I’ve started seeing guides to Palma in the international media. It always happens at this time of year, when the tourist season is grinding into gear. But because these guides stick to the central part of the city – the photogenic part it’s easy to walk round – they miss out much of what makes Palma so fascinating. The secret Palma.
On the surface, the neighbourhoods or barrios of secret Palma are just kilometres of streets that look like damp cardboard when it rains and dusty canyons in summer. It’s about as different from the Old Town as you can get.
Secret Palma bars are not quaint. Instead of vegan menus, you’ll find entire pig legs hanging from ceilings, dripping fat into little plastic trays. Ancient olives, and that weird pickled seaweed that Mallorquins love, lurk in huge murky jars. At least, I think it’s seaweed. When the wine is good, it’s a surprise. Televisions will blare. If you’re in a part of the city where the locals are originally from southern Spain, you might find yourself watching a bullfight on TV. Try not to run out screaming.
But you’ll be in the middle of life as it’s really lived by Palma locals and they won’t just be Mallorquin. They could have come from Senegal, Morocco, any one of the Latin American countries or the Philippines, not just other parts of Spain. And they’ve brought their culture with them.
When I first discovered Bar Mavi, it was just one among countless loud, large dark wood restaurants in Palma. Now, it seems like a blessed outpost of island tradition in Palma.
Bar Mavi is at 29, Calle del Treinta y Uno de Diciembre. It’s a 20-minute walk from Plaza España, roughly.
Incidentally, Calle del Trienta y Uno de Diciembre gets its name from the date in 1229 King James the First of Aragon landed on the island and conquered Mallorca, beginning the business of taking the Balearics from the Muslims.
Although Bar Mavi does excellent Mallorquin tapas, if you can call it that, I’d suggest you go at lunchtime when you can experience a traditional menu del dia, surrounded by business people and families.
On the subject of tapas, it’s not traditionally a Mallorquin thing as far as I know. The concept of tapas originated in the south of Spain, supposedly to cover the top of a glass of wine and keep the flies out. What’s called Mallorquin tapas is heavier, heartier and sloppier while being no less delicious. Whenever I’ve gone to a tapas bar with Mallorquin friends, they mix everything together on one plate rather than pick from separate, little servings of one particular tapas.
I know I’ll never be truly Mallorquin because I can’t eat tripe (callos) next to boquerones – anchovies marinated in vinegar.
Unlike Deia, where your eating and drinking options are concentrated in a tiny area , if you’re short for time, you’ll realistically only be able to explore one secret Palma barrio.
You could head for the Mercat Pere Garau. Hop on a number five bus from Plaza Progreso, just above Santa Catalina, which will take you all the way to Pere Garau. Or you can take a taxi from Plaza España for around €5.
The market itself is as good as the more touristic markets in Santa Catalina and much cheaper. It’s also in the centre of a barrio home to Moroccans, Africans and Indians, gypsies and Spanish people. Wandering the streets around Pere Garau, I’ve found shops selling Moroccan delicacies and all kinds of spices and strange ingredients.
Should you want to get away from the city centre and try Latin American cuisine, make it El Terreno. Take the number three bus from the city centre and get off at Plaza Gomila or go by taxi. Walk back in the direction of the city towards the big Mercadona supermarket and you’ll see a row of Colombian, Dominican and Argentinian restaurants. In these restaurants, I usually just point at what the people at the next table are having. This is invariably a mix of rice, beans and fried plantain but it’s always satisfying and cheap.
Without banging on too much about the price of eating and drinking in the city, you will find that it’s far less expensive in secret Palma. A cup of coffee or a beer in one of the bars in the barrios I’m talking about will be at least a euro less than in the city centre.
Latin American food is incredibly filling so, after you’ve eaten, I’d recommend a stroll around El Terreno. This barrio has seen far, far better days and drifting through its narrow back streets is like being in a faded snapshot, but that has its own charm.
If you’re exploring El Terreno in the evening, try the Sifoneria on Avinguda de Joan Miró, just down from Plaza Gomila. Or, if it still exists – I haven’t been for a while – walk up Carrer de Bellver to the truly funky, boho Pousada Bellver. For your sake, I hope Pousada Bellver is still open.
Should Pousada Bellver have closed forever, head for Hostal Corona at Carrer de Josep Villalonga, 22. This is a lovely, laidback place with a Bali vibe and an outside bar.
In my experience, all these barrios are perfectly safe any time of day.
Although I’m celebrating the barrios of secret Palma, I’m by no means saying central Palma is inauthentic.
Two of my favourite places to eat in the centre are smack in the middle of the most touristic, international parts of the city.
Bar Dia on Carrer dels Apuntadors – Tapas Alley – still feels very real. If you can, go in the afternoon during the week. The owner plays cards at the bar with some of the regulars. He likes to liven things up by starting the occasional argument which quickly gets heated and entertaining. The albondigas or meatballs at Bar Mavi are the second-best in Palma, in my opinion.
I’d say the best albondigas in Palma are made at Bar Joan Frau on the bottom right-hand corner of Santa Catalina market. Forget the sushi and oyster bars. This is one of my absolute favourite places to while away a few hours and listen to Mallorquin people shouting while they eat.
Tuesdays and Saturdays, Bar Joan Frau serves excellent paella and occasionally arroz negro – a rice dish made with squid and coloured with its ink. But they disappear fast. The trick is to go to the bar and reserve your portion a day or so in advance.
Find out more about secret Palma and enjoy our own unique map of Mallorca here. The wonderfully atmospheric feature photo for this blog was taken by Tracey Hill. I can’t remember the model’s name but thanks again to you, wherever you are.