Saturday, 6 August 2011

MAJORCA: CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS AND THE WINGED AVENGER


I bought that green shirt, above, for €40 in Seville. The sunglasses hanging from my neck cost $200 in Dubai. But I couldn’t begin to put a value on my 22-year friendship with the 85-year-old Irishman in the picture with me, taken in Palma de Mallorca. His name is Kevin O’Regan, and he’s an alcoholic
In his hometown of Cobh, County Cork, which for years he tried to drink dry before knocking the booze on the head in the mid-80s, he’s still known as Master Kevin. This is a nod to the heady days when his father, the renowned yachtsman Paddy O’Regan who won the coveted Thomas Lipton Cup in perpetuity, owned the long-established firm of Thomas Murray Chandlers.
Cobh, or Queenstown as it was under British rule, was the last port of call of the ill-fated Titanic during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in April 1912. It was also the port where in May 1915 the recovered bodies of the victims of the Lusitania, sunk by torpedoes from U-boat U20, were brought ashore and where many are buried.
As the son of a respected and wealthy businessman and an accomplished sailor himself, Kevin enjoyed a privileged youth, spending his weekends racing the family yacht, Cygnet, against those piloted by the sons of Cork’s merchant princes. In Cork, the rich and not-so-rich are known as the have yachts and the have nots.

HULL OF A GUY: Captain Kevin sails Bloody Mary
Kevin isn’t rich, but he does have a yacht, the blood-red Bloody Mary, on which he has lived and sailed since retiring in 1987 to Palma’s posh Club de Mar marina where he tops up his old age and work pensions with a night watchman’s job on a multi-million euro ocean-going palace.
If anyone were ever foolish enough to test his sentry skills, one withering look from beneath those steel wool eyebrows would be enough to send them fleeing.
I’ll never forget the night in Bar Bermuda when a crewman off a visiting yacht thought it would be funny to slip a rum into Kevin’s Coke, but he smelled it before the glass was even halfway to his lips. Looking around for the culprit, his beady eye settled on the sniggering South African leaning on the bar.
“You, sir, are a little bollocks!” Kevin bellowed, and whacked him across the ear with the heavy end of his blackthorn walking stick. Yer man wasn’t a little bollocks, he was six-foot-plus and at least 15 stone, and he hopped around that bar squealing like a stuck pig. I’d say his ear’s still ringing, and that was 20 years ago.
Kevin couldn’t have chosen a more idyllic place to drop anchor, so it’s a shame that the vast majority of those millions of tourists who visit Majorca every year don’t bother to check out Palma, where I lived from 1988 to 1994. I suppose it’s an endorsement of the quality of the resorts that they feel no need to stray far from the beach or the poolside, but a day spent sightseeing, supping and shopping in the Majorcan capital won’t disappoint.

SEU-PERB: Palma's magnificent La Seu cathedral
The cathedral, or La Seu, which overlooks the Bay of Palma and was completed in 1601, is famous for having one of the biggest Gothic rose windows in the world, and infamous for being the scene of one of the city’s most puzzling crimes, which to this day remains unsolved.
On a sunny Sunday morning in the summer of 1992, Kevin and I secured our bicycles to a lamp post outside the main door and went in for mass. An hour later when we came out, the bikes were still there, but — brace yourselves — ­someone had pinched Kevin’s padlock and chain. It was the subject of much hilarity in Bar Bermuda for weeks, and he eventually saw the funny side.
Nowadays, Kevin's creaky old pins are finding it increasingly hard to obey the signals from his still razor-sharp brain, so he gets around Palma on a battery-powered scooter, often with his bilingual pet cockatoo Captain Snowy perched on his shoulder. All he’s missing is a wooden leg and an eye patch.
Snowy might be a talented linguist, but he’s also an evil little devil with a beak like a pair of pliers which he sank into my right index finger when I was daft enough to look away while feeding him some walnuts. There’s gratitude for you.

FEATHERED FIEND: Captain Kevin and Captain Snowy
A short walk down the hill from the cathedral is El Borne, Palma’s version of Barcelona’s La Rambla, and like its better-known big city counterpart it’s the place where, if you don’t keep your wits about you, you’ll easily fall victim to pickpockets.
Just off El Borne is Calle Apuntadores, a narrow street full of bars and some of Palma’s best restaurants. Especially good, and offering exceptional value, is Pizzeria Giovanini, which is owned and run by all-round nice guy Miguel who was a waiter when I first met him in 1988 and who’s now a respected restaurateur.
Giovanini doesn’t look much from the outside, but once you step inside, take your seat and start tucking into the food you’ll quickly realise that first impressions can be deceptive. Miguel and his wife have worked their butts off over the years — they still do — to build up their business in a street where so many have failed, and they deserve every further success that comes their way.

FAB FOOD: Giovanini
Whatever you do, don’t confuse Miguel’s place with the nearby Vecchio Giovanni. When I lived in Palma it was THE place to dine (Miguel worked there), but on the evidence of my last visit — which will definitely be my last — it’s gone to hell. The staff on the night were surly, the service was appallingly haphazard and the food was forgettable. It’s always been my practice that if I’ve nothing good to say about a place, then nothing is exactly what I’ll write, but dinner in Vecchio Giovanni was such a bad experience that I feel obliged to steer you away from a good restaurant gone bad.
On a happier note, just up the street from Miguel’s place is Restaurante Pope, where the seafood soup is as good as ever. A couple of doors along, on the corner, is cheap and cheerful Bar Dia, a lively and noisy late-night hang-out run by Juanco and his wife Luisa that’s frequented by local bar staff, waiters and long-time expats and where the chips are freshly made — none of your old reheated frozen rubbish. Also in Calle Apuntadores, the family-run cellar restaurant La Cueva serves the best tapas in the city.

