On the rooftop terraza of my hotel, I sit with my face to the late-September sun. The dust-pink tiles and palm trees under a thin blue sky give a touch of North Africa to the roofscape of this Mediterranean city. Behind me is the soaring facade of a Gothic cathedral, its rose window lit up in the evening light like some great exotic bloom.
Once, Palma de Mallorca was a low-profile destination. Palma was where you flew to for Magaluf or S'Arenal, if sun, sea and cerveza were your thing, or for Deià, if you were a Soho boho. But as for staying there, the idea occurred only to the most intrepid of Mallorca's several million annual visitors. Then the peseta dropped. Despite presiding over a mass-tourism machine, Palma had nothing to do with those rambunctious resorts; and its casco viejo, the historic nucleus of the island's capital, was as charming as that of any Italian Renaissance town.
Historically, Palma was the seat of the island's monarchy, aristocracy and ecclesiastical hierarchy - which explains its plethora of churches, convents and palacios with secret courtyards behind arched portals. By the late-20th century, however, Palma's old town fell into near-dereliction, a process mirrored by other capitals of tourist zones such as Málaga and Alicante. When I first came here as a student in the 1980s the old town was crumbling and its winding alleys smelled of urine.
Over the three decades since then the change has been vertiginous. The Paseo de Born, a tree-shaded avenue and the city's social axis, thrums with life; the voices on the street are German, Scandinavian and Russian. The shaded colonnades of nearby Carrer de Jaume III are flanked with designer emporia (Loewe, Herrera, Vuitton) and posh tapas bars, but I'm pleased to see the Bar Bosch (established in 1936) is still doing a healthy trade in hot chocolate and ensaimadas, the Mallorcan patisserie item that does for pork fat what the croissant does for butter.
The old town's social axis, the Paseo de Born. Photograph: Alamy
Business is also brisk at the Mercat de S'Olivar, Palma's produce central and a sensory spectacle to rival any of the great markets of the Spanish Mediterranean. S'Olivar is what the Spanish describe as de toda la vida (it's been there for ever), yet the market has moved with the times. At the stalls in the seafood section you can sit at the bar with a half-dozen oysters and a glass of albariño. Guiris (slang for foreigners) toting baskets jostle with locals at the organic, locally grown, heritage-variety fruit stalls.
I buy a slice of coca - a kind of pizza topped with onions and red peppers - and eat it under an olive tree in the square outside the market. A couple in an open-topped Merc with a foreign number plate speed through the square, overtaking a horse-drawn carriage. A metaphor, perhaps, for the fast-paced new Palma rapidly overtaking the old.
In terms of good accommodation, fine hotels have come along in waves. The pioneer among the bijou hotelitos, Ca Sa Galesa, was opened (in 1995) by a couple from Cardiff who realised that Palma's old-town palacios had possibilities. Then came the Scandinavian-owned properties Puro and Tres (both opened in 2004). And there the two ex-convents, Santa Clara and Convent de la Missió. Of all the old-town boutique joints, however, Palma appears to have left the best until last. Can Cera, which opened last June, is an immaculate refurb of a 17th-century mansion on the Carrer de Sant Francesc, while Brondo Architect (in the Calle Can Brondo) gives the design hotel a makeover, mixing hardcore industrial chic with retro style.
Can Cera hotel, which opened last June in a refurbished 17th-century mansion
"Great new places are opening up in Palma all the time and it's hard to keep track of them all," says Maria, a friend and long-term Palma resident. We are sitting at a terrace table at the Bodega Gaudeix, a creative spin on the traditional bodega, opened last spring by Cristina Díaz and Maria Moreno. As we talk, Cristina brings stuffed baby squid, crunchy bull's tail and a ball of morcilla and almonds to our table.
Palma's cuisine has come on in leaps and bounds since the old days when dining options were largely limited to gloomy cellars where roast meat and fish were swilled down with cheap red wine. Foodie boutiques are the retail genre of the moment, reflecting a demand for authentic island products such as sobrassada sausage and Quely biscuits, artisan salt from Es Trenc and new-wave Mallorcan wines.