Monday, 6 August 2012

A Monday in Mallorca

I’m visiting my friend Jo who’s teaching English in Mallorca.  We met one of her host families yesterday and they were kind enough to invite me on their day trip to Cala Mandraga which I couldn’t accept because (a) I went to a similar beach yesterday (b) knew it would rain and (c) it’s my day for moving hotels .

So a last morning in Soller, a town with which I’ve slightly fallen in love – a mile high in the Sierra de Tramuntana it represents a face of the island I’d not encountered before, the rugged mountainous north-west, but after three glorious hot days the clouds came to meet us and I’m driving down the hillside with big teary plashets of rain on the windscreen.

My destinations are Deia, allegedly the most beautiful town on the island, and the monastery at Valldemossa where Chopin romanced Georges Sand.  But first I pass the home of Robert Graves.  He might be a great poet and have written ‘I Claudius’ here but exhibited considerable lack of forethought in not purchasing a house with a level car and coach park and stables suitable for conversion into tea rooms.  The parking’s miles away and the rain’s threatening again so it’s a case of hello and ‘Goodbye to All That’ and I’m back on the road again.  I make a note that if I’m ever a famous writer, I’ll buy a more visitor-attraction-friendly house.

It brightens up by Deia, but the queue of traffic entering the small town with its pedestrian-filled narrow streets and morons who think it’s OK to unload a van on a corner where no-one else can pass, and I’m not feeling the love.  The traffic moves so slowly it’s possible to observe that almost the entire visiting population consists of defiantly L’Oreal-blonde middle-aged British women with no chin and a navy linen shirt each clutching the Rolexed hand of a golf-tanned hegefundista whose face you want to punch persistently till he acknowledges his part in the banking crisis.  There are so many craft shops, tearooms and English-branded estate agencies it’s like someone tore a strip off Weybridge and threw it angrily at a Mallorcan hillside.

It takes twenty minutes to crawl through the immaculately-restored town, and of course there’s nowhere to stop without wounding several passers-by (an option which felt not entirely unpleasant) or breaking a craft shop window - there are so many twee china, linen and ‘tasteful art’ shops, tearooms and English-branded estate agencies it’s like someone tore a strip off Weybridge and threw it angrily at a Mallorcan hillside.

Fortunately it’s not much further to Valldemossa where at least the streets are wide enough to breathe and I can dump the car (and have a wee behind a council recycling bin because I am absolutely desperate) and wander the sights.  There is only one real sight – the monastery and annexed palace where Frederic Chopin and this posh lady writer with a man’s name that no-one’s ever really heard of or read holed up for the winter in 1838.  He bashed out a couple of Nocturnes and she wrote a pretty unexceptional what-I-did-in-the-holidays essay called ‘A Winter in Mallorca’.  Let’s just say it wouldn’t make the Booker shortlist these days.  

They must have been slightly on their financial uppers if they needed to stay at a monastery, and you wonder what sort of a monastic order would actually encourage the cohabitation of a Polish pianist and his girlfriend with several of her children in tow.  But tourism makes much of a simple romance and they’re flogging it for all it’s worth with Chopin-themed shopping and even a passable piano concert in the quite lovely music room of the Palace, although on a highly-strung modern Yamaha that’s one piano-tuner’s keyturn short of a honky-tonk.

Valldemossa may once have been a place worth visiting, of pilgrimage even for the Chopin fans to whom it’s something of a shrine – but it nowadays concentrates on what motivates most European tourism: the ready availability of a ‘nice coffee’ and cake.  Every building seems to have been pressed into service as a cafĂ©, or souvenir shop, or both, and it soon palls.  But I’m glad I saw it – particularly the upper floor of the monastery which has a contemporary art collection including works by Picasso and Juli Ramis who I confess I hadn’t heard of but who seems to be from the same school and a bit of a master of colour.

So it’s back down the EU-funded highway to the Palma ring road and then the familiar MA-20 motorway north via Inca to Cala San Vicente, a quiet cove in the extreme north-west tip of the island, and the Hotel La Moraleja.  I should say that I’m staying in three different hotels, all of the classy and all of them normally quite expensive but thanks to several days on the internet and the almost astrological coincidence of an Expedia ‘sale’ and judicious juggling of their discount-availability dates, I got them all for the price of a Travelodge back home. 

