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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Flashback Friday – Cave diving in the Yucatán, Mexico

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsular is full of holes, a veritable Swiss cheese of limestone, eaten away by water, weather, wind and time.  Some of the holes are big enough for a person to squeeze through, some don’t even require much squeezing and, if there’s room, you can guarantee someone will have been in to have a look around.

Caves have a peculiar hold over humans, a complex dualism of safety and danger.  They offered our early ancestors a place of shelter but extended the same hospitality to bears, wolves and big cats.  They have preserved our art, our writing, our artefacts and also our bones.  They are places where both gods and monsters dwell, entrances to the underworld, sacred subterranean spaces where new lives can be brought forth and old ones come to an end.

It is no wonder that caves speak to us of adventure and those of the Yucatán offer a particular kind of thrill, the chance to explore underwater.

There are numerous sites to choose, dependent on ability, experience and bravery.  In June 2010 we decided upon Dos Ojos, or two eyes, a two cave system linked by a network of tunnels.  As beginners to cave diving we would never be more than 6 metres from open water, where access to the surface would be unrestricted.  As regular divers following a pre-set line and accompanied by a guide, we were aware that the dangers had been mitigated as far as possible.  In places such as this limits are to be respected and there were plenty of reminders of what awaited those who did not pay due deference.

One of the attractions of cave diving is the clarity of the water.  There are no currents or waves to cause poor visibility, and all that limestone acts as a super filter of particles.  Here the only culprits are divers lacking control of their buoyancy or with careless control of their fins.  The water is so clear as to be a little unnerving.  Whereas, in the open sea, you can expect to see 20 metres or so in excellent conditions, here, if your view is unobstructed, it can be as far as 50 or more.  Depth and distance become difficult to decipher and divers can experience a sensation akin to vertigo as they hang in the stillness.

Whether you bring your own equipment, as we did (less the aeroplane unfriendly tanks and weights), or rent from your chosen dive operator, a good torch is a must have.  I had wondered whether I would find the darkness oppressive but experience of diving in the murk of Scottish lochs is good training for low light and, examining the rock formations under the focused beam of the torch was oddly restive, an opportunity to calm the mind and block out the noise of the world above.  An experience I would highly recommend, though perhaps not to the claustrophobic.

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Pictish stones and sacred wells – the secrets of Scotland’s Black Isle

The Black Isle is neither an island nor black.  The peninsula lies 10 miles north of Inverness, with the waters of the Cromarty Firth to one side and the Moray Firth to the other.  For a small, sparsely populated place it is full of history.

Those seeking a base from which to explore the area would do worse than to choose the pretty village of Rosemarkie which sits in a wide bay.  Walk out to the far end of the beach, to the lighthouse at Chanonry Point, and your chances of seeing bottlenose dolphins will be high.  This remote place is one of the best in the whole of the UK to spot them and they particularly enjoy riding the waves created by the strong currents at the Point, caused as the sea narrows on its way towards Inverness.  They will stay and play for hours.

As well as a large population of dolphins, Rosemarkie is also home to one of Scotland’s most significant collections of Pictish stones.  The carvings were all found in and around the village’s churchyard and are now on display at the Groam House Museum.

A short drive, or even walk, from Rosemarkie is the small town of Fortrose where you can find more carved stone, this time in the grounds of the ruined 13th century cathedral.  The red sandstone with which the cathedral was built lends it a rusty air, adding to the sense of decay that hangs over the ruin.  The roof of the main building is gone, but that of the western chapel remains, and is an interesting vaulted structure, the red stone here creating the impression of the wooden hull of a ship.

Further along the road, towards the motorway that takes you south to Inverness or north to Wick and the ferry to Orkney, is another special place, Munlochy Clootie Well, which is looked after by the Forestry Commission Scotland.

Clootie wells are places of celtic pilgrimage.  Traditions vary but, in essence, someone who is unwell  visits the well with an item of clothing belonging to them.  The cloth or cloot is dipped in the sacred water and then tied to a tree.  Often the material is white to symbolise purity, although that is not strictly adhered to.  As time fades and wears the fabric so the ailment will be cured.  I was alone when I visited.  Woods always bring with them a certain feeling, a combination of ancestral fear at what might lurk there and a peace that comes from deep-rooted familiarity, but Munlochy has an atmosphere all of its own.  There is certainly something about the place.

A final recommendation for any trip to the Black Isle is to make a visit to the town of Cromarty.  This is the largest centre of population on the peninsula and there a number of accommodation options for those wanting to linger.

Historically a fishing port, with the fine architecture that comes from rich fish harvests, Cromarty is now home to galleries, bookshops and cafes as well as a dolphin watching centre that offers trips out on to the Firth.  Of particular note is The Emporium Bookshop, whose walls and ceiling are covered with the signatures of visitors.

For the previous post in the Scotland’s secrets series click here and stay tuned for the next insight coming soon.


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