Valldemossa: Saints, Sinners, and Sheep

Often when we plan to travel somewhere new, it’s hard to know where to go because the guide books make so many places sound good. That’s been the case with the Spanish island of Mallorca (pronounced mah-yorka) in the Mediterranean Sea. Do we focus on the mountain villages of the northwest or base ourselves near the great sweeping bays in the northeast? In cases like that, the answer often depends on where we can get to by bus or train (rental cars usually being over our budget) and where we can find a decent rental apartment that’s not too expensive (for the joy of having our own kitchen, a couch to relax on, and a table to work at). When we’ve narrowed the options down to two places and we can’t decide between them, our favorite approach is to spend some time in each. So the first place we settled down in Mallorca was the mountain village of Valldemossa.

We knew Valldemossa would be pretty—it’s on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Mallorca. In fact, it’s ridiculously charming. Dating back at least to the 13th century, it’s full of narrow cobbled streets, lined with potted plants, that lead to tiny plazas (just big enough to park a few cars), old fountains, and boxy plain-fronted churches with steeples that tower over the village. Everything is built from the same honey-colored stone of the surrounding hills. We found an apartment in one of the old stone rowhouses on a quiet little street too small for cars. The rooms were little and cozy, but the patio in back had a gorgeous view over a valley of lemon, orange, and olive trees. When we sat out there in the almost daily sunshine, we could hear sheep bleating on the hillsides.

Little Valldemossa, with its 2,000 inhabitants, has its own saint: Santa Catalina Thomas. She was a poor village girl who was born in 1533 in a house right around the corner from our apartment. Strongly religious, she entered a convent in Mallorca’s capital, Palma, and was known for her prophetic visions and religious ecstasies. She has been venerated as a saint by local people since shortly after her death, but the Pope made it official by canonizing her in 1930. So proud is Valldemossa of its saint that almost every house has a painted ceramic plaque next to the front door with her image and the words “pray for us.” The house where she was born is now a small shrine, kept open and lit 24 hours a day. Our end of the village is quiet, with no restaurants and only a few small shops that close at dusk. It’s comforting to have that little haven of peace and light shining all night just around the corner.

A bust of Frederic Chopin in front on the monastery where he rented rooms in 1839

Valldemossa’s other famous residents were Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin and his (female) lover, French writer George Sand. Seeking sun and warmth to help Chopin’s ailing health, in the winter of 1838-1839 they rented rooms in an old monastery in the center of the village that had recently been disbanded and converted into apartments. They scandalized the villagers by living in sin and not attending church, and George wrote an account of her time in Mallorca that was not too complimentary. But all seems to be forgiven now. There’s a museum dedicated to the pair in their former apartment, and every summer piano concerts of Chopin’s music are held daily. 

Our main travel goals for 2017 are to see mountains and practice our Spanish. (It was on hearing those goals that one of Chris’s former colleagues recommended Mallorca.) Our desire for Spanish immersion has been thwarted in Valldemossa, though, because the village is overrun with German tourists. Avid cyclists come to challenge themselves on the mountain roads (which, unlike the ones at home, aren’t covered in snow this time of year). At times, the main highways out of Valldemossa looks like a mini Tour de France. Other Germans come to hike the beautiful trails in the area, which we’ve enjoyed ourselves. Still others arrive by the carload and busload every day to admire the views, wander the old lanes, and drink beer in outdoor cafes in the sunshine.

As a result, we hear more conversations in German than in Spanish going on around us. And as our brains try to ignore the other languages they know to learn Spanish, Melissa keeps defaulting to her high school German. (I’d be doing the same with French if I were surrounded by Francophones.) Thank goodness for shopkeepers and waiters and bus drivers, or we’d get no Spanish practice at all.

Still, one thing we’ve noticed in our global wanderings is that Germans seem to gravitate to the places with the most natural beauty. So it’s no wonder that they love Valldemossa. Just look at Melissa’s pictures of the village and the breathtaking local scenery: forests and mountains and cliffs plunging down to the sea.

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