A vintage train journey across Mallorca’s high mountains transports passengers to a more leisurely age. Climb aboard the tiny Vitamin C Express...
The attractive young Dutchman and I are swapping travellers’ tales when the deafening noise of the first tunnel rudely snatches away our conversation. We jam our hands over our ears as the train’s clatter bounces off stone walls six inches from the open window, a slap of subterranean chill ousting the warm, lazy air. Then, just as suddenly, the din stops, and the cold black walls revert to blue sky and cinnamon-coloured fields.
We’re heading straight for the forbidding wall of rocky mountains that stretches across northern Mallorca, the Serra de Tramuntana. Fifteen minutes ago, when we trundled out of Palma, it all seemed innocent fun – tootling along city streets then rolling through pretty fields sprouting almond trees. But now, seeing those brutal-looking peaks dead ahead, no one on board quite believes this quaint little choo choo is going to make it to the lush valleys and honeyed beaches on the other side.
For one thing, our train is 80 years old. It looks like it belongs in an Agatha Christie novel, not bashing its way through steep Mediterranean mountains. Polished brass lamps gleam above the brown leather seats, neatly surrounded by walls of mahogany. It’s suitable transport for a journey of adventure, I admit. But will it actually get us to our destination, without any Orient-Express-style murders in the 13 dark tunnels en route?
This dinky narrow-gauge line was built in 1912 to connect Palma with Sóller on Mallorca's north coast. Vitamin C was big news back then, newly discovered as a health boon, and a rail line was the fastest way to haul oranges from the lush groves of Soller to the thirsting mouths in Palma. Genteel passenger carriages were imported from England in 1929 (hence the Christie-era chic) and have never been replaced. Which is handy, as they have saved the whole line from obsolescence. New roads quickened the fruit haulage, but what leisure traveller wants to drive through the mountains when you can rattle through them on a little piece of history?
The people warming the leather seats around me now are a mixture of locals and northern-European tourists – the usual cash-rich but sun-poor nationalities who flock year-round to ‘la isla bonita’. Each of us is gripped by the views beyond the vintage window-frames: gentle valleys dotted with villas, sugarloaf hills fringed by palm trees, appalling vertical crags looming ahead.
As we climb and climb, mist blurs the steep terraces of olive trees skirted by drystone walls, and nimble goats pick their way across bone-coloured rock sprouting at crazy diagonals. I worry that a train can’t possibly clamber across such high, uneven terrain – not safely anyway. An elderly Mallorcan in a flat cap, seeing the unease on my face, leans forward and confides, “Sometimes the train breaks down, you know.”
“Oh?" I contrive a cheery nonchalance. "What happens then?”
“We get out and walk,” he says, his leathery face stoic and deadpan. My smile evaporates.
“Of course not! Don't worry!” He barks a huge laugh, delighted to have teased a pale northern girl for a moment. Then he grows serious again, his voice lower. “But you know, people do go walking high in these mountains. Very beautiful. Lots of paths. But the weather, it can change so quickly. Mountain weather, you know. More than one time someone has died up here.” Explosively, another tunnel clatters away our talk, the cold air inside smelling of wet soil.
Thrown back into daylight, an arresting space yawns from the left side of our train -a vast valley-basin, lushly carpeted with green. Way, way down at the bottom, the thin white spikes of a cathedral poke up from a town. It must be Sóller. But it’s like viewing it from an aeroplane. How do we get all the way down there from up here? Disorientingly, Soller suddenly appears on the right of the train, then on the left again. I realise we're somehow zigzagging down the steep valley wall, and silently applaud the engineers who cleverly plotted this route.
When we finally alight from the train into the sunshine in Sóller, I’m dazed from the journey. The surreal feeling isn’t helped when an orange tram, an original wooden 1930s one from San Francisco, pulls up near the station. I squeeze aboard, and we clatter through fruit groves and back gardens, tempted by reachable oranges and washing dangling from clotheslines. when we swing onto the near-circular bay of Port de Sóller, I know that a hotel here awaits me and my holiday is about to begin. But right now I’m more excited thinking about the last day, when I can catch the tram and that amazing train back to Palma.
Palma-Sóller: six departures every day, return fare €14.
Where to stay
Carrer Castanyer 2, Soller
This is a charming and friendly little hotel conveniently located beside Soller's modest rail station. Rooms are simple and tasteful, in an early 20th-century style. Many offer views of the Tramuntana mountains. There's a pretty courtyard lined with flowerpots, and a dining room with beamed ceilings. Double rooms €84.
Calle Antonio Montis, Port de Soller
This fortified 17th-century mansion - with its distinctive tower - sits in tranquil gardens a short stroll from the sea. Rooms are pretty and very reasonably priced. There's a handsome outdoor pool, and an indoor spa offering thalassotherapy treatments. Double rooms from €48.
Where to eat
Restaurant Es Faro
Cap Gros de Moleta, Port de Soller; +34 971 633 752
Yeah, there's great local cooking and excellent service, but this place is really all about the view. It's spectacular. All of Soller's magnificent, near-circular bay expands far below, while the jagged peaks of the Tramuntana worry the sky beside you. It's not a cheap place to eat, but you'll never forget that vista.
Best of the rest
Good restaurants in Palma include Forn de Sant Joan, La Paloma and Es Molí d’es Comte. In Soller, go for Restaurant El Guia. And in Port de Soller, Restaurant-Bar Agapanto is also recommended.
British Airways, easyJet and bmi baby all fly to Mallorca from the UK.