Valldemossa is tucked into the Tramuntana Mountains and a monastery and palace have towered over the delightful village for hundreds of years. The Palma road winds up a deep gorge before entering the valley which is covered in fertile terraces. During the final part of the journey you can see the maze of streets surrounded by the high tree covered cliffs.
The Moors were the first to exploit the valley’s charms and it was owned by the Mussa, who ran the island on behalf of the Caliph of Cordoba who ruled the Iberian Peninsula. They used the stones to build walls and channelled the streams to water the terraces. The rocky hillsides were turned into fertile pastures, making the Valley of Mussa, or Vall d’en Mussa, prosperous.
King James the Conqueror gave the valley to his great uncle, Nuño Sancho, Following the conquest of Mallorca in 1229. The Balearic Islands became an independent kingdom when James I died in 1276 and his second son, James II, built a summer residence in Valldemossa on the site of the Mussa’s house.
Sancho became the King of Mallorca in 1311 and he improved the island’s commerce, expanded the navy and built watch-towers along the coast. He also stayed friendly with the King of France, the King of Aragon and the Pope, earning him the title Sancho the Peaceful. But Sancho suffered from asthma and he spent his time in the hills round Valldemossa while extending creating the building which is still called Sancho’s Palace.
Mallorca became part of the Kingdom of Aragon following the death of James III at the battle of Llucmajor. In 1399 King Martin of Aragon gave the royal possessions in Valldemossa to the Carthusian monks; and there would live in the valley in silence for 450 years. The first Charterhouse monastery took 50 years to complete and it would be replaced with a larger version in the 18th Century.
The Carthusian monks lived in isolation in cells, each with their own garden. They lived in silence, engaged in meditation or prayer and they only left their cell for communal prayers, weekly walks and occasional meetings. Lay brothers supported the monks with cooking and laundry. Their food, clothes and books were delivered through a small hatch to maintain the monk’s solitude.
The monks were forced to leave the monastery in 1835 following problems in Spain’s royal household caused by the Salic Law which demanded a male heir to the throne. King Ferdinand VII only had two daughters, so he introduced a new law so his daughter Isabella could succeed him. But her uncle, Carlos, disagree and a seven year civil war, known as the Carlist War, followed.
Prime Minister Juan Mendizábal sold off church properties, starting in 1835, to raise money to support Isabella’s cause. Valldemossa monastery was one of the properties and the monks had to move to Palma. The buildings were bought by nine private owners to rent out as holiday apartments and two famous visitors arrived in December 1838 to spend ‘A Winter in Mallorca’.
They were the Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin, and the French author, Amandine Dupin. Chopin had been composing since an early age and had spent much of his life in Paris. Dupin is better known by her pseudonym, George Sand, a name chosen because women writers were frowned upon at the time.
By 1838 Chopin’s tuberculosis was getting worse, so the couple decided to spend the winter in Mallorca, anticipating the warm Mediterranean climate would improve his health.
Chopin and Sand sailed from Barcelona to Palma, arriving on 8 November. They spent a week in the artillery barracks on Sea Street, near Palma docks, while looking for lodgings. It was a difficult proposition because they were unmarried and they had Dupin’s two children with them.
They eventually rented a finca called Windy House near Establiments but the warm weather soon turned cold. Heavy rain made Chopin’s health worse and the couple were thrown out of the house because owner was worried he would catch tuberculosis.
Chopin and Sand moved into one of the monks’ cells in Valldemossa on 15 December. While the setting was inspiring, the building was cold and damp. Despite the weather, Chopin began composing in earnest and the next five weeks are considered to be one of his most productive periods. Sand kept herself busy writing about her experiences under the title, ‘A Winter in Mallorca’. But the villagers did not like her modern outlook on life and she did not like their country ways. And she made sure everyone knew the details in her book.
The couple were eager to leave Mallorca by the time the Barcelona ferry started again early in February 1839. They would eventually arrive back in Paris in the autumn with plenty of stories about their Mediterranean experiences; many of them bad.
Chopin’s health continued to deteriorate and his relationship with Sand was in trouble. He had been unhappy his experiences had been included in the book but the final split came after Sand fell out with her daughter in 1847. Chopin had kept in touch with the young lady and Sand accused the ailing composer of being in love with her.
Chopin finally succumbed to tuberculosis in 1849, leaving behind a celebrated musical legacy. But he died penniless and friends had to pay for his funeral. While 3,000 people attended, Sand stayed away. She died in June 1876 at the age of 71.
Valldemossa is in a beautiful setting in the Tramuntana Mountains north of Palma. You are able to visit the monastery and there are exhibits illustrating the life of the Carthusian monks as well as a museum dedicated to Chopin and Sands. Sancho’s Palace is a separate museum dedicated to many aspects of Mallorcan life. The place is also well known for its Chopin recitals, playing music which was composed in Valldemossa over 170 years ago.