Palma punches above its weight. Though a small city of 400,000 souls, it is the capital of Mallorca and of the four Balearics, as well as the administrative hub of a tourist industry that brings in more than 9m visitors every year. Whenever a Spanish publication compiles a ranking of cities in terms of quality of life, Palma routinely comes top. Hardly surprising, when you consider its unbeatable setting on one of the Mediterranean’s most spectacular bays, its peerless climate and its rich heritage.
Yet until recently, “elegant” wasn't a word that would have readily been applied to it. Charming, yes. Historically the city has tended to follow its own placid provincial routines. But for too long, Palma’s old town, a marvellous warren of medieval streets, was uninhabited and unloved. The city’s gastronomic and retail offerings were uninspiring. With the honourable exception of the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, which houses the great painter’s studio, home and around 2,000 of his works, there was little of cultural heft to be found. And most importantly, there was nowhere decent to stay.
The change that Palma has undergone in recent years is nothing less than prodigious. Foreign money has flooded into the city, along with successive waves of immigration from wealthy, sun-starved northern Europe, so that Palma is now emerging as one of the most cosmopolitan, as well as prosperous, towns in Spain. House prices have rocketed and whole neighbourhoods have been transformed – none more so than Santa Catalina, the delightful former fishing quarter behind Palma harbour.
Food and drink illustrate the improvement as well as anything. Old-style mallorquín cooking is still on the menu, but Palma is increasingly a foodie town. Kent-born chef Marc Fosh – whose three downtown restaurants MISA Brasería, Tasca de Blanquerna and Simply Fosh combine cool London style with nods to the French tradition – is the man of the moment. Elsewhere, clever cocktails, funky tapas and Asian-Hispanic fusion (especially at Emilio Castrejón’s Innobar) are three current themes. The Mercat de l’Olivar, the city’s produce centre, is worth a stroll for its prodigal displays of locally landed fish, island-grown fruit and veg, and charcuterie. The market’s new gastro stalls, where you can wash down a prawn with a glass of mallorquín white, have added value to the experience.
Palma was a major Mediterranean entrepôt in medieval times – if proof were needed, visit the harbourside’s 15th-century Sa Llotja (exchange), a gothic masterpiece of soaring interiors and slender, twisting columns – and is now back on top as a maritime centre of international importance. This time, however, the emphasis is firmly on leisure. The city has no fewer than 10 marinas, ranging from Club de Mar in the west to Portixol in the east, with a total of 3,506 moorings, of which (and this is a telling figure) nearly a thousand are designed for craft of more than 15m.
Indeed, for the owners of generously sized yachts, Palma has never looked a more attractive destination. In October last year, the Spanish government’s matriculation tax on charter boats of more than 15m was summarily lifted, to the satisfaction of companies such as Camper & Nicholson, whose sales broker Jonathan Syrett was part of the nautical lobbying committee. Syrett believes that the measure will work in favour of the yachting community in Spain in general, and Mallorca in particular, making more boats available and encouraging owners to spend the mild winter in Palma.
Further developments are on the way. A new leisure and marina area covering 1,300sq m is poised to open this month in the Moll Vell (“old dock”) beside the Port Authority HQ in central Palma, in the shadow of the 13th-century cathedral (one of Spain’s loveliest). The €6.5m development has completely refurbished what was formerly a harbourside area popular with palmesanos, to provide 26 moorings for boats of between 15m and 40m, with a series of shops and terrazas to entice the locals back for the traditional evening paseo.
As attention swivels towards the harbour, the seaside is also having a moment. New-generation “beach clubs” like Anima and Puro (the modern beach bar/restaurant being a genre that Mallorca does well, and with none of the noisome debauchery of the Ibiza version) are a recommendable option for evening drinks and daytime lounging, and within easy reach of the city centre.
Meanwhile, the barrio of Santa Catalina, behind the Paseo Marítimo at the old-town end, is a natural choice for boat people who gravitate towards laid-back bars and restaurants and superb traditional produce markets. The neighbourhood has kept its bohemian flavour, but fashionable proposals, such as the self-styled “cantina” Patrón Lunares, are like a layer of gloss paint over weather-beaten whitewash. Closer to the docks themselves is Horrach Moyá’s contemporary art gallery in a three-storey townhouse with a ground-floor cocteleria, Sadrassana, whose gorgeous take on mid-century modern has made the spot probably the island’s numero uno bar interior.
Even while good hotels were proliferating in the rest of Mallorca, Palma could never offer anywhere very interesting until a first wave of old-town “boutiques” – namely Ca Sa Galesa, Hotel San Lorenzo and the two Scandinavian minimalist joints, Puro and Tres – came along in the 1990s. Highlights of the past decade’s flurry of openings have included the hip Brondo Architect and Palma Suites, a collection of luxury apartments (also Swedish-owned) in various permutations of comfort and size. Best of all perhaps is the Hotel Cort, which opened last year, with interiors by Spain’s design doyen Lázaro Rosa-Violán and a ground-floor restaurant from the same thoroughbred stable as Tast Club, Palma’s most spoken of speakeasy.
This year there’s to be no let-up: the four-star Cuba Colonial, housed in a fine old hotel building dating from the 19th century, will open at the end of the month, while the 26-room Posada Terra Santa (“Hidden Away Since 1576”) should raise the bar for the old-town hotelito.
If the bar was already high, it is largely thanks to Barcelona-based designer Cecilia Conde Moragues and her son Miguel, the masterminds behind Can Cera – a restored 17th-century palacio deliciously combining antique mallorquín furniture and rich fabrics with rustic flooring and bold contemporary art. The success of Can Cera inspired the family to open another perfectly pitched palacio, but conceived in a lighter, brighter style – the Hotel Calatrava, overlooking the sea at the old town’s quiet eastern end. The third property in their portfolio, Can Alomar, opened in May in a noble edifice on the Passeig del Born, the social and commercial axis of old-town Palma.
The location of this new hotel is significant. The Born, a bijou version of Barcelona’s Ramblas, is now the epicentre of the new, elegant Palma. The city’s high-end retail sphere has tended to cluster around this avenue and the colonnaded thoroughfare of Avinguda de Jaume III, with the area’s concentration of smart emporia now including Loewe, Carolina Herrera, Louis Vuitton and Uterqüe (known as the high-end Zara). A new branch of Mulberry, the brand’s first in Spain, opened last year. The success of Rialto Living, a design and lifestyle store just off the Born, has led its Swedish owners to contemplate an extension to their (already impressive) enterprise involving a restaurant and luxury apartments.
In the commercial centres of certain mainland Spanish cities, closed premises and slashed municipal budgets – the consequences of the economic crisis – have given the streets a woebegone look. Not so in Palma, where the casco histórico looks smarter than ever and no locale remains empty for long. The flagship Bluebird boutique on Carrer San Nicolas, opened last summer by Uruguayan Paula Rombys, exemplifies the way Palma is bucking Spain’s recent (downward) trend. Palma is on a roll, suggests Rombys, whose exquisitely assembled collections attract both local women and moneyed foreigners. It’s a view endorsed by jeweller Isabel Guarch, who has just opened a chic little boutique on the Plaça del Mercat (beside the Bar Nicolás, a sophisticated cocktail bar) after a lifetime of discreetly catering to the upper echelons of mallorquín society. Guarch’s client list includes Queen Sofia, who regularly spends her summer holidays in Mallorca with the rest of the Spanish royal family.
“There’s a new impulse in Palma; we’ve noticed it over the past couple of years,” says Guarch. “And the good thing is that it’s all about quality.”