Sunday, March 23, 2014

If it looks like Europe, smells like Europe and sounds like Europe...

Admiring the pack ice on the Atlantic ocean
At the've gotta start somewhere:

After dropping off my beloved four legged furry child at two wonderful friend's house--oh dear god, let them be friends after this ordeal--driving to Chicago, freaking out once again that our trip could be cancelled (see my post from last year), then spending countless hours bunched up in painful positions, we landed in Dusseldorf, Germany.  I stepped off the plane, made two audible sniffing noises, and in a sleep deprived, all too loud voice said "Yep.  It smells like Europe."  My husband glanced at me thinking I had left half my brain somewhere over the Atlantic and said "Huh?"  I wasn't wrong though.  It did smell like Europe.  Go ahead, mock me, but for those of you who know about Nescafe and baked buttery sweet rolls, you'll understand. Throw in some perfume--the stuff I associate with older, wealthy European women--and it makes for a mix which is hard to find in the United States.

Dusseldorf, however, was not to be the final destination.  Don't get me wrong, I'd love to bike through the foothills outside of Munich and the Black Forest, just not in March and not now.  My brain can barely get itself wrapped around French and Spanish, throwing German in the mix would not be pretty.  After one quick flight on Air Berlin--can I just say how much I love airlines who serve funny little sandwiches with pickled vegetables?--we landed in Palma, Mallorca or Majorca, depending if you speak Spanish or Catalan.  Mallorca, home to almost every pro cycling team in the Spring and almost every German trying to flee their cold, damp winters.  Regarding the Germans, I'm not joking.  When I told my friend, Monika, who is from Germany, I was going to Mallorca, she said "Do you speak German, because it is the Cancun for Germans."

Before I go on, I have to say how glorious it is to leave a place which was -19F windchill one week ago, and step off a plane into temps around 20C (mid sixties F)!  Shedding the winter coat, gloves and hat made this entire trip worthwhile.  Seeing palm trees from the bus ride into downtown Palma made me sound like a broken record...."oooohhhhh, loooook, greeeeeen."  Wait, I was practicing my Spanish..."oooooo, miras, verde."

The trip to our apartment didn't come without any snafus.  Having no Euros at all, and needing to catch a bus, poses some problems.  We knew the airport would have ATMs, but after trying two, without any money coming out--and not knowing if we just got ripped off by the way--we began to freak out a bit.  We knew about the whole "chip and pin" issue with credit cards in Europe but we thought we'd be clear with debit cards.  After beads of sweat starting pouring down my face--not fair when I hadn't biked a mile yet--we finally found a different ATM brand and voila!

Coming up to our apartment in Palma

We met the girlfriend of the owner of the apartment we were renting at Plaça d'España (later we'd learn this was one of what seemed to be 100 plaças in Palma). As we walked to the apartment with Lucy and her cousin, we were told, "Don't bother asking anyone for directions, not even in Spanish, because they won't know."  With a town looking like a corn maze, this didn't put us at ease.  We were staying on a tiny, one block street, trapped in the middle of a huge tangle of other twisty streets--many without street signs--this was the true "old Palma".  Maps gave us a "suggestion", that is "if" we could figure out which direction we were heading.  No worries though, you get lost enough times and you're bound to get lucky once in awhile.  I will say one thing, albeit getting lost a few times, the neighborhood we picked in Palma was fabulous.  With the mercat municipal and bus station within minutes and cathedrals within 1-2 km, I wouldn't choose anywhere else to be.

One of two bike shares in Palma!
We had planned on renting bikes in Palma, as well as our other destination, Soller, but after realizing we would be getting lost at a much faster pace, on cobble stones, we opted to walk for a few days.  Although I wouldn't travel to Mallorca just for Palma, I will say it's a beautiful city.  Plazas or Plaças everywhere, narrow streets full of tapas bars, cathedrals and palm trees.  As we walked, what seemed to be every street possible, I tried practicing my Spanish and some Catalan with shop owners and locals.  They must have thought I was German--I'm guessing the "smart looking shoes" and techy wear gave them a hint along with my shitty Spanish--because they kept asking if I spoke German or would just start talking to me in German.  After several attempts at saying "No hablo aleman, hablo ingles" they then must have thought I was a funny speaking Brit since North Americans rarely travel here and when they do, it's usually Canadians.