La Moraleja is a hoot, it’s such an anachronism it should be in  a wax museum, as should several of the customers.  Formerly a private house owned by a Spanish eccentric with a passion for all things English – I’m picturing a well-starched nanny and a spanking fetish, but apparently I just missed him, he’s 93 and had popped in for lunch and to check no-one had stolen his art collection which covers all the available walls including the vaulted living room with its oh-so-Britsh chintz sofas, faded Persian carpet and vellum-shaded table lamps. You could do ‘The Mousetrap’ right here.  In fact, I might.

It’s like staying with your slightly dotty great aunt, if your great aunt was the Duchess of Devonshire.  Everything’s very old-fashioned: in some cases charmingly so, but nothing works.  I can’t get wi-fi despite the assistance of several members of staff, and I hear a lady complain that it’s impossible for her to operate the hot and cold taps together in such a way that she can have a shower which is more than an alternately boiling and freezing drizzle.  I haven’t tried yet, although my bathroom is enormous and I may instead leave the taps to fight it out between themselves for an hour or two which is probably how long it will take them to fill my enormous tub. 

A Germanic woman shows me round the property with its formal gardens and vine-crept pool terrace all of which is slightly dripping now but I am sure will be much lovelier in the sunshine.  My room is number 13, at the end of the corridor on the first floor but despite the fact I bought it as a ‘single’ is the same huge size as all the others, with a massive wooden headboard like a baroque altar-piece, a sitting room and a balcony with a squint of the sea but also clear sight (and sound) into the garden of a chav-occupied villa where the family’s main sport seems to be shouting at their children.  Adam is definitely the naughtiest, or maybe they scold them in alphabetical order, because his is the name I hear bawled ten or fifteen times in the three minutes before I close the balcony door and let the air-conditioning do its work.

Rather than have a siesta in splendid isolation, I make for the public rooms but the place is empty: occasionally someone will walk through the lobby, take a sighing look at the sky and retreat elsewhere.  I’ve only been here two hours and I would be suicidal if I’d booked for two weeks.  They showed me a menu for dinner should I decide to eat in, but the dining room is pretty formal and despite Harry Belafonte’s ‘Island in the Sun’ being muzaked on Andean pan pipes, somewhat cheerless.  I counted only six tables for two laid up which is too suggestive of a Terence Rattigan play and I think I’ll scope it and its customers out first before signing up to what seems to add up to a 60 Euro meal without wine.  As if a meal without wine were an option.

In the last few minutes – the rain’s not really easing off – some people have passed through but apart from one small and very polite boy who told me my laptop was getting wet, the best they can manage is a formal nod before they retreat to their crossword or novel.  It’s the kind of place that just makes you want to tell a dirty joke. 

About 8pm I set off for a stroll round Cala San Vicente proper.  It's quite a sad place - I think it once thought itself classier and more exclusive than nearby Pollensa but perhaps unable to attract the moneyed retirees who once graced its promenades it appears to have died on its arse with many hotels and bars mothballed.  A motherly Aberdonian woman who calls me 'hen' apologises for the lack of anything other than 'with chips' on her menu but explains that if it's not something that comes from the freezer, there isn't the turnover to keep fresh food on the menu.  I succumb to the hotel's restaurant - there really being virtually no alternative - and dine on the pool terrace on quite nice steak, and a messy jammy dessert which will send my blood sugar numbers into orbit.

My fellow guests vary between the disinterested and the downright miserable - although after 11 the terrace livens up with what is assuredly a man of about my age in white linen trousers and sub-Gucci loafers accompanied by what's almost certainly a tart, judging by the size and vulgarity of her handbag, and an otherwise handsome younger couple who've spent the entire evening texting on their respective mobile phones.  

The sky has cleared, there are stars.  Tomorrow it may be fine.

And so to bed.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Sunset, Limited

Bobby the cute biotech scientist drives me to the train station in Palm Springs which isn’t really in Palm Springs but set among the wind farms on its wilder northern edge. Amtrak says to check in at least 30 minutes early but not only is there no place to do this at the unstaffed station, there’s simply no one else around either. It’s just a platform and the rails turning copper in the late afternoon sun.

Two coyotes chase across the edge of the desert and deserted parking lot.

Thanks to a 1-800 automated information service we soon discover the Sunset Limited is already running 20 minutes late which means we’ve effectively an hour to kill but it passes very easily and actually we get to know each other better for it.

