A hapless Jasper Winn loses himself, quite literally, in the drystone paths of the Tramuntana mountains
If you think of Mallorca only in terms of tourist beaches and super-yachts then its long-distance walking credentials can come as a bit of a surprise.
The Tramuntana range has remote tracks and peaks soaring well over 1,000m. Better still, rather than the mañana feel of the Spanish mainland there’s more of a heute jetzt! vibe to the Balearics’ biggest island – which helps German residents such as Boris Becker feel at home. Which is great, because the efficiency of transport allows anyone to plan a long weekend on the Ruta de la Pedra Seca (Dry Stone Route) with military precision. Or nearly anyone.
The ideal timetable is: land in Palma for a warm evening stroll, hop next morning aboard the Edwardian-era electric train to Sóller, then climb into the mountains up the Pilgrim’s route and stay overnight at the Tossals Verds refugio. From there it’s a spectacular day’s walk towards a bed at Lluc monastery, followed by a bus back to Sóller the next day with a stop-off to scramble down the Torrent de Pareis canyon and flop into the sea at Calobra before catching the train back to Palma for an evening flight home.
Early April would be a perfect time to go, I assured Erika, my girlfriend. We’d have the refuges, beaches and paths to ourselves before the high-season walkers arrived, while the weather would be pleasingly warm but not too hot for some stepping out.
Well, yeah! We landed in Palma, where the beaches were either being machine-gunned by hail or sluiced by wind-blown rain. We trotted briskly around the Gaudí-detailed cathedral, through the port and into bars and restaurants dressed in the waterproofs and woolly hats I’d fussily insisted we bring for safety when we reached the mountain heights.
The key to a weekend walking the most spectacular section of the Dry Stone Route is the 90-year-old railway that rattles and tunnels its way for 28km across the mountains to Sóller. But, due to ‘someone’ getting things just a little wrong, we missed it. And then, what with still having to get to Sóller and shopping for maps we ended up starting far too late in the afternoon for a sensible day’s walk to the first refuge.
But, frankly, it didn’t matter because once we started walking things pretty much became ‘someone’-proof. The clouds rolled back and we strolled up a gentle hill lined by the vined courtyards and cave-like interiors of Sóller’s ancient houses. The great ridge of rock towering above us was illuminated by a warm sun as we began; it is the endlessly inventive masonry of the ascending trail up the Barranc de Biniaraix that gives the Dry Stone Route its name. Paved hairpin bends, long flights of steps and lines of stepping stones across mountain streams climbed for kilometres. Small stone huts nestled in the contours and from the shrubbery that foamed through the steep gorges there was the song of blackbirds.
We strode upwards, and were overtaken by the local haulage specialist, a Mallorcan driving a donkey with straw panniers freighted with carboys of wine bound for distant farms and the refuge we were heading to. This twisting stone highway was the ancient route into the Tramuntana, exploiting a chink in the mountain wall, like a magic doorway. After several hours of hot walking, it took us round a corner, out of the orchards of the slopes, between two peaks of rock and on to a plateau.
We ambled along, happily, into the dusk and a mist of incoming chilly clouds. Happily, at least, until I admitted to Erika that I’d aimed us at the wrong refuge on the map. We could forget food, bedding and donkey-delivered wine at the Tossals Verds: we were actually pitching up at the private – and locked – IBANAT hut.
We bivouacked through a damp night on its veranda, supping on the remains of our lunch and breakfasting on the remains of that supper. We were rewarded with a spectacular sunrise gold-washing Mallorca’s highest peak, the 1,445m Puig Major.
We keenly anticipated a day’s walking through high mountain territory; peaks patrolled by black vulture and booted eagles, patches of shadowy woodland and steep drops away to the distant azure of the Med. Ahead lay the 1,367m of the Puig de Massanella marking the pass that would lead down to the monastery at Lluc by a precipitous but direct route. At the pass – the aptly named Coll des Prat – I confidently chose the wrong path, which led us on a winding detour that was only just shorter – as Erika pointed out – than going via Stockholm.
I responded, truthfully, that the extra hours of walking would make us appreciate even more the comfort of one of the monk’s cells-turned-traveller’s rooms at Lluc. The bit of belt-tightening, I reasoned, added extra savour to the oven-braised leg of lamb and bowls of fried octopus we feasted on in the monastery’s soaring refractory restaurant.
The meal made up somewhat for the disappointment of finding that the famed blue-robed boys’ choir, who have been singing without pause at the monastery since the 1500s, had decided to take the day off.
We strolled the chapels, gardens and cloisters unserenaded. Keen to retain that peace and harmony, I decided to postpone telling Erika that we were a day too early for the scheduled only-in-season bus service back to Sóller. I knew we’d get back to Palma somehow, just in more of a mañana kind of way than I’d planned.