The Good, Great, Bad/Ugly and Quirky:

I won't go into day by day details of the entire trip for fear of forcing you into a coma.  I will, however, give you a taste of Mallorca split into the sections above.  If after reading this post, you decide you want to go...and you should, I have posted links to the apartments we stayed at, the bike shop we rented from, an amazing restaurant totally not suitable for vegetarians and one of the coolest wine bars I've ever been to.

The Good:

Mallorca is known for it's beautiful courtyards

Miró, one of Mallorca's many artists

The main cathedral in Palma

-I've already mentioned Palma.  Even if you're heading to Mallorca for a cycling or hiking adventure, do yourself a favor and stay a couple nights in this amazing city.  Get yourself lost purposely--although, honestly, you don't have a choice--and discover all the surprises the narrow streets hold.  Do not, and I'll repeat this, do not stay in the all inclusive resorts outside of the old city if you want to get a real feel for Palma.

One of the trails from Soller to Sa Calobra

-After spending just one day in Mallorca, we quickly learned Mallorquins are amazing linguists.  They all grow up learning Catalan or Mallorquin in the home but also learn Spanish and English.  Most also speak German and French and some also speak Italian and Portuguese.

This one was the easiest climb, but we did it six times (often twice in a day)
Trying to find my inner goat on the Puig Major--our longest climb at 15km
-I have no idea if I should put the mountain roads into the good, great or ugly section.  Being early Spring, and me being out of riding shape, I'll have to say 90% good and great and 10% ugly.  Although the island does have it's share of flat roads, we were in the heart of the mountains and couldn't start any ride without a 500m (1,500 foot) climb right from the apartment.  I think our shortest riding day, with the least amount of climbing, still equalled around 4,000ft in just under 35 miles.  The passes, or cols, that I would urge any climber to do are the Coll de Soller, Coll de Honor and of course, Puig Major which is around 1,100m.  Although you can't reach the peak of the mountain, because it's a military base, by the time you reach the tunnel, you are ready for the descent!

-I know this will sound silly, talking about bread for an entire section, but I was happily impressed by the barras and baguettes here.  I was fearful the bread would be too much like the Italian loaves, which we found to have a Play Dough type quality, but no way, they were crusty on the outside and airy with a bit of chew on the inside.  When you buy a fresh loaf daily for bocadillos (sandwiches), good bread tends to become a priority.

-Everything shuts down on Sundays and most stores, except the super mercats, close starting Saturday afternoon and won't reopen until Monday around 10am.  A pain if you haven't planned ahead, but in my eyes, a great way to live.  Spain, like most of Europe, still respects family time and down time.  People work to live vs. live to work.

The Great:

Mallorca is very kind to cyclists
-I know I mentioned a bit of the biking above, but I really have to go into detail about both the biking and hiking.  No, it's not the Alps or Pyrenees, but Mallorca is absolutely beautiful!  When in the Serra Tramuntana (the mountains), each twist in the road or path brings you onto another killer scene.  In a short ride or hike, you can see the Mediterranean sea, orange groves, caves, valleys, sheer limestone cliffs, reservoirs, flora/fauna and hamlets perched precariously on the side of a mountain.  Very few places on earth provide such diversity.  It takes me back to my days living on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The one HUGE difference is how friendly the locals are to cyclists and hikers.  The island is crawling with both, and I was floored by the patience shown.  Another bonus is being able to stop in small towns to refuel.  Even the smallest town has cafes or tapas bars.

-Goats and sheep and chickens oh my!  Being a lover of animals, I tend to seek out critters everywhere I go.  One of the many reasons I fell in love with Mallorca, aside from activities, landscape and locals, was the plethora of wild mountain goats, sheep, chickens, cats, and dogs.  Two sounds I will forever associate with the island are the bells worn by sheep in the pasture and the bleating of goats climbing the mountains.  Throw in the cooing of doves and the call of roosters and there was no need for me to listen to music.  As I climbed the cols, I channeled my inner mountain goat (cabra) to help me get up to the top without wavering.

