many Mallorcan towns, Alcúdia is host to a market which takes place twice a week on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and is a mix of fresh produce and stalls selling crafts, souvenirs, clothing and other goods.

Whilst most visitors to Alcúdia will walk the walls and perhaps poke a head inside the stocky and squat seventeenth century church of St Jaume, not everyone will know that metres away, on the opposite side of the road from the church lie an impressive collection of Roman ruins.

Scattered amongst peaceful fields of flowers are the remains of Pollentia, founded shortly after the arrival of the Romans on the island in 123 BC.  Chosen for its views over the surrounding countryside, and down to the sea beyond, the site today can be categorised in to three, the walls and columns of the residential area, known as La Portella, which lies nearest to the entrance to the site and consists of the skeletal outlines of a number of private houses and the roads linking them, the Forum where commercial, administrative and religious activity would have taken place and, furthest away, a theatre.

The theatre is remarkably preserved, with tiers of seating still present if eroded by time, and it is possible to walk amongst the stones and sit, as so many so long ago once did, and imagine the performances that would have taken place.  It is hard not to imagine the ghost of voices in your ears so direct is the connection to the past here.  It is an experience well worth the entrance fee.

For the previous post from my Mallorcan trip, click here.  Next up a visit to Arta and the 3,000 year old settlement on its doorstep.

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Steps, side streets and sunshine – exploring Pollenca, Mallorca

Pollenca, not to be confused with the nearby seaside resort of Port de Pollenca, has lain in a steep sided valley in the foothills of Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains for centuries, with occupation at least as long ago as the Roman presence on the island.  You can feel the age of the place in its narrow and winding streets, which wrap themselves tightly around the rising slopes, sharp corners and switchbacks occasionally opening, unannounced, in to large open spaces.  It is a labyrinthine town best explored on foot.

At the heart of Pollenca is the Placa Major, or main square.  Here you can pull up a seat outside one of the cafes to revive yourself pre or post wanderings or seek shade from the sun inside the tranquil grandeur of the imposing 13th century church of Our Lady of the Angels, with connections to the Knights Templar.

On Sundays one of the larger, and more authentic, markets on the island is held in the square, with stalls spilling out in to the streets beyond.  Arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat.  If your visit doesn’t fall on market day Pollenca offers an eclectic range of boutiques offering art, crafts and tasteful souvenirs and a free to enter art gallery, Museu De Pollenca, housed in a former convent.  For those content simply to explore the streets, there are plenty of hidden treasures to uncover.

Pollenca is perhaps most famous for Calle de Calvari or the Calvari steps, a street of 365 stone steps which climbs steeply from the town centre to a small chapel at the summit.  The views back down the steps across the rooftops to the mountain on the other side of the valley are certainly worth the effort.  At the top make sure to follow the path away from the chapel to a view point over the plains towards the sea before heading back down the hill for a well earned refreshment.

For the previous post from Mallorca, click here.  Next up the treasures of Alcudia.

 

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The Power of Peace and Quiet – Rural Mallorca

For most of us, the number of days available each year to travel are limited.  Even if we are lucky enough to have a generous holiday allowance some of this will, inevitably, be needed for life admin, for appointments, for DIY, for family events.  And, of course, there are cost implications.  We are left with a few short weeks to spend out there in the world and this limitation can add pressure.  What if we make the wrong choice: is the airline too budget, will they lose my bags, extort money for being one kilo over the weight allowance, deem my hand luggage too big for the overhead lockers, seat me away from my companions, land miles from my destination; was my selection of accommodation correct, is it too central, is it too far away, are the 30 negative Trip Advisor reviews out of 670 positive the ones I should really trust (if you look hard enough you will find a bad review for anything, and I look hard); will the weather be right; will the hire car company accuse me of scratches I didn’t cause; these are just some of the thoughts that clamour for attention whenever my finger hovers over the ‘book now’ button.

I am a natural worrier and worse, prone to perfectionism.  These traits mean that I have a tendency to over plan my travel, to over populate the itinerary.  A three week trip to Eastern Canada and New England resulted in 4,000 km of driving through two provinces and four states in order to tick off the ‘to do list’.  During a week’s camping in Iceland we did not stay more than one night in the same place.  I once calculated the number of holiday days left in my working life and the number was unpleasantly small.  I fear running out of time to see and do all that I want to; repeat visits must take their place at the bottom of the list.

What, you may ask, has all this to do with the title of this post?  Well sometimes we have to take a metaphorical grip of ourselves.  Sometimes the last thing we think we want is exactly what we need.  And so, for the first time in a long time, I took the decision to plan an unplanned holiday; a week with no schedule, no list of sights to see.

To minimise any guilt at my inactivity the chosen destination was one we had been to before, the quiet north west of Mallorca, far away from the high rise beach resorts, the nightclubs and cooked breakfasts.  We booked a finca on the edge of the Tramuntana mountains, hidden down twisting farm tracks amidst wild flowers and fruit trees.  We threw back the shutters and let the quiet in.

The restorative power of peace is not to be underestimated.  It certainly helps if that peace is found somewhere so utterly beautiful.  We spent hours simply sitting, absorbing, feeling the magic of the soft sunlight, the clean air and the calm working through us.  Weight lifted, breathing deepened, sleep lengthened, energy replenished.  Sometimes being still is the best kind of travel.

For those interested in learning what Mallorca has to offer beyond the immediate environs of one small patch of farmland, there will be more to follow. 

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Understanding Amsterdam – a visit to the Rijksmuseum

Amsterdam.  It is hard to distil any city to its essence, more so when it has more than one story to tell, when there is more than one truth.  To some, Amsterdam is a twee tourist destination of clogs and tulips and windmills.  To some a beacon of liberal tolerance.  To some an enabler of hedonistic darkness.  To some a crucible of creative expression.  To some a living monument to the spoils of colonialism and exploitation.

