Some buildings are impossible to miss. Even in cities where the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers, one or two will stick out, like the Empire State Building or the Willis Tower (still pronounced Sears Tower in Chicago, by the by). In Europe, though, you’ll notice that there are very few skyscrapers. Being places of long histories and the accompanying glorious architecture, many European cities have ordinances prohibiting the building of structures that are taller than their most important landmark. For instance, in Edinburgh, it is forbidden to build anything taller than the castle.
And in some places, it’s a combination of cultural preservation and the exemplary that make a building stand out. Palma de Mallorca is one of those places.
If you were judging just by walking the streets of Palma, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was nothing of architectural importance there. Most of the city is composed of twentieth-century tower blocks, those horrible large rectangular boxes with clunky balconies sticking out in every direction to make it more palatable (clearly, I have an opinion on this). However, all you have to do to find some aesthetically-pleasing architecture is follow the boardwalk.
The Palma boardwalk, well worth a stroll of a balmy summer eve, is dominated by the Catedral de Santa Maria, the cathedral in Mallorca. With its spires, buttresses, and intricate stonework, it would be hard to miss this building as you walk by. What’s more, it’s built up the embankment from the sea, meaning that anyone approaching from the boardwalk needs to walk up two flights of stairs to get to it, making the gargantuan building even more imposing.
From time immemorial, the island of Mallorca (or Majorca, as it’s sometimes spelled) has been a desirable little patch of ground in the Mediterranean, as it sat in the middle of several important trading routes. That desirability led to its being hotly contested, and in 903AD Mallorca was conquered by North African Muslims, who established their own society on the island and took control of its – potentially lucrative – ports.
In 1229, James I of Aragon conquered the island in the name of Western Christendom, and after ousting the Muslims, he ordered that their mosque be pulled down and a church built in its place. The first mention of that church, destined to become the grand cathedral which stands today, was in the next year, when the altar was consecrated.
As is so common with grand churches, construction lasted for a long time. In true Mediterranean style, it lasted for centuries. The altar of the church was consecrated in 1230, but construction on the gothic building didn’t start until 1300. Construction continued until the 16th century, and starting in the 17th the local religious started remodeling the inside. There’s hardly ever been a time when the cathedral wasn’t being tweaked in some way or another.
Perhaps the most interesting tweaking project began in 1904 when none other than Antoni Gaudí (of La Sagrada Familia fame) was asked to refurbish the interior of the church after an earthquake severely damaged it some years before. When you visit today, you’ll be able to see his influence on the interior immediately: the baldacchino (ball-dah-kee-no; the canopy over the altar) was done by him, as well as the majority of the lighting in the nave. Also, in true Gaudí style, his restoration project was never finished, as he had a falling out with one of the contractors and abandoned the work.
Other than the baldacchino, one of the most striking installations in the cathedral is a modern art piece by Miquel Bareló. This is truly a fascinating piece. Even though it’s thoroughly modern, it doesn’t seem out of place in a 13th-century gothic church. It also makes for interesting study: While I was standing in front of it, it could have sworn – and, in fact, did assert – that it was a depiction of Christ’s descent into Hell. According to the artist, it’s a representation of the multiplication of the loaves and fish and the wedding feast at Cana. But, such is modern art, I suppose.
The combination of 13th-century architecture, 16th-century stained glass, and 20th-century art is not one you want to miss. Whether you’re religious or not, your trip to Palma would not be complete without visiting La Catedra de Mallorca, the Cathedral of Light, the Sea, and Space.