There’s a lot of freight. A LOT of freight trains, maybe seven or eight in the time we’re waiting, each with four big diesels hauling about a half-mile of wagons most of which are carrying a double deck quota of containers. Among the Mitsui, China Ocean, Tianjin and similar transpacific cargo companies are several units branded with the Tropicana juice name, suggesting that if they can haul it through deserts in steel containers it’s so chock full of preservative you probably don’t need to put it in the fridge. For years.

The passenger train arrives without fanfare and whilst there are only two or three people boarding here – I’m the only one up the sleeper end, it’s unhurried and a conductor points me towards roomette 11 in coach 230. There I meet steward Yvonne, one of those topheavy black women for whom stretch polyester uniforms were not really designed but she has the broadest of smiles and settles me into the little cabin explaining the light and air controls, and organizes me a reservation for dinner.

Now this isn’t the Orient Express and the tablecloths are paper but the cutlery’s real and there are fresh flowers on the tables. The menu is short but surprisingly varied – besides the American burgerish staples are crabmeat enchiladas, arctic char resting on a bed of orzo pasta and my choice, a tender and delicious piece of chipotle beef with baked potato (baked a while back it has to be said) and fresh vegetables. The ‘no added sugar’ cheesecake may have its peach topping slopped over it as from a bucket but it tastes as good as restaurant fare.

The dining car operates ‘open seating’ which means singles like me are encouraged to share tables for four which is fine. My companions opposite are a white woman from LA in her late twenties chaperoning a pretty but initially sullen six year old girl of a distinctly Amerindian cast. With her dark almond eyes and glossy hair she's a Disney Pocahontas who will grow up to be a stunner but at the moment she needs some coaxing to eat and sit properly. She warms up eventually – actually she eats a huge hot dog, some salad and half her mom’s chicken – and I learn that her name’s Esmeralda and they are traveling together to Tuscon so she can meet, for the first time, her father.

This is almost a Jerry Springer moment as I dare to ask why she hasn’t met him before now – and mom’s gaze is completely level as she tells me they split soon after the daughter was born and he “wasn’t ready till now, but now he’s in a much better place” which the cynical side of my brain interprets as ‘out of prison’.

We’re due into Tucson shortly before 2am and he’s meeting the train, in what promises to be the kind of middle of the night childhood trauma the extended analysis of which should in later years buy her therapist a Porsche.

Our merry foursome is completed by an unshaven gentleman who has arrived for dinner in a powder blue surgical scrub top with almost matching boxer shorts possibly not intended for street wear. He prefers train travel ‘for health reasons’ and ‘because of all that security stuff at airports’ so I mentally X-ray him for weapons (not much concealed in those shorts: definitely no loaded weapon but he may be packing a small slingshot with very loose elastic).

He’s conversationally acute as he describes his itinerary from Los Angeles to some burg beyond Portland, Maine, via a seven hour layover across New Year’s eve in San Antonio and another of five hours overnight in Chicago. He is traveling in a seat, not a sleeper, and won’t arrive home until January 4th having spent five consecutive nights on trains or in station waiting rooms. He is certifiably insane.

Shortly after dinner we skip forward a time zone and at 10pm it seems justifiable to make up the bed in the roomette. I thought at first the upper berth was a proper mattress and the lower one formed of sliding the two seats together but concealed in the upper fold-down is a complete set of mattress, sheets and blankets which make the lower option even more cushy. I like that word, it’s American but I don’t apologise for using it.

It’s certainly relaxing as I watch on my laptop the Christmas special of Downton Abbey whilst we barrel through the starlit mesas of Arizona in a surreal movie collision of the 3.10 to Yuma with the 4.50 from Paddington. I have to catch the conclusion in the morning and Matthew proposes to Mary in the snow with my eyes both squinting from the rising sun and, go on I admit it, misty. I seem to have got in touch with my emotions in the last couple of days.

Sensitive to the needs of passengers not to be disturbed till morning, the train conductor elaborated the rules for coach passengers disembarking before dawn: a coded series of coloured dockets is placed over their seats so they can be selectively awakened just before arrival. It’s all very well managed and I’m barely aware of the stops in the night, except perhaps surfacing momentarily at Tucson to silently wish Esmeralda luck for her first meeting with her daddy.

The rocking motion of the train is both restful and potentially conducive to masturbation but I resist. Got to save something for New Year’s Eve.