Hiking to a mountaintop Mallorcan fortress at noon, during one of the hottest summers in the island’s history, isn’t how I usually choose to spend my holiday. Poolside, with a cold beer and a novel, is more my style. But it could have been worse.
“When medieval invaders came here to capture the castle, they had boiling hot oil poured on their heads,” grinned Eduard, our guide, gesturing at the upper window of a watch tower.
I mopped my glistening brow – and felt more than a little empathy.
We were storming Castell d’Alaró, high in Mallorca’s Serra de Tramuntana range, on a mission to discover the island’s lesser-known charms. The biggest of the Balearics has grown up in recent years, ditching the raucous reputation forged in its southern resorts, though most visitors still come here for sun and sea. Look inland, however, and there are ancient footpaths to tackle, lofty views to admire, and award-winning wineries in which to sample the fruits of the land.
A slice of Mallorca’s unspoiled interior can be organised for guests at the luxurious Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel & Spa, which sits high on a headland overlooking the seaside town. Tearing ourselves away from the sweeping views – inky blue Mediterranean sea, yachts bobbing in a pretty harbour and green mountains beyond – my girlfriend, Sophie, and I signed up for a private “Wine and Walk” tour. Gentle stroll, followed by several glasses of wine – a winning combination, we thought. If only it hadn’t been so hot. The perfect time to visit Majorca is spring or autumn, when it’s warm enough to sunbathe but not so hot you can’t get out and explore. We were there in August, during the tail-end of a heatwave which sent temperatures rocketing to 40C.
Seeking to beat the heat, we set off soon after breakfast. Eduard, a sprightly Mallorcan native, full of chatter and infectious pride in his homeland, drove us south, and we swapped our seaside resort for the island’s sleepy backwaters. Mallorca grows more upmarket by the year, thanks in part to its starring role in TV series like The Night Manager and Love Island, but in the foothills of the Serra de Tramuntana, in towns like Bunyola, the pace of life remains languorous.
Our progress, too, was stately. We stopped to watch a Eurasian black vulture, Europe’s largest raptor – which can measure three metres across and weigh more than two stone – float effortlessly on a rising air current. A sighting of a farmer harvesting almonds ended with an impromptu meeting and a bag of free, just-picked nuts to take home.
Eventually our minibus turned off the tarmac and a winding, unpaved road took us towards the peaks. For 20 minutes we climbed, praying no vehicles would come in the opposite direction, while the road grew narrower and more treacherous, until we reached the empty car park of Es Verger, an improbably remote little restaurant.
“This place can’t get many customers,” I reckoned.
“You’d be surprised,” replied Eduard. “Their lamb is the tastiest on the whole island – people come from miles around.” Indeed, I’d later discover that Rick Stein, in a 2012 show filmed on the island, described it as the best he’d ever tasted.
We confided to Eduard that we were both vegetarians. “You’ll give that up for this lamb!” he cried.
We fortified ourselves with espressos, spied the fortress of Castell d’Alaro, high on the mountaintop, and took to the trail. The early slopes were easy – and shaded – but we were soon delivered onto tougher terrain – and into the sun’s glare. The cool of the morning was long gone, and while Eduard skipped ahead, talking enthusiastically of Mallorca’s history, politics, flora and fauna, I wheezed in his wake, perspiring furiously.
For more than an hour we battled heat and gravity before arriving at what remains of the entrance to the castle – where, mercifully, no vats of hot oil were thrown in our direction. Our reward was one of the finest views on the island, taking in the entire length of the Serra de Tramuntana. These mountains are a playground for hikers and cyclists and conceal Mallorca’s finest towns, from Deia (favoured by Robert Graves and – more recently – Michael Douglas) and Valldemossa (former residents include Chopin and George Sand) to Estellencs and Banyalbufar, whose ancient agricultural terraces helped earned the range World Heritage Status in 2011. In short, to pass them by would be scandalous.
“He who holds Castell d’Alaro holds the key to Mallorca,” said Eduard. With a vantage like this, it was hard to argue. “Whenever the island has been invaded”, he added, “this fortress has been the last place to fall.”
The ruins seen today date back to the 15th century, but in previous incarnations it witnessed the last stand of Guillem Cabrit and Guillem Bassa, legendary figures that defended Mallorca against Alfonso III of Aragon in 1285. In the 10th century, the garrison here held firm for more than eight years against a Moorish onslaught.
We trundled back down the mountain in need of sustenance and found it at Celler Tianna Negre, an ultra-modern winery just a few miles down the road.
Our lofty history lecture was followed by a lesson in viticulture. I struggled to understand, but was suitably impressed, as the dizzying, hi-tech production line stripped grapes from the vine, crushed them, piped, stored and bottled the juice, and – as if by magic – delivered it as wine into my glass. Having toiled in the sun, now came the reward. We sat at a shaded table eating Manchego cheese and olives, tasting an array of delicious vintages, while gazing up at the jagged peaks we’d conquered.
“It could be worse,” I thought.
How to do it
Check the hotel’s website for other activities.
Doubles from €359. Read a full review and check availability.
Celler Tianna Negre offers tours and tastings for €20 per person.
Eduard Casajuana offers a range of tours through MallorcAlpina.