By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The first I heard of Soller was moments before we hopped in the taxi and headed toward the mountains in the middle of Mallorca with a driver we could barely communicate with.
I was in the backseat trying to spot it on my map – he said, Soy-ya? … Soy-ya … ah, this must be it, Soller … and uncertain if we’d made the right call.
Disconcerting moments when you find yourself headed to parts unknown without a clear vision of the destination can become the most rewarding travel experiences, as the senses become heightened to take in unfamiliar surroundings.
Discover-as-you-go travel has led us to memorable serendipity in places as varied as New England, New Mexico and New Zealand. Similarly, Soller turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of a weeklong blitz through the western Mediterranean.
One of our travel companions, Kyle Brinkman, had read about a vintage train ride that sounded like more fun than poking around in the tourist shopping district in the sprawling port of Palma.
Who knew it would lead us to an unexpected encounter with Picasso and his art buddy Joan Miró as well?
This was the stop on the cruise that snuck up on us, having devoted all research to the three regions of Italy we visited and Barcelona . Then there was Mallorca – or was it Majorca? – some mysterious island off Spain.
The cabbies at the port conveyed that, given our time constraints, the best option was to take the taxi to Soller and catch the last train back to Palma.
At least that’s how we understood the plan. But now, as we zipped through a lush agricultural region and into what must be the badlands of Mallorca, there was a flash of concern that something may have been lost in translation.
We already had 45 Euros invested in the taxi, and the driver was saying something about a toll we’d need to pay for a tunnel coming up. The other taxi bearing Kyle and his family was nowhere in sight and we were wondering if we’d see them again or if we were off on some ill-conceived Griswald misadventure.
Those thoughts vanished when we pulled into Soller, which was like turning a page back into early previous century. That registered at first sight of the train, which has been operating continuously since 1912 to provide a link from the coast to the charming town isolated in a lush mountain valley.
The region flourished in the past from production of oranges, lemons, olives and almonds. Now it’s mainly a tourist stop on the quaint wooden train, its cars working museum pieces of polished mahogany and adorned with brass.
But the unexpected treasure was in the train station unlike any you’ll find anywhere else. It features a free museum with two rooms displaying works of Picasso and Miró . The two Spanish artists were by many accounts long-time friends, and several photos in the station provide a glimpse of their shared visits to Soller in the late 1960s.
Soller claims Barcelona-born Miró as an adopted son. His grandfather was from there, and the young artist rode this same train for visits. He later resided on Mallorca during the final 20 years of his life, mainly in Palma, but he often returned to the mountain valley, sometimes with his pal Picasso.
They remain a permanent presence, with 50 of Picasso’s ceramics in one room and 35 Miró etchings in another. It is an unexpected treasure trove open to browse at will, through few of the passengers waiting for the next train bother walking through.
Waiting for a train in Soller is the antithesis of a stopover at Penn Station. There’s absolutely no bustle. The line for boarding is quiet and orderly.
We have time to shop for Sureda pearls – actually glass beads that resemble those produced from oysters – and walk through Saint Bartholomew church that towers over the village. Late afternoon shadows highlight the main plaza where school boys are kicking a soccer ball around the fountain as we have a leisurely paella dinner (15 Euros including beer and desert).
The waiter shoos away the players when their ball bounces past our table, but the game goes on.
The people of Soller are friendly but reserved, typical of Catalans we encounter elsewhere. The waitress juicing oranges in a café by the train station backs away when she sees my camera pointed her way. But when our friend Kyle slips into a pub for a closer look at a poster for an upcoming soccer match that catches his eye, the proprietor peels off the tape and gives it to him.
We catch the train (15 Euros one way) at the upper platform, passing a large Muro mural on tile. The train itself is a work of art, and it hasn’t changed since the artist made this trip time and again.
The trip back to Palma takes about 45 minutes, the cars clattering and swaying on an unusually narrow-gauge track with a hypnotic cadence. It passes through 13 tunnels on a winding route beginning in the highlands overlooking Soller and proceeding through citrus groves and lowland farms before arriving too soon in the graffiti-accented outskirts of the port city.
The cruise ship awaits. We’d rather stay on the train and return to Soller.
More stories from the Med, Summer of 2015: