December 02, 2015

Chopin and Party Time in Majorca

CHOPIN and his mistress Aurore Dupin painted by their friend, French artist Eugene Delacroix. Persons unknown ultimately cut the original in half and sold each "portrait" separately; this is a Photoshop of how the original would most likely have looked. (Wikimedia)
VALLDEMOSSA outside Palma where Chopin lived
and worked for a year in a former monastery-cum-hotel. (Wikimedia)
THE Valldemossa monastery/hotel is now the Chopin and
George Sands Museum with items from the time of their stay –
although not this piano which was purchased after Chopin had left.
PALMA's grand Cathedral of Santa Maria has towered over
the local harbour since the early 1600s. (Helen Read)

David Ellis
Malcolm Andrews

THERE'S no escaping it: to the majority of the 12.25 million who invade the place every year, the tiny Mediterranean island of Majorca off Spain's southern coast, is Party Central.

For here on this little blob that would fit into mainland Tasmania some 18 times over, and where all those visitors outnumber the locals by more than 12-to-1, the capital Palma de Majorca is crammed with 24 hour hip bars and cafés whose operators don't believe in Happy Hours – to them their customers come here for Happy Days

And this means carousing around the clock and, for some bizarre reason in a place where the local cuisine can be amongst the most-tempting in Europe, frequenting countless cafés that boast not wonderful Spanish temptations, but 24hr  'English Breakfast' – eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, hash browns, toast, and more, all fried-up in copious amounts of sizzling fat any time you want.

Crowding around tables and tucking into these grease bombs you'll find Germans (3.4 million last year,) Brits (2.25m,) Scandinavians (340,000) and others in their equally hundreds of thousands from across Europe, and to a lesser-extent other parts of the world.

Yet there are thousands of others come to Majorca for a very different and certainly quieter reason. And that's to pay homage to one of the greatest classical composers of all time, the Polish-born Frédéric Chopin who spent less than a year on the island, but whose influence on local life in that short time remains indelibly etched 177 years later.

PLAYTHINGS of the rich and famous fill Palma harbour,
attracted by 300 days of sunshine a year. (Helen Read)        
The 28-year-old Chopin, wracked with tuberculosis, arrived during the winter of 1838-39 with his mistress, the French, somewhat-Bohemian, cigar-smoking, male-dressing author Aurore Dupin, who published under the pseudonym George Sands.

They'd chosen Mallorca with its 300 days of sunshine a year to escape the freezing conditions of winter in Paris where they lived, and after finding lodgings in a suite of former monks' cells in an old monastery-cum-hotel at Valldemossa 20km outside Palma, Chopin wrote to friends back home: "A sky like turquoise, a sea like lapis lazuli, mountains like emerald, air like heaven…"

But one of Majorca's most brutal-ever winter's bore down upon them, and after seeing several doctors for his deteriorating condition, Chopin wrote again on December 3: "Three doctors have visited me. The first said I was going to die; the second said I was breathing my last; and the third said I was dead already."

But he continued to produce some of his finest compositions, including Prelude in D-flat major that later was appropriately re-titled Raindrop (Chopin never named any of his works, giving just the genre and number of each composition, with devotees after his death giving suitable word-titles to his scores of pieces.)

Today, an annual Chopin Festival every August is centred on that old monastery-hotel in which he'd spent that short time in 1838-39 and which is now a Chopin/Sands Museum… visitors to the Festival, and any other time to the museum, able to see the rooms in which he stayed with Sands (and her two children,) some of his original furniture, rare photos, and his extensive and much-loved garden.

And while in Palma an also must-visit is the Cathedral of Santa Maria (also known as Le Seu) that is one of the tallest churches in the world, its 45m high central nave just 1m lower than that of the Vatican's St Peter's.

Interestingly the cathedral, that was begun in 1229 but not completed until 1601, sits atop the site of a former mosque, and which in turn was developed over the remains of an even earlier Roman temple.

The cathedral overlooks Palma's harbour that plays host to a drool-over collection of mega motor-yacht playthings of the super-rich and famous, and daily visiting cruise ships.

And also on your must-visit list should be Palma Old Town that's the city's historical centre, and where motor vehicles are forbidden so that pedestrians can safely amble it's pretty squares and courtyards, the narrow yester-year laneways, and admire the Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture…

And take a quieter coffee or meal away from the more frenetic waterfront area with its 24hr Majorca Party Central and fried-up English Breakfasts.

(Frédéric Chopin died at home in Paris in October 1849 during a tuberculosis coughing fit; he was just 39.)

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