POOTLING AROUND SOLLER
Mallorca is famous for training camps, but Paul Wagner has a different approach - though he did once get directed by an official to the start-line of a professional race …. but nowadays there is more to cycling than riding a bike.
Back in 1986 I were looking for somewhere new to go on holiday – somewhere quiet, but interesting. Thomson’s ‘Small and Friendly’ brochure included a likely looking hostal in Puerto de Soller, Mallorca – a place we’d never heard of on an island that we’d never considered before – but it appealed to us, so we booked. That booking changed our lives.
On the first morning, I opened the bedroom shutters and we were instantly mesmerised. The bay was like a dark blue mirror, nothing was moving, and the peace of the place oozed out of every pore of its being. It took us mere seconds to decide that if we could come here every year for the rest of our lives we’d be content. OK, it was a snap judgement, but it was the best one we have ever made, and the Port of Soller, nearby Soller Town, and the glorious valley that surrounds it all, became our number one foreign bolthole from that day on.
The Port awakens
A gentle tinkling sound awoke me, the light touch of spoons on cups and knives on plates, as early morning breakfasters took their meals sitting, alfresco, at tables on the promenade below the hotel balcony. Seven thirty in the morning is a bit early for me but I got up and sat looking out over the horseshoe shaped bay, over the moored boats, and across to the olive groves tiered up the precipitous hillside beyond. A thin haze of smoke drifted down the valley from some far back grove where a farmer had started burning his tree prunings, but the sky above was clear, blue and still. On the sea in front of me, ‘floating heads’ were barely rippling the surface,
First-light bathers moving mesmerisingly slowly towards their towels, which lay scrunched up on the sand. Suddenly, the sun rimmed the mountains and then overflowed in a blaze of searingly bright light which flooded the Hotel Brisas round the bay to the left, painting it white enough to hurt my eyes. The tantalising smell of coffee drifted up from the restaurant. In typically Solleric fashion, the day had begun.
Jean and I have been coming to the Port for many years now, and it’s like a second home to us. We’ve stayed at most of its hotels at some time or another but we finally settled on a tranquil little family run establishment, the Marina, right on the edge of the beach at the quiet end of town, and it suits us down to the ground. Posh it isn’t, in fact it’s quite basic, but the ever-present owners are unobtrusively attentive and treat you like one of their own. If you can’t relax here, you can’t relax anywhere.
Our earliest visits were made when I was in bouncing good health and we used to walk and cycle considerable distances. Now, bits of me have worn out, but I still enjoy exploring Soller’s bowl-shaped valley on my bike because quite simply, there is a huge amount to see in the area and I haven’t seen it all yet. Such is the nature of the terrain that my bike often becomes a wheeled crutch and I push it more than I pedal, but if I do feel the need to get away for a day I cheat, put the folder in a taxi, go up onto the heights which enclose this secret corner of the island, and have a longer, more elevated excursion that way. The drop back down the hairpin bends at the end of the day is exhilarating! Jean, thankfully, still enjoys full health and walks with friends, and we all meet up occasionally in remote places.
My spouse, bless her, is even worse at getting up on holiday than I am, so when she had come to grips with the day, we ambled down for our own breakfast, to find friends Lizzie and Julia already tucking in. ‘The girls’, as I affectionately call the trio, had yet to decide where they were going to walk to today, so I planned to explore on my own, by bike as usual.
The morning outing
I like ‘dead end’ roads. In a setting like the Soller valley, surrounded as it is by mountains, such roads abound, many ending up in sometimes impossibly steep locations jammed up cracks in the face of the sierra, and there’s a fascination in poking around in these quiet backwaters. I had two familiar but rather different blind alleys in mind on this, the first day of my holiday, both short by any measure. They are more ‘wheeled explorations’ than rides, but as I really enjoy them, and I had no one else to worry about, that settled it.
I went down to reception and asked for the key to the tienda bicys – the ‘bike shop’, which is actually a storeroom next to the hotel where guests can keep their machines. The store is yet another of those little touches that make this cosy hotel so easy to stay at. It’s a whole lot easier than standing your bike vertically in the tiny lift and taking it to your room, something that most of us have done at some time or another. A bunch of Swedish lads and lasses were getting their bikes out at the same time. They were on a ‘luggage carried in a sag-wagon’ tour, so I waited for a while before I could collect my Ridgeback folder and pootle off.
You can almost see both of today’s goals from the seafront, and the first phase of the morning assault is very close at hand, just behind the right hand end of the port. A steep little lane takes you up to the Torre Picada, a 15th century watchtower clearly visible on the skyline from the hotel and, one would think, easy to reach. The older you get the less true this is. The climb up from the flatness of the promenade is stiff by anyone’s standards, but I’d set my mind on it.