Sheep were everywhere!  This one was near the top of the Puig Major

-Wherever my husband and I travel, we make a point of eating local.  Here, in Mallorca, we feasted on Balearic and Spanish cheese (goat, sheep and cow), jamon Iberico and other cured meats, local eggs, local vegetables grown on the East side of the island, oranges from groves surrounding us, olives, seafood, ensaïmadas and wine (all either Spanish or Mallorquin).  Our favorite meal, however, came from C'an Atuna in Fornalutx (named this for being the furnace of light).  We hiked up there from Soller, started with a mix of olives and then dug into roasted suckling pig--a Mallorquin speciality.  Although I felt greased from the inside out afterwards, it was well worth it and the hike back made room for dinner.

Sausages hanging at the mercat municipal in Palma

Ensaïmadas--essentially dough fried in pork fat and filled with cream

-For the most part, every local person was kind, helpful, generous and patient.  It can't be easy living someplace that gets eight million tourists each year--yes, you read that right--Mallorca boasts one of the busiest European airports in the summer.  Although my Spanish is terrible, and I only picked up a few words/phrases in Catalan, I was never shamed or treated poorly.  I felt we were treated just as well on the road biking.  Please note, however, if you come here to bike, you really need to follow the road signs when asked to ride single file.  They are put in places to keep you safe.  I would cringe seeing large training groups out riding three and four abreast in traffic or around hairpin turns, as well as stopping in the middle of a roundabout, and would wonder how long before the locals start hating cyclists.  Sad to say, the main culprits of this behavior, were the Germans who often call Mallorca a second home.

The Bad and the Ugly:

-There are really only two major complaints I had about Mallorca, one, which can easily be changed, one, which cannot.  The easy-to-change one is how few tourists try to speak Spanish at restaurants, information booths, ticket counters or grocery stores.  Folks, I know learning another language is difficult, but please don't be "that" person.  Try a few words, learn a few niceties.  They go a long way.  Not everyone in the world should be expected to speak English or German.

The issue which can never be changed is the size of the sidewalks.  I use the term "sidewalks" loosely.  Think 2-3 feet max of smooth cobblestone which gets slippery as all get out when wet.  These sidewalks are also often times used for parking when the roads are barely wide enough to fit a smart car.  Most of the old towns and cities in Europe were built WAY before cars ruled.  The only advice I can give, is go with it.  Look and listen vs. plugging in the earphones, check around corners and when all else fails, walk in the street against traffic and jump when a car comes.

-After speaking with Esteban, the owner of the apartment and wine bar we visited in Palma, we learned the unemployment rate in Spain is currently about 27%--6 million Spaniards are currently without jobs.  Only Greece, in Europe, comes close.  France and Italy are less than half this number.  Esteban told us each month, the economy in Spain gets worse.  His concerns with Spain in the EU are great.  I can only hope things improve for the locals.

The Quirky:

-Spanish sheep don't make "baaaa" sounds.  I learned this the hard way when I couldn't remember the word for sheep at the cheese monger and I tried sounding it out.  I'm told it's "beeaaaa".

-Just like in France, peanut butter is almost non-existant as are energy bars.  If you need either of these for riding, bring 'em with you.

-Beer and soda are sold by the can, not the case.

-Electricity is really sketchy.  If you are renting an older apartment, I wouldn't suggest running the clothes washer and the stove top at the same time.

-Graffiti is everywhere.  Some of it, however, is absolutely beautiful.  Check out Soma's artwork which is found all around Palma.

-You'll know you've ridden past a Spanish cyclist on the mountain if you see them wearing a buff around their face.  Seriously.  They were the only ones I saw doing this and they all greeted me with "bon dia" even when they were tearing down the mountain at 50kph.

-The "c" sound in words like "gracias" threw me for a complete loop.  When I took some Spanish in school, we must have learned Mexican/Central American Spanish because the "c" was pronounced "s".  Here, in Mallorca and the rest of Spain, is sound more like a "sth".  The problem really comes in when most of the "d's" also have a "th" sound.  I'm trying, that's all I have to say.  To my Spanish friends, don't expect miracles!

