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Discover the Rich Jewish History of Mallorca

By October 1, 2019 Features-Leeds
Palma de Mallorca - Port Marina Majorca Cathedral

Discover the one of the major highlights of the Balearics with an emerging Jewish history: Mallorca.

Nature, sports, beaches, charming villages, underground grottos and a great range of leisure possibilities for families; Mallorca has much to offer, including a blossoming Jewish community.

The Balearic climate, with over 300 sunny days a year, makes for endless possibilities for enjoying outdoor activities such as horse-riding, boat trips, ballooning and water sports, while the clear, warm waters of the Mediterranean and fantastic beaches are ideal for taking a refreshing dip.

The historical old town of Palma, the capital of Mallorca, has long been an enduring destination for tourists and holidaymakers. Overlooking the Roman wall which used to surround the city, the Gothic La Seu cathedral rises majestically over the sea. It was restored by the famed Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí and contains a mural created by Miquel Barceló. Nearby stands the royal palace of Almudaina, another Gothic monument. You can see both buildings reflected in the waters of the artificial lake in the Par-que del Mar before continuing towards La Lonja which used to be the headquarters of the Guild of Merchants, now frequently the venue for art and photography exhibitions.

For culture vultures, you can see some of Miró’s lesser-known paintings, one of the major figures in Surrealism at the Pilar y Joan Miró Foundation. For a privileged view of the island you should climb up to the Gothic style Bellver Castle, about three kilometres from the historical town centre and one of very few round castles in Europe.

Can you imagine listening to a classical music concert in an underground grotto over 5,000 years old? In the district of Porto Cristo, you can, in not one but two different arenas. One such place are the caves of Drach, accessed by taking a boat across Lake Martel, one of the largest underground lakes and in the Els Hams caves there are some surprising rock formations – namely the Fra Mauro plains, the Foso Del Infierno, or ‘hell’s pit’ and the Mar de Venecia, ‘sea of Venice’, an underground lake. In the Artá caves, located in the Capdepera cliffs, you can make out Gothic constructions and monsters in the vast caverns.

Head back to Palma and you’ll find the colourful Génova caves at 36m deep underground and fed by freshwater springs. Then there’s the wonderful Sierra de Tramontana Nature Reserve, the largest protected area in the Balearic Islands. The easiest way to explore it is by taking the hundred-year-old railway from Palma to Sóller where it connects with a wooden tramcar.

Palma De Mallorca, Spain - May 27, 2016: Street artists on the market at Placa Major

Placa Major Market

There are even more treasures hidden in the narrow streets and alleyways in Palma’s town centre. The March Palace Museum houses an interesting collection of contemporary sculptures and ancient books, and the Convent of San Francisco features a basilica and a Gothic cloister with slender columns. For more gothic greatest hits, the Church of Santa Eulalia has a surprisingly high bell tower and several gargoyles overlooking the terraces around the temple.

Now on to the Monastery of Miramar at Valldemossa, the mountain range to the north of the island. You can visit the museum and stroll around the beautiful gardens and travel back in time and visit the Talayots, the settlements built by the island’s first inhabitants. One of the largest and best preserved can be found in the Artà district, Ses Païsses.

After a morning at the beach, shopping is in order on Palma’s streets, so head to Calle Sant Miquel, Jaume III or El Borne. If you’re looking for arts and crafts to bring home as souvenirs, then you should try the stalls laid out in the Plaça Mayorin, but if you don’t fancy straying far from the waves, then the seaside towns usually host lively street markets offering a wide selection of goods like fabrics, gold and silver creations, basketwork and pottery.

Unique pieces are created using the glass-blowing technique developed by the Phoenicians, making them fascinatingly colourful and beautiful: wineglasses, lamps, bottles, chandeliers. A special mention should go to Mallorca’s leather goods, renowned worldwide. If you’re interested in discovering the craft process involved in the island’s leather industry, then your best bet is to visit a Camper Footwear factory in Inca in the Raiguer region to the north.

Taste the flavours and the variety of Mediterranean cuisine prepared with local products from the island: fish and seafood, locally produced meat and fruit and vegetables from the gardens. And you’ll love some of the traditional dishes like coca de trempó, a flat pastry with mixed vegetables, or arròs brut, spicy rice in broth originally made with veg, rabbit or pigeon.

Mallorca-native Rafa Nadal playing Tennis

Mallorca is a haven for tennis enthusiasts, thanks to Mallorca-native Rafael Nadal.
(Photo: Yann Caradec via Wikimedia Commons)

For dessert you can sample the famous ensaïmada, a spiralled pastry cake sprinkled with icing sugar, that is derived from the challah bread that was eaten by the former occupants of the Jewish quarters in Mallorca’s major towns. The first written references to the Majorcan ensaïmada date back to the 17th century! Almonds and honey also play a leading role in local culinary tradition, key ingredients in the island’s traditional ice creams.

Thanks to a little-known island native called Rafael Nadal, Mallorca has become a haven for tennis enthusiasts. Tennis academies across the island cater for all levels, including the Rafa Nadal Academy by Movistar in Nadal’s hometown of Manacor. There you can take part in training sessions and experience the coaching that made Nadal a world grand slam champion. Tourists can head to the Rafa Nadal Museum Xperience to soak up the tennis star’s winning formula while learning about the values and science of tennis. Recently British tennis hero Andy Murray has chosen the academy’s annual open to dip his toe back into competing by playing in the Rafa Nadal Open Sotheby’s International Realty tournament at the academy, so there’s plenty of chances to see the pros play on the island.

Judaism in Mallorca

Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together for 300 years on the island without much incident before the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were forcibly converted.

The first attack on Palma’s Jewish quarter in 1391, killed between 100 and 300 Jews. Later, as the Inquisition gathered momentum, the majority of Jewish Majorcans converted under duress, though many continued practising Judaism in secret, and hundreds of these converts were tortured and killed throughout the 1400s and 1500s. When 37 Jews tried to escape by boat in 1688, they were captured. After three years of torture, inquisitors killed them in 1691, burning three at the stake. They hung a list of their surnames in the Santo Domingo Convent, which stayed up until 1820.

Today, Mallorca’s tiny Jewish community is now stronger. Last year Toni Pinya, a local kosher chef, and ‘chueta’, the Majorcan name for about 20,000 people whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity centuries ago, became one of the chuetas elected to the four-person executive board of the Jewish community of Mallorca, finally giving representatives from that minority a voice.

Coves del Drac, Mallorca

Coves del Drac (Caves of Drac)

A community that was “nearing extinction” has been revived as the island slowly came to terms with its uncomfortable past. In 2015, Palma helped build a small Jewish museum in what used to be the Jewish quarter, located on a cobbled street inside the sandstone labyrinth that is the old city centre, where the Jewish people once ran the tanneries, shoe shops and butchers.

Last year local authorities unveiled a memorial plaque at a Palma square where 37 people were executed for being Jewish in 1691, and the unveiling was the first recognition of the murders that transpired here. A popular Limmud Jewish learning conference took place in May with 150 people in attendance, while the island’s only operating synagogue, Comunidad Judía De Les Illes Balears, welcomes visiting Jewish tourists and expats from across the Balearic Islands and around the world.

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