There is a place where you can go to attempt to untangle the threads, to unwind the skein and trail it through the labyrinthine alleyways, across bridges and along canals, to reveal the beating heart of the Minotaur.  The Rijksmuseum, found at Museumstraat 1, and open daily from 9 until 5, has told Amsterdam’s story for more than 125 years.  Closed in 2004 for major renovations, it reopened in April 2013 to expectations that had been building for almost a decade.  A lot to live up to but the Rijksmuseum delivers.

Entry is via an central archway, a tunnel cut directly through the building, and then down, out of the shadows and gloom in to a light filled atrium.  From here, pick a doorway and plunge in to the maze of exhibition spaces and galleries beyond.

The collection is extensive and includes artefacts from all periods of Dutch history, from home and overseas.

It is eclectic and well curated with good lighting, intelligent grouping, enough information to digest without detracting from the presence of the pieces, the beauty, variety and richness of which can speak for themselves.  Seeing these diverse objects, all equally treasured, all housed under one roof, all connected to the story of the Netherlands, is a reminder that history is complex and that a whole is formed of many parts, not all of which are positive.  Each make their mark and none can be ignored.  Sometimes, the Rijksmuseum tells us, it is enough to simply stand back and absorb.  We should not always be so desperate to define.

 

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Finland – flashfoward and flashback

Second only to travel itself, I love the anticipation of travel: the building excitement as a long awaited trip draws nearer; the adrenaline of a last minute decision to book; the pleasing intricacies of itinerary research; lying awake at night picturing yourself in that place and what you will do.

In the last week the first steps towards a late summer sojourn to Finland have been taken. A good friend, long bright nights, saunas and crayfish await.  Thinking about things to come has put me in mind of things past.  Reminiscences come as powerful as expectations.

The last time I visited Finland it was deep winter; our island home reached by snowmobile, the forest blanketed in snow, the dark falling early, icicles as long as my arm.  It is hard to imagine arriving by boat, swimming where I have skied, gladly jumping in the lake rather than a tentative post sauna dip.

What is to come and what has been. Memories made and still unformed. The day count has begun, fortunately it’s short.

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Flashback Friday – Exploring Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico

Two hours and hundreds of years away from the all-inclusive beach resorts of the eastern Yucatán lies the ruins of the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá.  At the heart of the complex, the pyramid of Kukulcan squats, brooding and massive.  It is named for the feathered serpent god (kin to the Aztec Quetzalcotal) who, during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, casts his shadow on the temple’s monumental staircase, slowly edging and extending from the top of the platform to the ground.  The Spanish Conquistadors’, with a blunt literalism befitting them, named the structure El Castillo, the castle; an understandable title but one lacking in the magic and power of the original.

Kukulcan is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World but there is much more to Chichén Itzá than its central goliath.  The whole complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and large enough to spend more than one visit exploring.

All is on a grand scale.  The photograph above is of the Great Ball Court where a variation of a ballgame, common in the region, was played by competing teams.  The rules are not known but the presence of stone hoops indicates an element of goal scoring.  It is believed that the sport was closely linked to ritual, with the captain of the winning team earning the honour of sacrifice to the gods, a theory supported by stone carvings of decapitation on the walls of the court.

The macabre theme continues with the Platform of the Skulls, a carved representation of a tzompantli, a wooden rack used by both the Maya and the Aztecs to display the heads of sacrificial victims and those taken in war.

When life is hard and death is ever present, in childhood, in childbirth, in sickness and injury, in war, the end loses its fear.  We dream of a better place to come and sacrifice becomes logical.  Who wouldn’t want to hasten death when to do so is to bring forth peace and riches.

At Chichén Itzá there is a clear reverence, as in so many contemporary cultures, of nature.  It is the bringer of life and the bringer of death.  Animals are worshipped for the abilities they have that we desire, the flight of the eagle, the stealth of the jaguar, the strength of the snake, the freedom of them all.

Representation of these animals can be found throughout the city, including on the Platform of the Eagles and the Jaguars, where they are depicted devouring human hearts and in the carved jaguar of the Jaguar Temple and its secret, red painted twin, hidden in the depths of Kukulcan and no longer visible by the general public.

As well as looking to the earth, the Maya looked to the sky.  They mapped the movement of the stars, the passing of the seasons, the coming of the rain.  As well as the great pyramid, other buildings on the site reflect this relationship.  El Caracol, named by the Spanish for the snail they saw reflected in its roof, bears a remarkable resemblance to the domed observatories of modern science.

To watch the sky on this flat plane requires height, and El Caracol reaches above the trees to give unobstructed views and is aligned with the path of Venus and the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset, a feat not achieved by accident.

There are representations of the human here too.  Amongst them are a number of Chac Mool, a recurring image in Central and South America, a reclining, perhaps injured warrior on whose flattened stomach ritual bowls would once have rested.

One of the largest Chac Mool lies at the top of the staircase on the four tiered Temple of Warriors, named for the bas-relief carvings on its platforms and columns.  In places paint and plaster have survived, a reminder that at one time the city would have been a vibrant, colourful place, very different from the sombre austere grey the years and the weather have left behind.

More faces look down from the walls of La Iglesia, or the church, highly decorated and part of a larger complex that archaeologists have identified as a place of government.

The scale of Chichen Itza is hard to absorb, each structure both intricate and monumental.  That one place can hold so many treasures is staggering and more than a little humbling.  Despite the heat, despite the crowds, a visit is highly recommended.

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