It was hot – very hot. Towards the top of the lane I sat on the wall, took a breather and mopped my brow in the shade of a convenient olive tree, and then I had to coax my bike over a narrow, stone pillared stile next to a gate, (it’d be so much easier if the authorities would unlock it), and trudge up a long, rocky dirt track to reach the tower. The views from the cliff top next to the tower are breathtaking so it’s always well worth the effort.
When I got there I found myself in the company of a couple of mountain bikers, who were putting on body armour ready for their version of downhill bike riding. The very thought of wearing all that gear in this heat, just in case I should fall off, made me realise that it takes all sorts, and I’m not theirs! I happily renewed my acquaintance with the seascape. They had a look as well, almost as an afterthought, and then shot off in a cloud of dust.
I made my own cautious way back down to the stile, where the lane continues onwards and upwards. It had been surfaced since I was last here and the newest guidebook is positively glowing about its attributes. Until now it had always appeared to be a private track, but the powers that be have opened it up, so a new adventure beckoned.
And what a revelation the lane was! After a short, sharp climb it levels out and I can only inadequately describe the vista revealed through the trees as spectacular, with peephole views of the sea so blue, slashed with scars of white as boats foamed on their way towards ports and coves unknown. Where the surfacing ends a rideable trail takes its place, winding through sharply scented pines and ancient olive groves and under a huge, towering pinnacle of rock, the Penyal Bernat, that made my head reel as I craned my neck to look at it. It overhangs considerably and it looks like it could fall on you so I pressed on up the narrowing track, which hairpins between rocky outcrops, exposing then hiding the sea, ducking and weaving its way towards remote fincas. Maintenance work on the surface is an ongoing thing, so that vehicles can still reach these isolated but actively farmed properties. I passed one or two secluded, secretive little houses crouching down among the rocks and trees, with views that would render them priceless on the housing market back home. Come to think of it, they are probably priceless here, too.
There comes a point where riding is no longer sensible unless you are on a full mountain bike, but I urge you to carry on if you venture up here; it is, quite simply, totally rewarding. Park your bike if you’ve a mind to – I can’t see anyone who’d nick it. I carried on pushing mine, purely because by now it was in ‘wheeled crutch’ mode. Every step brought a fresh glimpse of this unsurpassable coastline but eventually, opposite the little island of s’Illeta, which is not much more than a big rock topped with sparse green scrub in the cobalt sea far below, everyone reaches a locked gate that bars the way and I had to stop, then retrace my steps. It may be a dead end for visitors but the route goes much farther, and local gossip has it that the government intends to open it right through to Pollensa, in the far north of the island. I don’t blame local people one jot for guarding their privacy, I’d do it myself, so for the time being at least, we mere mortals have to turn back.
The physical and spiritual joy that I always experience in this corner of Mallorca is considerable and sometimes I can’t quite believe that the place is real. On this occasion I felt positively euphoric. I wanted to savour the moment – melt into the island’s atmosphere – so I lay about on a patch of parched, herby grass for an hour. “Don’t hurry, you might miss something” could well be my motto and in fact, I’d hung about for so long that ‘the girls’ appeared. I had no idea that they were coming up here nor they, I – and it was nice to have someone to share my enjoyment with, if only for a short while. They pressed on, I carried on down, and when I reached tarmac my descent was as rapid as the ascent had been slow. I got to the edge of the Port in no time – just in time for a spot of lunch, in fact.
And after lunch…
As the road flattens out, you’ll find a popular, family run restaurant called the Sol y Sombra on the left, where the food’s good enough for you to have to wait a while alongside the locals, if you’d like to eat. Light meals are available, but if you’ve got the time, they’ll conjure up a seriously good paella for you; all seafood, olive oil, saffron, peppers, and delicious plump rice, and if you eat it properly, with your fingers, you’ll end up with yellow juice running off your elbows. It really is the only way to do it. Here, they look askance at customers who try to eat mussels and langoustines with a knife and fork and anyway; why would you want to do that? Sitting outside under the sun-shading vine canopy is really rather pleasant, but beware tempting carafes of wine that appear like magic; they could kill your afternoon. Agua con gas - iced, aerated, spring water - is much safer, but it’s your call!
How did you fare? Perhaps you’d rather lie under a palm tree for the rest of the afternoon; I’ve done it myself on more than one occasion. The Port’s many attractions are just as fascinating down on the beach as they are up in the hills, but if you haven’t stuffed yourself too much it seems logical to ‘complete the circle’ and ride up the other notable dead-end in the Port, the road to the lighthouse on the left hand side of the bay. That way, both ends of the ‘pincers’, which hold the bay in their grip will have been explored, and there’s a certain satisfaction in that.