MAJESTIC: Bar Abaco, where Spanish royals hang out
But the jewel in the crown of the area known as Apuntadores-La Lonja is Bar Abaco, which occupies the former townhouse of a long-dead wealthy nobleman who clearly knew the value of his five a day. Step inside and it looks like he’s never left, especially as the place is littered with baskets full to spilling of every fruit you could imagine. If you’re going to come a cropper on a banana skin anywhere in Palma, this is the place.
Baroque music and Gregorian chants play from the speakers, white doves flutter around the rafters, rose petals rain from the minstrels’ gallery, burning incense fills the air and that fella sitting over there in the corner, doesn’t he look remarkably like King Juan Carlos? Oh, it is King Juan Carlos, and that lady sitting beside him is Queen Sofia. And, look, there’s Crown Prince Felipe, all six foot four of him in his deck shoes, sharing a joke with ex-King Constantine of Greece.
On another night you might find yourself sitting near supermodel Claudia Schiffer, or Hollywood hotshots Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Bob Geldof or Princess Stephanie of Monaco. Be assured, and thankful, that you’re unlikely to bump into any of Ireland’s Z-List so-called celebs. That bunch wouldn’t get a first, never mind a second glance in Abaco.
Palma doesn’t figure highly, or at all, sadly, on most people’s lists of long weekend city break destinations, what with Amsterdam, Barcelona, Prague and Berlin ruling the roost, but it offers everything the others offer, with the added bonus that it oozes class.

RAILLY OLD: The antique electric train heads for Soller
A weekend stay will allow visitors the opportunity to hop aboard the quaint little electric train for the hour-long trip to Soller on the spectacular north coast. Built in 1912, the rickety, wooden-panelled train travels through olive and citrus tree-clad valleys, along the sides of lofty mountains, over viaducts and in and out of tunnels. It’s like something from a Wild West movie, and you can imagine flaming Apache arrows flying through the windows at any moment.
On arrival in Soller, grab yourself a freshly-squeezed orange juice from the kiosk outside the station (the best I’ve ever tasted) before boarding the equally quaint tram for the short ride down to the port. There’s an abundance of great restaurants there, many if not most specialising in fish and shellfish. My favourite is Restaurante Es Passeig, right on the waterfront, which is always busy. At peak periods you might have to wait for a table, but it’s worth it.
Each summer, Kevin abandons his berth in Club de Mar for a few weeks, gets some help to sail Bloody Mary to Port de Soller and anchors in the bay where he spends his days on board writing his diary, rubbing Deep Heat into his new hips and having lengthy one-way conversations with the attentive Captain Snowy who throws in the occasional “Hola!” and “Bye-bye!” just to be sociable. I’m not saying the skipper’s a bit cuckoo, but as a double-act he and that finger-pecking fecker would have psychiatrists queuing up to get them on the couch.

PIER-FECT SPOT: Port of Soller
Talking to birds is bad enough, but Kevin’s also prone to bursting into song, and it’s a job trying to shut him up once he gets started. All it takes is a trigger word and he’s off, in bars and restaurants and on the packed Soller train the last time I visited. This stems from the distant days when he trod the boards of the old Cork Opera House where he appeared in umpteen productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. In a long and colourful career he also trod the floor in Cash’s department store (now Brown Thomas) in Cork where he was the full-time Captain Peacock, and drove the length and breadth of Ireland as a travelling shoe salesman.
With his often turbulent life’s journey nearing an end, Kevin is philosophical about the storms of his own making that he’s weathered along the way. At the height of his drinking he got through a bottle of whiskey and countless pints of stout a day, and breakfast each morning was a tumbler of neat vodka to stop his hands shaking (“I spilled most of it,” he joked). Now he starts his days with milky coffee and an ensaimada, a sweet Majorcan pastry dusted with icing sugar.
Reflecting on the demons he’s defeated, his trials and triumphs, Kevin said: “I had a 40-odd-year love affair with liquor. I was drinking myself to death, and only stopped when my doctor told me I’d pay for the next round with my life. Rehab was hell on Earth, but much to my amazement I came out the other side sober, which was a strange sensation I’d long forgotten. I couldn’t have done it without the help I received from Sister Eileen Falvey at the Aiseiri Treatment Centre in Co Tipperary and the support of my best friend John Mansworth. Not that I didn’t try to flee, mind. I did everything but dig a tunnel. In my sail racing days I was known as Houdini because of the seemingly impossible situations I used to get Cygnet out of, but there was no escape from Aiseiri, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
“Buying the boat and retiring to Majorca has been the saving of me. Bloody Mary’s my home and Palma’s my haven. I’m happy and I’m busy, doing my watchman job and working with the local sail training association, Joves Navegants, which I helped to found. I’ve fought my fights and now, thank God, I’ve found peace. Job done.”
Not quite. One big challenge remains for my dear old pal before he sails off into the sunset and his ashes are scattered in the Bay of Palma, as per his instructions, and that’s to learn the local lingo. Captain Snowy speaks more Spanish than Captain Kevin.
* Captain Kevin died peacefully in his sleep in hospital in Palma on May 14, 2015. He was 89. I was privileged to have him as a friend. 

FLAG PALS: Captain Kevin and young sail students