Hiking in Mallorca
Towards Ermita de Betlem
Mallorca is a small island and nearly as densely populated as Holland, without even counting the 9 million visitors who come here each year.
So it’s all the more striking if you consider that you can walk for hours in the Park Natural de Llevant without seeing a single soul (except the odd fellow hiker). The northeastern corner has always been the least populated part of the island, but when it was declared a Nature Reserve (about a dozen years ago), the government did not do things by halves – they bought up the few remaining farms in the area and closed them down. Nowadays, Mallorca’s northeastern corner is a true no-man’s land.
Still, it takes a while to return a piece of land back to its pristine state, and signs of human habitation are still everywhere. Take this mule-powered well, for example, …
which, originally, had been used to irrigate a near-by orchard – using a technique that is well over a thousand years old and had been brought to Mallorca by the Arabs.
Olive presses are still everywhere to be seen, too – olive oil was once one of Mallorca’s major crops, but a few years ago, total production had fallen to just 80 tons. (Since then, production has somewhat recovered to reach a few thousand tons annually.)
Nothing, however, illustrates better what has happened to Mallorca over the past few decades than the story of the almond trees.
Mallorca was once one of the world’s leading producers of almonds, but now resorts to importing them from California. In the few days that we spent on the island, a surprisingly large number of people told us of their regret that it had come to this, and particularly among the middle-aged and older folk, this appears to rank very high on the list of every-day grievances. The manpower required to tend to the trees and make them bear fruit is simply no longer available. Today, the young all want to be hotel managers. Tourism is clearly a mixed blessing.
Fig trees used to be equally ubiquitous, but nowadays, at least in the Llevant Park, the figs are rotting on the trees. When agriculture was still the major industry in Mallorca, figs were very much in demand as feed for the local pigs (when I have finished this life, I want to come back as a pig in Mallorca), because there is no known way to fatten a pig this quickly, and the animals reach their full slaughter weight much faster than on any other diet. (On second thought, I think I changed my mind.)
There is, of course, much more to the Llevant Park than the search for traces of bygone human activity: the view you get from the Reserve’s highest point, for example, across the bay with the mountains in the west and the lowlands behind you stretching all the way to the south coast, is simply unforgettable. Not least because it is so remarkable how much of the island you can actually see from this single vantage point. (Did I already say that Mallorca is a small island?)
But the slow vanishing act of the human imprint is clearly the “unique selling point” of the Llevant Park. Most poignantly, there are the abandoned farmhouses in the hills. Dirt-poor subsistence farmers, altogether 25 families, scraped a living here until the 1950s, under conditions that would have looked familiar to people from the stone age. It was only with the advent of mass tourism that these people got the opportunity of breaking out and of finding something better to do somewhere else. Tourism may be a mixed blessing, but it has clearly been a blessing for many, too.
Half way down the descent to the coast, you can find the Ermita de Betlem. Until three years ago, a handful of lay brothers held out here as the last human inhabitants of the Nature Reserve. When they became too old to manage their fields, they retired to another Ermitage on the island. Their church is still there, and it is opened every morning for visitors, but the land around the buildings is slowly being reclaimed by nature.
The last farmhouses half a mile from there are already one step further down the road to oblivion. This abandoned hamlet could come straight out of a Spaghetti Western, and you half expect Clint Eastwood to turn the corner, arranging the guns underneath his poncho and, eyes-a-squint, lighting a cigar.
Although in real life, Mr. Eastwood would have to step a little further outside the gate for that, since smoking is not permitted inside the Park, due to the danger of prairie fires. (Go on, you tell him that.)
Outside the gate was also where our walk through the Llevant Park ended and where the bus was already waiting for us. Why can’t hiking always be like that?
This is one question for which I can actually provide an answer: because this was not an ordinary but a very special hike, one that had been organized by Antonio Marti, the Managing Director of the Vanity Golf Hotel (our hosts) who is also a hiking enthusiast and who regularly takes his guests on walking trips through the Mallorcan countryside. Remember? I told you about him in our last post.
This hike, quite frankly, is difficult to do outside of a guided group, mainly because we did not enter and leave the Park through the same gate. It would also have been less fun because Mr. Marti is such a great guide who knows so much about the area – the story about the pigs and the figs, for example: you cannot find that sort of stuff in a guidebook.
So, basically, you have three options: one, you can book into Mr. Marti’s hotel and participate in one of his Saturday hikes – they are free for his guests. (Just make sure you pick the right hike – he rotates six different itineraries.)
Two, you can make your way independently to the visitors’ centre of the Park near Arta (where our hike started), in a hired car for example, but you would at some stage have to return the way you came, probably from where you get the stunning view over the bay, cutting out the Ermita section because returning from there would be altogether too long and strenuous.
Or, three, take a different route – at the visitors centre, they can provide you with a map that shows a range of different hikes, including some circular ones. At any rate, the Llevant park is definitely worth the trip.