The lighthouse road is a different sort of ascent altogether. The climb starts before you reach the Hotel Brisas at the far end of the bay, and a couple of hairpins after that you pass some highly desirable properties precariously perched on the cliff edge before you come to a straight, exposed, uphill drag. From here on, the view is ever changing. You’ll pass a memorial to a victim of the Spanish civil war and, among the rocks, a lot of attractively floral undergrowth, but the wide vision of the Port spread out below you is the most compelling sight of all. Eventually, you reach the light, the Far des Cap Gros. (Well spotted – it’s Mallorquin, not Castillian Spanish – I didn’t realise for years).
Boy, it sure is worth coming up here. That really is a panorama! I know the morning ride exposed a whole bag of views, but this is different; it’s ‘broad-brush’, extensive stuff. I looked back over the Port, along the stretch of coastline that I had travelled this morning, and up to the heights of the Puig Major, at 1447metres the biggest lump on the island. It is remarkable. The pleasures don’t stop there, either. Close at hand there’s a classy restaurant (delicious fish) and bar, but I usually support the Muleta refugio, a rather pleasant government hostal built specifically for the use of long distance walkers, which sells refreshments to everyone. Step beyond that, through the gap in the fence, and utterly abruptly you’re in rugged, open countryside where a rough, ankle-twisting footpath leads to Muleta and, way beyond, to Deia and Valldemossa. Don’t try it with a bike. It is by its very nature a footpath through rocky scrub, not a cycle path. Bill Oddie filmed a bird-watching programme for TV on this very spot a few years ago and I’m glad that I recorded it because now I can watch it at home and mentally come back here, if ever I need a quick island ‘fix’.
There is only one way down by bike, and you’ve guessed it. Yes, you just came up it. The descent is wild if you are brave, but bravery begets foolishness and I counsel serious caution. It’s easy to get overenthusiastic and the final bend that you encountered at the bottom coming up could be your last one ever, going down. Instead of plunging seawards, I stopped once or twice and just gazed out to sea. I know I’m chicken, but think what I saved in brake blocks and overheated rims!
That concludes the day’s entertainment awheel, and if you didn’t have a drink at the top then you’ve earned one down here at the bay side. You could do worse than go to the Bodega Sa Torre, beyond the Marina and opposite the tram stop, which is run by an amiable Italian who speaks just enough English to give out the gossip. It’s a cosmopolitan sort of place. All ports have at least one bar used by people who have an intimate knowledge of what’s going on all over town and here, last year, I was told over morning coffee that the floating gin palace that had just crept up to the quayside backwards belonged to Michael Caine – they knew, even before he’d dropped anchor.
Next day I tried to blag my way on board for a look but I was politely refused. No surprise there, but owners and their crews can be surprisingly amenable and I have been invited onto a variety of boats, and into all sorts of unlikely places, in the past. Several years ago, on the other side of the island, I was given a conducted tour of an old wooden, ocean going racing yacht that, I was told, had once belonged to Hitler. Hidden under wraps in great secrecy in dry dock, it was undergoing a full plank-by-plank, copper-nail-by-copper-nail, money no object refurbishment. Who owns it now is anyone’s guess, but unsavoury connections apart, it was the most exquisite example of the boat builder’s art that I have ever seen.
Puerto de Soller remains somewhat hidden on the west side of the mountains in Mallorca and Jean and I have been more happily relaxed there in the last thirty years than anywhere else on earth. Now, sadly, I have succumbed to the passing of time, and my foreign travelling days are over. I’m glad to say that our children and their families are following in our footsteps and finding their own way about the territory, proving that this little patch of heaven is just the ticket for those who prefer the slow life with a bottle of good wine to the low-life with loads of lager.
But time is catching up with the place. The government has knocked down the picturesque old fisherman’s net rooms and opened up a small, low-key marina, and performed other atrocities that make the Port more eye-catching for day visitors but less attractive to those who live here, and our Russian friends are showing an interest in buying some of the larger properties. If you are thinking of going there I suggest that you do it now, before big money gets a real grip. The Port of Soller and its inland town are an anachronism, a throwback to times now gone, when life was taken slowly and their main trading connection was with Marseille, in France, rather than tourism, and the rest of the island, but the pace of life is changing. If you’re the kind of discerning person who reads Seven Day Cyclist, be you a thoughtful roadie or a laid back lotus-eater, this place could still just blow you away.
General Tourist Information http://www.majorca-mallorca.co.uk/soller.htm
Cycling specific information, especially on cycling holidays and the Col de Soller route can be found easily with a quick "google."
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2017