No building in Mallorca, or indeed the entire Balearic Islands, is easier to recognise than the Cathedral-Basilica of Santa María de Palma, to use its full name. The cathedral, built with local sandstone, is a majestic, record-breaking structure visible from many vantage points across the city, but especially from the waterfront, where it soars above the port. It's a must for any car rental visit to the capital.
A bit of background
Mallorca, like much of Spain, was under the control of a caliphate until the country's 13th-century reconquista, or re-conquest, by Christian forces. In the immediate wake of the reconquista a wealth of churches and other religious buildings were established across the country to affirm the return to Christianity.
Indeed, a great deal of these were even constructed on the foundations of former mosques, and this is partly true for Palma Cathedral. The old Great Mosque of Medina Mayurca was partially destroyed and moved to a different site close by. Symbolising life in the Balearic Islands in the following centuries, the cathedral and mosque actually stood side by side until the 1400s.
Building of the cathedral began in 1229, when James I of Aragon was still fighting to re-conquer the island, a campaign that would take two more years to complete. It may seem strange, but, because the cathedral shares the same architectural footprint as the former mosque, worshippers at the altar face Mecca.
It is said that James I resolved to erect a cathedral in Palma during the crossing from mainland Spain to Mallorca. On the way he encountered a storm, and, attributing his survival to God, he swore an oath to construct a church devoted to the Virgin Mary in Palma.
Twists and turns of construction
Although the cathedral was consecrated by James III in the 1300s, work was not officially completed until 1601, when the main facade of the building at last took shape. In the intervening years there had been all kinds of modifications and revisions. The most dramatic of these involved the building's supporting columns, which were designed by the architect Jaume Martes to be so slender that the building would take on an ephemeral quality.
As it turned out, when the first pair of columns were erected they were unable to bear the weight of the roof, so they went back to the drawing board to broaden these columns. Even so, the columns that remain are some of the narrowest to be found on a structure of this scale.
As we see it now
Today the building is one of the world's finest examples of Levantine Gothic architecture in the world, standing at 44 metres in height, and roughly covering an area the size of a football pitch. There are 24 vaulted sections, towering above the cathedral floor, and all around you'll see sections made in different eras, such as 17th-century portals and 19th-century restorations.
The building breaks a number of records for constructions of this kind. For starters, the nave here is taller than any other cathedral in the gothic style. It is the gothic cathedral with the largest gothic rose window in the world, as well as the largest rose window of any cathedral in Europe. The rose window here is a stunning, geometric design in the Levantine style and sits high above the altar.
If you visit the cathedral on a sunny morning you'll catch the spectacle of sunlight flooding through the stained glass of the rose window and illuminating the entire building with a medley of colours. This could well be why the building has earned the epithet of the 'Cathedral of Light'.
It's a great idea to behold the cathedral from the exterior, if only to get handle on its incredible scale. Looking at the building side on from the waterfront you'll see the huge abutments and rows of flying buttresses, which serve the important structural function of supporting the Cathedral's walls.
Also essential is the Mirador Portal, which you can also see on the south side of the building. For forty years on the cusp of the 15th century, artists and stoneworkers from across Europe came together to work on this stunning arch and doorway, producing a wonderful ensemble of sculptures that survive to this day.
You can get to Palma Cathedral within 15 minutes of the Drivalia car rental depot at Palma de Mallorca Airport (PMI).