Valldemosa DAMARC The Dig The Three Kings

The Valldemosa Tale

One reason I'd been interested in going to Mallorca on the Earthwatch dig was to see how it had changed since 1956. At that time, it was a fairly obscure island; now it is over-full of resorts and touristy spots. Valldemosa has not escaped schlock shops and tour busses. But I still found the road to Palma I refer to below, and the pictures here illustrate this tale of years ago.


When I went to Europe with the R_ family in 1956, daughter Anne, 16, was a bit obsessed with Chopin. At home she played Chopin on the piano and read romantic biographies and swooned; for her the trip around Europe only had validity if she could visit the places Chopin had actually lived. While Charles, her older brother, and I went to the Louvre in Paris, she dragged her mother to Place Pigalle - a dubious quarter even in daylight - to see where Chopin had lived. And there was a hotel near our pension where he was reputed to have stayed, so that had to be seen.

As we went through Switzerland and Italy, Anne moped. She knew nowhere in those parts that the peripatetic Chopin had lived.  But then we got to Spain. I had a long-time pen-pal to visit in Barcelona, and to please Anne we went to nearby Mallorca, which may be a resort island in some people’s eyes, but which for her was where Chopin had spent a long, cold, winter with George Sand, in a monastery at Valldemosa.

It was early August, and hot. The dining room of our Palma hotel was on a terrace, ringed in stucco walls covered with bouganvillia, and as we ate fresh melon for breakfast we planned our excursion. We had  two tiny cars, called "Voisins," each approximately the size and shape of a golf cart, to take us up the mountain to the monastery in central Mallorca. Charles would take his mother,  and I would drive Anne.  I had been driving since I was 14 - I was now 20 - and I was quite accustomed to European cars.

The Voisin, however, presented a certain challenge. It had to be started like one today starts a gasoline lawn-mower: by pulling one of those impossible ropes quickly and surely. Still today I can’t reliably make such a motor start, and at that point I’d never encountered one. Someone eventually got it started (not I) and then we discovered it had no reverse gear. But it did have a short turning radius so we were able to navigate in the parking lot and head off toward Valldemosa.

The island of Mallorca reminded me of West Texas. Lots of dry land, with scrubby pin oak and what looked like tumbleweed; red clay banks along the road. Groves of oranges and olives. Ten miles inland from Palma, and up a mountain, was the Carthusian monastery where Chopin had stayed. The inevitable courtyard was ablaze with zinnias and cosmos and other brilliant flowers. The living quarters of Chopin and Sand were whitewashed and cool and mostly unfurnished except for a rather dilapidated piano reputed to have been HIS. Anne was terribly disappointed; it had been bleak and dirty and awful when Chopin was there; why was it not that way any more?!

We left Valldemosa around noon. Charles was anxious to take the long way home, along the coast: two or three times as far. I said our car had been behaving much too erratically on the trip up for me to want to risk driving on what looked like fairly long stretches of deserted road on a Sunday. To a degree Charles and I were rivals - I knew he wouldn’t drive patiently along as my car coughed and stumbled, but would race back to the hotel and cheer at having beaten me home, and I preferred not to get stranded far from civilization.

So Anne and I elected to go straight back to Palma. Amid pushing and shouting by the village youths, freshly out of church and lingering in the town square, we got the Voisin started, and were on our way.

But not for long. After about two miles, the car coughed and died and I could NOT persuade it to restart. It was, however, a tiny car, and we were going downhill. So I put it into neutral and, one on each side of the car, Anne and I started walking. We could go at a comfortable pace in this fashion, although the mid-day sun was beating down.

Two young blonde women escorting their car along a country road could not be ignored. And on Sundays, when everyone took rides in the countryside, family after family in car after car would stop and offer assistance. Papa would get out of his car, strut importantly over to "fix" the Voisin, fiddle awhile, visit with other sightseers, and eventually, much shamed, give up and go on his way. Boys on bicycles would stop and visit. Eventually I began to simply shrug and indicate (in my high school Spanish) that there was nothing they could do, but thank you anyway. And we continued on our way.

About the time I was beginning to realize that we had five miles still to go and that we might not be able to walk it before dark, two young bicyclists reappeared and produced a thick rope.

Many gestures and reassurances in pidgin English later, the rope was looped through the bumper of the Voisin and tied at its ends to the two bicycles. So we set off again, this time being pulled by the boys on the bicycles. We tried, I recall, to walk, and let them pull the empty car, but they insisted that no, we should ride as well!

And so we did, feeling rather like passengers in a rickshaw, all the way in to Palma. The boys told us they were pickers of piñas - pine nuts. One plucked a Spanish comic book, of Mickey Mouse, discarded in the bushes, and gave it to us to read. I labored to remember my Spanish.

They proudly pulled us all they way into town. I gave them ten dollars between them, and our most grateful thanks, and they rode off. I went in to the rent-a-car place and raised, for a young  woman in those days, quite a ruckus, demanding my money back. The salespeople were horrified that I had paid the boys so much money - two weeks wages! But they repaid me.

Of course Charles and his mother had arrived at the hotel long ahead of us, and were presumably concerned about us. They had, it seems, had a beautiful trip along the coast. Maybe someday I’ll go on the coast road in Mallorca. But I have always remembered, far more vividly than any coast road I’ve been on, that hot day we rode trustingly down the mountain behind two sweaty piña pickers in the tiny Voisin.

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