-The water, from the tap, in Mallorca is extremely high in lime from the limestone.  You won't find anyone drinking the tap water here.  Not because it isn't clean, but because people who drink it over a long period of time get gallbladder stones.  We drank it.  I'll get back to you on the gallstone thing.

Okay, so there you have a rundown on my first trip to Mallorca.  This will not be my last!  I plan on coming back for a lot more cycling, hiking and eating.  I want to thank all the wonderful people I met along the way, especially Esteban and Luciana in Palma.  Every shop and restaurant owner made me feel at home.  Gracias de todo corazon!

The innards (details):

-If you are coming here to bike, there are many places to rent.  We used Tramuntana Tours who rent Trek--everything from mountain bikes (oh yes, this is a great place to do that) to Madones.  They have two locations, one in Soller and one in Puerto de Soller.  The owner, Andy, is British so there is no need to work things out in Spanish if you don't know it.  They also lead both road and mountain bike tours and sell bike maps for the Serra Tramuntana area.

This is why I rent apartments when I travel!  A bit of down time after a long ride in Soller
-Renting apartments is quite easy and it's great having more space and a kitchen to prepare food from the mercat municipal.  The places we rented were in Palma and Soller.  We used airbnb for our place in Palma.  I can't begin to explain how kind Esteban, the owner, was.  His apartment is in one of the best locations and has everything you may need.  Our apartment in Soller was rented through  Again, the owner, Marnix, was wonderful and the apartment looked like it came out of an Ikea magazine--but overlooking the mountains.

-The two top places we ate were C'an Atuna in Fornalutx.  This place specializes in Mallorquin food and has, not only suckling pig, but also leg of lamb and rabbit.  The other place you must head to is La Vinya de Santa Clara, a wine bar in Palma which also serves some of the best local cheese and jamon in the area.  Esteban, the person we rented our apartment from, also owns this wine bar.  He is a sommelier who KNOWS his Spanish wine and also offers Mallorquin digestifs and aperitifs.

Esteban, the owner of our apartment and La Vinya de Santa Clara

C'an Atuna in Fornalutx

-If you want to rent a city bike in Palma, there is a bike share program which has ports all around the city.  There are some bike lanes, but not many.  You can also rent different city bikes at the bus station in Plaça d'Espana.

Alife Cycles in Palma
-Do yourself a favor and visit one of the coolest bike shops I've ever been to when in Palma.  Alife Cycles sells only steel and mostly fixies and single speeds.  The owner also has a nice collection of old Italian road frames.  While there, check out his handmade leather bags (he makes them himself) and the artwork on his walls (changes frequently, but is always by a local artist).

*Addendum:  No trip can conclude without one big issue.  Ours, luckily or unluckily, happened on our way back home.  While waiting for our second flight, out of three, in Madrid, the entire Iberia airline computer system went down at the airport.  We had just under a three hour layover in London before flying out to Chicago--we thought we had given ourselves plenty of time.  To make a long story short, we made our flight by two minutes.  I kid you not.  Imagine me running down the terminal--a very long terminal--after passing through security screaming to hold the gate open.  There were 8 other passangers from the Madrid flight behind me still stuck in security...including my husband.  They essentially told me the gate was closing and there was nothing they could do, even though the flight wasn't set to take off for another 25 minutes.  I had a choice, leave without Markham or be stuck in the airport for what could be days.  Just as I was choosing to stay, Markham comes running up.  He had been detained in security because they were suspicious of his cycling shoes.  We didn't know if the others got on until we landed.  Thankfully everyone made it, but I heard one of the guys, who has platinum status, had to pound on the door to get them to let him in.  What a way to end a peaceful trip!

One of my favorite views!  Taken in Fornalutx--the furnace of sun.


  1. Thank you Kierstin. What a great trip to read about. Hope to do something similar to that soon.

  2. What a great review about Palma de Mallorca !!
    Kiss and Hug from La Vinya to wonderfull Wisconsin !!
    Esteban López Costa

    1. Gracias Esteban! Thank you for helping make our trip fantastic!

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