The mountainous scenery around Valldemossa
During the second week of August this year,
the 7th until the 14th, Marilyn, Emily, Abigail and myself stayed on
Mallorca, the main island amongst the Ballearic group of islands. We had a
hotel just a short distance along the coast from Palma, the capital city of the
Ballearics. From Palma we could take bus trips all over the island. In planning
our holiday, we researched Gaia, the little village on the north side of the
island near the coast set amongst the craggy outcrops and peaks of La Serra de
Tramuntana. Gaia was the small mountain village that Robert Graves made his
home and we wanted to visit his house and find his grave in the little cemetery
in the village. La Serra de Tramuntana is a range of craggy limestone hills and
mountains, some over 1000 m high, that stretch from East to West across the
whole northern part of the island. The steep sided valleys and ravines make a
spectacular drive through this rugged landscape. One town we
passed through was Valldemossa, set on the side of a steep mountain with a long
beautiful valley extending south from it with views almost to the sea at Palma.
When we got back to our hotel that evening, I found some brochures in the hotel
foyer that described Valldemossa. We
discovered it had been a retreat for George Sand and her lover Frederik Chopin
in the winter of 1838. They had stayed in rooms in the abandoned Carthusian
Monastery of Valldemossa. When Marilyn and I read this we immediately thought
we must go there. The next day the four of us got the same bus we had got to
Gaia from the central bus station in Palma, except this time we alighted on the edge
of Valldemossa town.
Valldemossa is well signposted.
Valldemossa is well sign posted. We started
walking up the crowded thoroughfare, that comprised the main street, making our way
towards the Chopin and Sand museum. It was crowded with visitors from the
cruise ships we had seen in the harbor at Palma. They wore their cruise ship
badges so we could even pick out which ship they had come from. They looked
like and sounded like, a bored crowd of tourists. You could see and hear the
fractious children with their worn out parents sighing and complaining back at
their children in strained and reprimanding tones.Some just sat on low walls waiting to be herded back to their ship. Valldemossa is beautiful. The
streets are lined with tamarisk and holm oaks. These trees create deep shade in
the streets during the hot bright summer. The town is built from the honey
coloured stones quarried from the surrounding mountains. Olive green shutters
are placed over every window. Stone archways encompass heavy wooden doors. The
streets are paved with worn irregular slabs of the same stone. The town is
rustic, mellow and creates a warm comfortable feeling of human scale. It is the
sort of place you need to walk around, stop, contemplate life and speak to people. The atmosphere of
Valldemossa seeps into you and makes you feel human again, if you give it time,
away from the hurly burly of your everyday lives. Marilyn, Emily, Abigail and I
made our way through the crowd and gradually the crowd thinned out and was left behind. It became easier to stop and experience Valldemossa properly.
Shaded streets of Valldemossa
Valdemossa is a mountain town, reliant on tourism as is the whole of Mallorca in the 21st century
but it is still home, to hillside farmers growing olives, almonds and grapes. Marilyn,
Emily, Abigail and myself walked into some of the shops on the main street.
There were the usual Spanish holiday mementos. We found, a variety of straw
sombreros of different circumferences. There were stuffed leather donkeys with
colourful rainbow tassels for manes and tails. There was a choice of brightly painted castanets.There were garishly coloured clothing and
artisan wooden carvings of fish and other animals for sale. There were
traditional sangria drinking bottles with a long thin sharp spout. By holding
the drinking bottle at arm’s length and above your head height you can send a
long thin stream of wine arching through the air to your open mouth and
straight down your throat. Watching it done is quite a skillful business. There
were traditional Spanish costumes for children. There were local carved wooden
statues of The Virgin Mary and Barcelona Football Team shirts side by side. Various
other paraphernalia, dishes, plates and bottled oils were on sale too. We walked on.
Interspersed with the tourist shops there were local shops selling bread and
groceries. Bars and restaurants, with tables spilling out on to the streets and
into the square at the top of the town were everywhere. We saw red banners all
over Valldemossa advertising the, “Festival Chopin.”
A banner informing about the Chopin Festival.
We eventually reached the
great monastic church belonging to the Carthusian Monastery at the top of the
town. An old lady with a weather beaten faced was selling entry tickets. She sat at a
rickety wooden table. We asked about tickets to see around the old monastery
and its church. She explained that the ticket allowed us to see the monastery.
I asked where the rooms Chopin and Sand had stayed in were. She waved her arm
in the air and grumbled at us with some guttural Spanish phrase gesturing to
her right and then she had a go at English and said in a vague comment, “On
thee urther side.”
The Carthusian Monastery of Valldemossa, dates
back to 1399. It was secularised
in 1835 under the Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizabel. At the time there
were anti clerical liberal movements in Spain and the government wanted to use
the land to help the middle classes expand. The land and buildings of the
monastery at Valldemossa were sold to a number of people. The towns people,however, felt that it was wrong to use the old Carthusian property for their own benefit so
the new owners would merely rent out the rooms to visitors.
Inside the Carthusian church.
Entering the vast monastic church from the
sun drenched courtyard in front of the entrance it took a moment to adjust our
vision. The inside of the church was cool with its white washed walls
reflecting any light that entered from the large roundel window positioned high
in the barrel vaulted roof at one end. It was strange in the sense that were no
other windows, none of the elaborate gothic arched stained glass windows of a
cathedral or local church. Carthusian spirituality is about solitude and living
in silence. This is one of the Carthusian statutes.
“ The primary application of our vocation is to give ourselves
to the silence and solitude of the cell. It is holy ground, the area where God
and his servant hold frequent conversations, as between friends. There, the
soul often unites itself to the Word of God, bride to the groom, the earth to
the sky, man to the divine. “
The church seemed to cut us off from the
outside world. The interior was virtually empty. At one end there was an
elaborate altar with a gilt painted baroque framed painting of The Virgin Mary
hanging above it and a life size statue of St Bruno, the founding father of the
Carthusians to one side. The walls were lined to about half height by
intricately carved wooden stalls and friezes where I presume the monks had once
sat during mass. There was no seating for a congregation. The body of the
church was an empty space floored with stone tiles. As we walked from the church into dimly lit
whitewashed corridors this sense of the Carthusian contemplative life seemed
palpable in the structure of the buildings. We came to a small verdant,
cloistered square. To one side, appearing almost cartoonish, were two giants, two statues, at least twice life size, one representing Frederik Chopin and the
other George Sand. They seemed totally incongruous. I can only suggest they had
something to do with the Chopin Festival. I guess, either that they must stand in
pride of place as the festival of Chopin piano concertos proceeds, or perhaps
they are the outer costumes and masked heads of stilt walkers and the two creative,
“giants,” walk amongst festival goers creating a sense of circus and fun.
Frederik Chopin, myself and George Sand!!!!!
At the far side of the cloisters there was a long corridor also with a high barrel roof. Every place throughout
the monastery was whitewashed and this was a plain white thoroughfare too,
dimly lit like the rest of the interiors. We could see to one side, set within the the wall opposite, the courtyard, a row of evenly interspersed wooden
doors. They were each numbered. There were thirteen doors we discovered, each
being the entrance to the cell of a past monastic occupant. Cell number four
was the reputed abode of Frederik Chopin and George Sand and Sand’s two
children during their stay in Valldemossa.
The balcony garden outside of the cells where Sand and Chopin stayed.
The rooms are interconnected nowadays and
Chopin and Sand occupied at least two of them. There are two pianos within
these rooms. One is the Pleyel piano that Chopin had shipped to Mallorca and
eventually brought to Valldemossa for his use. Pleyel was the company of piano makers that
Chopin preferred above all others. His last concert was played on a Pleyel.
There is another piano there that Chopin also used while he was waiting for the
arrival of the Pleyel. The rooms have a number of Chopin and Sand artefacts
and manuscripts.There are receipts for the sea voyage they made to Palma from
Barcelona. There are letters to friends and a first edition of Sand’s book ,"Un Hiver en Majorque,"(A
Winter in Mallorca.)
"Un Hiver en Majorque."
There are sketch
books that belonged to Sand's two children, Maurice, born in 1823 who was fifteen
years old at the time they visited Valldemossa and her daughter Solange, born
in 1828, who was ten years old at the time. Their father was George Sand’s
estranged husband, Casimir Dudevant. One particular artefact is a cartoon drawing that George Sand herself made depicting Chopin and her two children meeting the local priest. She is a true cartoonist, using caricature, depicting her nose and Chopin's nose far larger that real life. Sand has handwritten a legend stating that the priest was lecturing them about snow. He thought they might never have seen it before and Valldemossa experienced snow falls in the Winter. The facial expressions are very good. The two children are depicted sitting politely showing quiet interest as she is but Chopin is grimacing in almost a snarl.
George Sand,Frederik Chopin with children, being lectured about snow.
Chopin composed most of the preludes, opus
28. while here. He had a prolific creative period during that winter in
Valldemossa which is remarkable since he was suffering from pneumonia. Chopin wrote
to his friend, Julian Fontana, a fellow Polish composer in December from Valldemossa.
