Mario Verdaguer described it very well in his work “La Ciudad Desvanecida” (The Faded City): “For every individual that disappears, a city also disappears. The buildings remain standing, the people and the cars still travel through the streets, but it is all simply a phantasmagoria.”
Yes. Everyone preserves a city in their memory and in their history. But inverse reasoning could also be assumed: “For every corner of the city that disappears or is transformed, so does part of the memory of many citizens. A fragment of their interior city.” The symbiosis between city and citizen is absolute.
It is a good matter for reflection when we look at the Palma of the 21st century. A capital that in a certain fashion still lives the topics and images of last century (“La Isla de la Calma” (The Island of Calm), “Bahía de Palma” (Palma Bay), “Vacaciones en Mallorca” (Holidays in Mallorca) but it stopped being that city a long time ago.
It is such a broad subject, so incomprehensible, that the best thing to do is study it under a microscope. Pass it through a tiny sieve. Find the reference button that explains everything.
Personally, my first experience of Palma dates back to start of the 1970s. And there is a particular setting – the little hostel at la Pau and the surrounding neighbourhood. When I arrived at the port, I asked the taxi driver to take me to a guest house “that was decent”. And he drove me to the now defunct Pensión la Paz.
Sometimes I go back on a sentimental journey to this special part of my city. The Can Martí bar is still exactly the same, but now only opens during the day. The bakery Forn des Racó still expels the aroma of freshly baked ensaimada pastries that bewitch the senses. A stroll down carrer Sales, through Sant Feliu is to take a walk through a fabulous city. Modern bars, fashion shops, a whole host of art galleries. You soon realise that many houses in the area have been recently refurbished. Probably by foreign property owners as you can find them sitting on some of the bar terraces. Drinking and chatting, in a relaxed, cool atmosphere, you can hear German and Swedish spoken between the orders for “gin and tonic”.
This area of Canavall, the old part adjoining Born, paints a very good picture of 21st century Palma. It is a trendy, European city. With the same big brands and franchises as any other capital. Its retail offering is second to none. Palma has a refined, international air about it. In this part of Palma you can find the same as in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome or Paris. Fashion, appliances, home décor, the latest trends, technology… Globalisation has converted a small city from the provinces into a cosmopolitan capital. At least in the city centre.
I stop for a moment before the apartment block where the Pensión La Paz used to stand. It was here I spent my first nights in Palma. I look around me. And I see that this city is the phantasmagoria that Verdaguer spoke of. That which doesn’t exist. The ground floor where Na Margalida used to play the piano with the door ajar, and sold his shells painted in a naïve style. The grocery shop on the corner. The half-deserted, haunted mansion. The basement where some sisters that you hardly ever saw lived rough. The palace where a crime took place. The drugstore owned by “Margarita la de la lejía” (Margarita, the one who sells bleach). The place where a clairvoyant read the tarot cards for schoolgirls… I passed by the corner where Francisca the tobacconist used to stand. I was always so impressed to see how she lifted her skirts to show her strings of contraband tobacco. Now a boutique hotel stands on the very same site.
The change has been so great, that now in fact it’s a completely different city. Nowadays the rents around here are very high. Within the reach of investors, holiday home promoters or high-level individuals. In those days the houses were genuine hovels. Steep stairs, dark, noisy. The people lived mainly out on the streets and in the bar. Today it oozes the same atmosphere as a smart district in the South of France. Distinguished, peaceful. Full of designer objects and contemporary art.
I love to walk across el Born from Sant Feliu and head down Carrer Constitució, past the Post Office and the Government building and then go up Canamunt. The highest point of the city.
When you reach the area around Cort, the tourist footfall is considerable. They arrive in entire battalions from the esplanade at la Seo. It’s a kind of “elephant parade” that passes through the Plaça Major and ends at the end of Sant Miquel. Many are cruise passengers, or just passing through. You can tell by the type of shops that have opened up, with them in mind. Full of souvenirs and offers on typical food products like ensaimada and sobrasada. And ice-cream, tons of ice-cream. Shops selling T-shirts. And terraces where the camera-toting crowds, horse-drawn carriages, delivery men, groups led by banner carrying leaders, visitors on bikes or Segways, they all pass through.
This heart of Palma is a full-on commercial centre. Active for most of the day. Tireless, multicolour. I struggle to recognise the Plaza de Cort as it once was. With a group of old people sitting on a stone bench in front of the City Hall. A few cars drove slowly past. The languid municipal police officer in the door that greeted an absent-minded councillor. The pharmacy, the warehouses of clothes. Seen from a current perspective, it was like a village.
And not to mention the central area of Canamunt. Even the legendary jewellery shops along calle Argentería have been closing down. Instead of dark premises with the owner standing in the doorway, vigilant and sullen, it is brimming with modern shops, top-notch restaurants and delicatessens. Visitors venturing into Plaça d’en Coll will find a maze of terraces, bars and restaurants. People flooding the narrow streets in the midst of a great big hullabaloo. Voices, buskers. It’s as if the main square is a village in Tuscany.
Even if you delve into the narrower streets, such as Can Sanç, you encounter small stores that have replaced the once multitude of old, dreary shops and have now become a vermouth bar, for example. Opposite the enduring lights of Can Joan de s’Aigo, a current destination of genuine tourist pilgrimages. It seems impossible to think that this alley was once a dismal, dangerous place to go. Where the audiences from the Teatre Sans used to mingle around and the pensioners in search of a hot chocolate in Can Joan de s’Aigo. And little else. Cats and silence.
When you follow the route and pass through the Plaça de la Quartera and la Plaça Mercadal you see a place in the midst of a transformation. It’s like the laboratory of this 21st century Palma and it is spreading relentlessly. Here you can still see shabby buildings, like many others around the district. The recovery is gradually consolidating. Here fashionable bars coexist on the corners with homeless people sleeping between cardboard sheets. Or a brand-spanking new hotel opposite the back-end of the Zaqueo soup kitchen. The other side of the coin.
The ruins of the other Palma are to be found here. The part that died. The Chinese quarter, the unpainted buildings, the dead-end alleys. Not even the tourists or the new residents have made it this far. Not until the Avenues arrive, when the world changes completely. One has nothing to do with the other. Further beyond is a sprawling city like any other. One of districts and neighbours. Without tourists or horse-drawn carriages.
After years and years of debate on deseasonalisation, Palma has achieved the philosopher’s stone of continuous tourism. Except for a few weeks in winter, the heart of the city beats without stopping. Now it’s not just old couples, or nuns, or military men in uniform, or groups of schoolgirls, or silent men in coats. They have moved to the city in the shadows. Verdaguer’s phantasmagoria.
Today you can hear many languages spoken. There a mix of music coming from the shops along Carrer del Sindicat, the former red light district. 21st century Palma is avant-garde, commercial, multicolour. A modern video clip compared to the black and white photographs of yesteryear.
But my dear reader, don’t be fooled. As fast as it is transforming, the old, forgotten Palma is fading away. Perhaps this 21st century Palma will disappear one day too, to become something else again. Because it’s the law of the future and of history.
Then all our feelings and images of today will become a phantasmagoria.