Living through the past
Today I am in Mallorca. I hadn’t visited before (and still wonder if I should spell it Majorca). I expected a lot of resorts and timeshares, and tourist shops selling plastic bulls: the Med-as-vacation-spot writ large. I wasn’t ready for the landscapes and the history I saw.
I rode on a historic train, from the hill town of Sóller. This railway started not just as a passenger service, but to bring oranges down to the port at Palma. The train was built before the modern roads, and in its day would have been an engineering marvel. The track cuts through the mountains with multiple tunnels, the longest being 3km. Of course now there are roads - and the train lingers as a tourist service.
I thought of what it would have been like to be a woman in 1912, when the railway opened. Riding on a day like this, where the heat was high but not quite blazing, in a blouse and ankle-length cotton skirts. I wondered how much of what I saw would have been the same as a century ago.
We passed an olive grove where a goat wandered, the bell on its neck jangling. In another, a group of small deer scampered away from the train. In the long tunnel, the cool air from the dark stone blasted in through the open windows, like sitting near an airconditioner on high. It was a startling change from the warmth of the day.
A passenger in 1912 would have felt it too. What she would not have seen were solar panels, chain link fences and graffiti. Not that there were too many of those. Much of the view was terraced hills and trees, and the journey was lovely.
It's interesting to look at an example like this train—which now serves largely as a tourist enterprise—and see some of the old adage that poverty is the handmaiden to preservation. Something can become too old to be particularly relevant but as long as it's not actually ripped out and replaced, there's a chance of it hanging in long enough to become “heritage” and thus tourist interest.
An example of this is the Blue Tram in Barcelona. And New Orleans’ streetcar network. The streetcars that now delight tourists from all over the world (and still serve as public transport for some people in the Garden District and students at Tulane) were once just a lingering artefact of old infrastructure. In a richer city than New Orleans, they’d have been gone by the sixties. As they were in many other cities, to preservationists’ regret.
But to return to my imaginary journey of 1912. A time just before the First World War, before the Balearics became the tourist destinations that they would, before anyone would have imagined that menus starting in German or English would be in this island’s future. When the scent of orange blossom would have filled the air, and the town of Sóller was revelling in its prosperity: the new modernist building for the Bank of Sóller opened that year. It was a wealthy agricultural town (important enough to have its own bank: now a branch of Santander), with small industries in leatherwork. Emigrants to France and elsewhere had returned rich, injecting cash into the town.
Alfonso III was on the throne. Francisco Franco was just a 2nd lieutenant in the army.
We never know what’s coming next.