"Palma 28 December 1838
………………….or rather Valldemosa, a few miles away;
between cliffs and the sea a huge deserted Carthusian monastery where in a cell
with doors larger than any carriageway in Paris you may imagine me with my hair
unkempt, without white gloves and pale as evert. The cell is shaped like a tall
coffin, the enormous vaulting covered with dust, the window small. In front of
the window are orange trees, plams, cypresses;opposite the window is my camp
bed under a Moorish filigree rose window. Close to the bed is an old square
grubby box which I can scarcely use for writing on, with a leaden candlestick(
a great luxury here) and a little candle. Bach, my scrawlsand someone elses old
papers…silence…you can yell….still silence. In short, I am writing to you from
a queer place. I received two days ago your letter of the 2nd of this
Chopin at Valldemossa.
Chopin’s prelude in A minor was undoubtedly composed at Valldemossa. It
has a melancholy air. The weather during the winter of 1838 was cold and misty.
The mood of the abbey at Valldemossa during that winter seems to have permeated
A doll that belonged to Solange.
George Sand wrote, “Un Huiver a
Mallorca,”during this stay in Valledemossa. Sand’s book is a curious, mixed sort
of affair. It provides a history of Mallorca. It lambasts the Spanish
Inquisition. It is part travel book and part autobiography using a dark gothic
style first begun by Horace Walpole in his “Castle de Otranto.”At times it also employs a
Romantic element in the style of Wordsworth.In January Sand wrote to her friend Mariliani,
“I write to You from my hermitage in
Valldemossa […] In this no quarter is given me by the warbling piano of Chopin
working in his normal, beautiful, way, to the astonishment of the eavesdropping
walls of the cell’.
Sands also wrote,
"He could not curb his restless imagination. Even when he
felt good, the monastery seemed to him to be full of phantoms and frights […] I
found him at ten in the evening sitting pale at the piano, with a vague look in
his eyes, with his hair on end…’
Chopin wrote to Julian Fontana, a Polish composer and close friend,
"I send You the Preludes.
Transcribe them, You and Edward] Wolff; I think there are no errors. You will
give the transcriptions to Probst and the manuscript to Pleyel. […[ In a couple
of weeks’ time You will get a ballade [F major], polonaises A major and Cminor and a scherzo C sharp minor. Tell Pleyel to
agree on the timing of the publication of the preludes with Probst. I still
have not yet received any letter from my parents!’"
In another letter, this time to Pleyel, the piano maker, Chopin wrote, ‘At last I send
You my preludes, completed on Your piano. […] I advised Fontana to hand You my
manuscript. For France and England I want for it one thousand five hundred
francs. Probst, as You know, purchased the German rights for Härtel for one
Sand’s book ““Un
Huiver a Mallorca,”(A Winter in Mallorca) begins with an assessment of a book she read about Mallorca written by J B
Laurens who had visited Mallorca a couple of years before Sand and Chopin. She
enjoyed reading about the vegetation and the history and reading Lauren’s view
of the island. George Sand took great interest in facts such as population numbers and the number of square miles the island consisted of. Sand uses the facts from Laurens book and goes into great detail
about the temperatures at different times of the year and the differences
between sheltered and unsheltered areas. An unfortunate overtone of the book though is that Sand complains about the |Mallorcan people at almost every moment.This comment provides a view that Sands held about Mallorcans in general,
" There is nothing as sad or pathetic in the world as this peasant who knows nothing but praying, singing and working and who never thinks. His prayer is a mindless formula which seems to make no sense to him..."
and she goes on and on in this vein. She starts complaining from the
beginning. They get to Mallorca by way of the ferry,” El Mallorqn,” a ship the Mallorcans had bought to help their
trade with Barcelona and the rest of Spain.
"El Mallorqn,"the ship Sand and Chopin sailed from Barcelona to Palma in.
There is a humerous description in
her book that describes how she and Chopin got to Mallorca because of pigs. The
Mallorcan sailors on board treated the 200 or more pigs they took aboard with
far more care and respect than the human passengers. If it hadn’t been that the
pigs were going to Mallorca Chopin and Sand would not have got there themselves.
Sand’s was seasick, so that probably didn’t help matters. According to Sand, an
apartment in Palma was merely a white washed box. Washing and cooking
facilities were non existent. There were no windows in the rooms. According to
Sand the people were lazy and stuck in their ways. They, after a short time,
moved outside of Palma to a friends furnished house at Establiments, a rural
area beyond Palma. She describes the cultivation and surrounding mountains in
some detail. This was a silent place and she could hear babies crying at night
and the slightest sound but the final straw was when winds the rains started.
The deluge went on day after day. The book is worth
reading because although it is a jaundiced and somewhat partisan view of
Mallorca and does the people of Mallorca no favours, it is a wonder that
Valldemossa actually celebrates the two of them, it is entertaining at times in
its exaggerations and ridiculous negative descriptions of
Mallorca. The book goes into all sorts of incongruous descriptions of
buildings. There is a whole section on the three most important buildings in
Palma for instance, The Cathedral, The Exchange and The Royal Palace. There are
some dark gothic parts to it. Apart from the monastery at Valldemossa Sand’s
also comes across another ruined monastery in Palma itself, one where the
Inquisition had held sway. She goes into detail about the beliefs and methods
of the Inquisition. She had visited an Inquisition site before on mainland
Spain and been into the caves used as prisons beneath the site, caves
with walls hundreds of feet thick in places. She describes in chilling detail how
the Spanish Inquisitors would imprison, Jews, reformers and anybody who didn’t
toe the Catholic line. The worst offenders to the Inquisition were obliterated
from existence, their names removed from any documents, their bodies burned to
ashes, no record kept of their very existence. This persecution would go as far
as their families too, mothers and fathers and siblings so there was no living
memory of them either. Sand’s seems to take a prurient interest in this cruelty
expressing her horror at the same time. Valldemossa, gets much description
and similar negativity, especially about the local people, who she thought
uneducated and coarse.
A portrait of George Sand on a wall of their cell at Valledemossa.
The rooms that Chopin and
Sand occupied , although cramped and cell like, had doors that opened out on to
balcony spaces. These small enclosures to this day,contain pots of flowers,
palm trees, shrubs and plants of all types. They were and are, small, luxurious
gardens. A low stone wall ,at the furthest extreme, creates the
extent of each space and from that wall, looking south from the monastery, down the v shaped valley created by the surrounding
mountains you can see Palma and the sea in the far distance. The garden, its
rustic stone surrounds and the mountains and the magnificent view affects all
the senses and creates an uplifting experience. Sand and Chopin, for all their travails, were both inspired by Valldemossa and you can see why. The
surroundings and the views are spectacular.
As well as commemorating Chopin and Sands the various cells in the Carthusian monastery also recall the life and works of the Carthusian monks who had originally lived there. There is an extensive library that the Abbot of the monastery possessed. There is also a pharmacy. The monks were great herbalists and chemists. They also had a printing press.
A monks cell.
The abbots library.
The monks chemist shop.
was also home to the local saint, Saint Catalina Thomas. She was born on the 1st
May 1533 in Valldemossa. Her house, next to the towns church, is now a chapel
and a shrine and they celebrate her on the 27th and 28th
July every year. While we were there in the second week of August, the white
raffia streamers still crisscrossed an area of the town square and her portrait remained hanging amongst the fluttering decorations.
A statue of Saint Catalina Thomas.
She lived a life of prayer experiencing visions from an early age.
She was visited by angels and devils and was reported to have experienced a sort of ecstasy for the
last years of her life. Walking along
the narrow streets and alleyways of Valldemossa, making our way to the church
and the home of St Catalina Thomas, we saw glazed porcelain plaques on many walls
depicting scenes from her life showing her experiencing some of her visions
in the countryside around Valldemossa. It is easy to explain her experiences as
an overactive imagination. Her life, though, has encouraged people to prayer
A plaque on a house wall in Valldemossa depicting one of Saint Catalina Thomas's visions.
We can talk about all sorts of secular and
religious techniques for harnessing the mind to create well being and
improvements in our lives. Meditation techniques, mindfulness, forms of self
reflection are helpful in both our own relationships and in our work place. Mentally
rehearsing actions we are going to take, is another way to harness the power of
the mind. Sports people use mental rehearsal in many situations. Maybe that is
all Catalina Thomas experienced, some or all of those type of things and we can
dismiss her for that. However she means something very powerful to many
Mallorcans to this day and that is what really counts. She left Valldemossa and went to Palma where
she worked as a servant in a household before joining a religious order, the
Canonnesses of St Augustine at the convent of St Mary Magdelene in Palma.
A shaded bar.
Valldemossa and the surrounding area is
good walking country. The landscape is spectacular. It is worth exploring for
the wildlife, the vegetation and the breath taking views. The town itself is
very photogenic. There are lots of wonderful restaurants and a few rustic hotels
and guest houses.
Chopin’s prelude in A minor :
Played by Martha Argerich: