Yarza, Bahia de Palma: an allegory of late Francoism

The selling out of romantic Spain: Frederic Chopin’s and George Sand’s stay at Majorca

Alejandro Yarza, Georgetown University

Yarza, Alejandro (2020), ‘Bahía de Palma/Palma Bay (Bosch 1962): An allegory
of late Francoism’, Studies in Spanish & Latin American Cinemas, 17:3, pp.
351–375, doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/slac_00026_1

The protagonist of Bahía de Palma, Mario Ferrán, decides to visit Majorca in search of work while still mourning the death of his wife for which he blames himself; this mirrors, as we saw in the analysis of the film, Frederic Chopin’s own journey to Majorca in the winter of 1838-39. Chopin’s dramatic experiences in Majorca described in the following pages help unearth the ideological contradictions of Bahía de Palma’s orientalist subtext which the film uses to its advantage.[1] As I argued, Bahía is a pioneer film which endorses the Francoist project of modernization during the 1960s while holding on to (and cashing in) the idea of a true, orientalist Spain not only different—as in Fraga’s famous slogan—but superior to its European counterparts. Paradoxically, it was precisely the exaltation of this notion of a romantic Spain (which implied the country is not for sale) which enabled Francoism to put the country up for sale while keeping appearances of spiritual integrity. In that sense, Bahia became the blueprint of many of the Spanish comedias desarrollistas of the 1960s and 70s.[2]

Chopin and George Sand and her two children travelled from Barcelona to Majorca in September of 1938 in search of a healing, sunny Mediterranean climate to cure his incipient illness; they sought a serene, romantic environment in which he could finish composing his piano preludes, for which he had already received a monetary advance, and she could concentrate solely on her writing away from the bustling and demanding Parisian literary scene.[3]


A priest visits Chopin, Sand and her children in Sand’s caricature


As I argued in the accompanying essay in SLAC 17.3, ‘Bahía de Palma (Juan Bosch, 1962): an Allegory of Late Francoism,’ Mario’s and Olga’s visit to Valldemossa to see Chopin’s lodgings brings to the fore the built-in orientalist subtext which the film uses to establish a dichotomy between a fake, orientalist Spain for sale and a true romantic one whose essence supposedly remains intact amidst the rapid socio-economic changes in the 1960s. The film celebrates Spain’s true romantic spirit which, through his channeling of Chopin’s musical genius, Mario supposedly represents.[4] That romantic spirit, as we saw, was the needed raw material for the country’s successful process of commodification during the 1960s. Ironically, a further examination of Chopin’s own stay at Valldemossa immediately undermines this false dichotomy between fake orientalism and authentic romanticism that props up the ideological backbone of the film. The idea of an authentic Spanish romantic self was in itself a fabrication, a myth, a romantic Orientalizing fantasy which as Dorothy Noyes explains was conveniently internalized by the Spanish reactionary elite to justify their opposition to the agenda of the Spanish Enlightenment embodied by leading political and intellectual figures such as Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos.[5]

Chopin and Sand spent the winter of 1838-39 on the island of Majorca which they reached via Marseilles and Barcelona. As Alan Walker wrote in his recent biography of the Polish composer, ‘[t]his trip was to be a honeymoon in everything but name’ (2017, p. 371). At the time, Sand was beginning to be concerned about Chopin’s persistent cough and her son Maurice’s mild rheumatism, so when a friend of hers suggested the Spanish island of Majorca ‘as a solution to these problems with its warm Mediterranean sunshine, Sand took to the idea.’ (p. 371) As Walker observes emphasizing the exotic allure of the idea, ‘[s]he knew nothing about the island—few people in ‘civilized’ Europe did at the time—but its mystery was a part of its appeal and once the idea was fixed in her mind she rationalized away every objection.’ (p. 371) In making this decision they both seemed unaware that the Spanish mainland was still engulfed in the first of three gruesome civil, Carlista wars.[6]

But Majorca, which seen through the midst of its romantic allure promised to be a sunny Mediterranean Paradise and a panacea to her family’s ailments, soon proved to be a dangerous siren, a beacon of self-destruction. [Ironically, La Sirena—representing the dangers of modernity—is the name of the night club that hired Mario as a lounge pianist]. Instead of an earthly paradise, in Majorca, they found torrential rains, ill-equipped lodgings with unglazed open windows and inadequate, smoke producing heating furnaces which aggravated Chopin’s persistent coughing. Also, and more importantly, the spontaneous, hospitable natives whose dignity, passion, and nobility supposedly were part and parcel of the European romanticizing legend of Spain became, according to Sand’s own account less than welcoming to the sick composer, and his cigar smoking, trouser wearing, unconventional wife. Moreover, she was ‘accompanied by two long-haired boys and a young girl who, like her, was dressed in male attire’ (Walker p. 375). To make things worse, as Walker writes, the group did not go ‘to church, which meant that their activities were probably immoral’ (p. 375). And, the natives were particularly unwelcoming after three Spanish doctors diagnosed Chopin with tuberculosis which triggered the notification of the authorities. From then on, they were quarantined while being constantly harassed to leave the city of Palma—Sand’s children were even stoned in the streets. Subsequently, they decided to leave for the Monastery of Valldemossa—for Sand ‘the most romantic place in the world’—a fourteenth-century Carthusian monastery which at the time had no easy access and was at a remote, safe distance from the city (2005, p. 110, Kindle).[7]

Picturesque Valldemossa


Far from being the picturesque, romantic building it is today—which has become a center of pilgrimage for music lovers from all over the world—at the time, it was a recently secularized, semi-abandoned property whose sparsely furnished cells were rented to travelers. The monastery did not have proper road access and every time it rained—which during Chopin’s and Sand’s stay it frequently did—its entire surroundings became a swamp. As Chopin bitterly remarked, ‘roads are made by torrents and repaired by landslides’ (Walker p. 377). Forebodingly, Chopin even ‘likened his cell to a tall, upright coffin with enormous vaulting’ (Walker p. 378).

The dramatic twists and turns of their stay in Majorca are expressively conveyed in the letters Chopin sent to his friends at the time and in Sand’s autobiographical travel novel, Un hiver a Majorque originally published in 1842.[8] It is worth quoting at length from a letter Chopin wrote a few days after their arrival because it uses many common tropes in the romantic orientalist arsenal:

 Here I am at Palma, surrounded by palms, cedars, cactuses, olives, oranges, lemons, figs, pomegranates, etc., everything that the Jardin des Plantes has in its hothouses. The sky is like turquoise, the sea like lapis lazuli, the mountains like emeralds, the air as in heaven. During the daytime it is sunny and hot, and everyone walks about in summer clothes; at night you hear guitars and singing for hours on end. There are huge balconies overhung with vines; the ramparts date back to the Arabs. Everything, including the town, has an African look. In a word, life is marvelous. (Walker, p. 375)

            This orientalist vision of Majorca is also echoed, as musicologist Paul Kildea remarks, in  Sand’s statement that, ‘the music he composed in Majorca was ‘full of the scent of Paradise’’ (2018, p. 54)[9] Thus, in the heyday of his stay in Majorca, an enchanted Chopin describes the Spanish territory as a lost, Arabic, African, Garden of Eden, a pre-modern paradise, inhabited by guitar playing, singing natives untroubled by the strains of modernity. But soon, the orientalist heaven turned into a freezing hell, ‘the winter was coming down in torrents and the walls began to swell with moisture’ and Chopin became ‘seriously ill coughing uncontrollably and spitting blood’ (Walker 376). As Chopin himself wrote, ‘I have been as sick as a dog these past two weeks. I caught a cold, despite the eighteen degrees of heat, the roses, oranges, palms, and figs.  Three doctors—the most celebrated on the island—have examined me. One sniffed at what I spat, the second tapped where I spat from, and the third sounded me and listened as I spat.  The first said that I was going to die, the second that I was about to die, and the third that I was dead already. However, I feel the same as always . . .’ (Walker p. 376). As Sand poignantly writes in her autobiographical account, ‘Another month in Spain and we should have perished there, Chopin of melancholy and disgust; I of fury and indignation.’ Deeply hurt by the behavior of Majorca’s inhabitants for what she considered a lack of hospitality and ill-treatment, Sand goes on cursing the island and its natives, ‘They wounded me in the most sensitive spot in my heart, under my very eyes they pierced a suffering person with pinpricks. I shall never forgive them, and if I ever write about them it shall be with venom’ (Walker p. 392). Of course, Sand’s harsh judgement of the realities she found in Majorca also reveal the dark, racist side at the core of every Orientalist fantasy. [10] As Walker explains, ‘In the first version of the text . . . she describes the 160,000 islanders as cowards, hypocrites, and pickpockets, and even likens them to Indian monkeys and Polynesian savages.’ (p. 392)

Their agonizing stay in Majorca had a remarkably dark ending that fittingly serves as the final piercing of the initial idealization of the place expressed in Chopin’s early letter, in which he described the Island as a lost Garden of Eden. As they returned to Barcelona from Majorca they boarded El Mallorquín, a vessel which ‘gave hogs priority over passengers’—since they constituted the main export from the island to the Spanish peninsula—so Chopin, Sand and her children were forced by the captain to ‘stay in their cabins below deck, where the atmosphere was stifling. The foul stench become unbearable and Chopin could not sleep.  He began, in Sands’s graphic words, ‘spitting bowlfuls of blood’’ (Walker, p. 391). So Chopin’s Spanish experience begins with the hypnotic, balsamic fragrance of palms, cedars, olives, oranges and lemons in Majorca’s heavenly air and ends up below deck with the suffocating smell of pigs; there never was a more proper metaphor for the radical puncturing of the Orientalist European romantic fantasy.

Sand’s own depiction of the end of their journey epitomizes European strongly held beliefs that Spain was not part of European civilized culture famously encapsulated by the slogan ‘Africa begins in the Pyrenees.’ Only after boarding the French frigate Maléagre, Sand felt she was finally stepping into civilized ground. As she writes with patriotic fervor, ‘When we set foot on this fine frigate, as spick as span as a drawing-room, and saw ourselves surrounded by kind, intelligent people, receiving the generous and solicitous enquiries of the Captain, the doctor, the officers and the whole crew, and shaking hands with the delightful and witty French Consul […] we jumped for joy on the bridge and cried out from the bottom of our hearts, ‘Long live France!’’ (Kindle, p. 170). And she concludes her account of their trip with an even more blatant orientalist comment, ‘It seemed to us as if we had sailed the globe, and left behind us the savages of Polynesia for the civilized world’ (Kindle, p. 170). [11]

Unaware of the real historical vicissitudes of the famous couple, in the film, Mario’s and Olga’s visit to Chopin cell at Valldemossa suggests a pilgrimage in search for the pristine source of Spanish and European romanticism symbolized by Chopin and Sand’s dwellings and particularly by the piano/relic Chopin supposedly used to complete his preludes.[12] However, as we saw in the essay through the analysis of this climactic sequence, Chopin’s romantic shrine was a fake and the extant piano was neither of the two piano’s—the Spanish Juan Bauza or the French Pleyel—that Chopin actually used during his stay in Majorca.[13] As it turned out, the orientalist commodification of Spain as depositary of true romantic values had already begun many decades before Francoist aperturismo.

The piano currently on display in Valldemossa

I would like to end this brief exploration of Bahía de Palma’s somewhat hidden but important cultural subtext with a long quote by Chopin’s biographer Alan Walker because it offers a perfect summary of how the commodification of the composer’s brief, agonizing but musically creative existence in Majorca came to be:

In 1917, Bartolomeu Ferrá opened a Chopin Museum in cell no. 2, which he rented at that time and later owned, and which he claimed had been occupied by the composer, the centerpiece of which was an upright piano declared to have been the one used by Chopin. No one could deny it, because by now all the key players were dead. Across the years, millions of tourists visited this museum and paid good money for the privilege of entering “Chopin’s cell” containing ‘Chopin’s piano.’ Some came in silent homage; some came to place flowers on the keyboard; others—including some of the leading concert pianists of the day—came to play on this instrument in order to attach themselves to a golden thread that would connect them to Chopin. We now know that they were not only worshipping at the wrong shrine but also worshipping a graven image as well. In 2011, both the piano and the cell in which it was exhibited were declared by a judge of the mercantile court in Palma to have no connection to Chopin, and all claims to the contrary were deemed to be ‘fraudulent […] the piano in cell no. 2 was not even built, by the Spanish firm of Oliver y Suau, until 1850s, years after Chopin’s death’ (2018, p. 390).[14]

Was this their cell?

Ironically, Ferrá, the surname of the promoter, is the Catalan equivalent of Ferrán, Mario’s (the film’s protagonist) last name. Therefore, if carefully analyzed, the Valldemossa sequence of the film, unravels rather than secures the film dichotomy between a traditional, authentic romantic Spain and a Spain for sale. The image of a pure, traditional romantic Spain was already a fabrication, its image cynically put up for sale right from the outset.


Álvarez, J. and Shubert, A. (2004), ‘Introduction’, in José Álvarez, J. and Shubert, A. (eds) Spanish history since 1808, London: Arnold, pp. 1-11.

Bosch, J. (1962), Bahía de Palma/Palma Bay, Spain: Este Films.

Kildea, P. (2018), Chopin’s Piano: in Search of the instrument that Transformed Music, New York: Norton & Company.

Noyes, D. (1998), ‘La maja vestida: dress as resistance to enlightenment in late-18th-century Madrid’, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 111 no 440 (Spring), pp. 197-217.

Said, E. (1979), Orientalism, New York: Random House.

Sand, G. (2005), George Sand and Frederick Chopin in Majorca, London: Paul Kegan. Kindle Edition.

Walker, A. (2018), Fryderyk Chopin: a life and times, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[1] I use the term ‘orientalist’ as coined by Edward Said in his book Orientalism where he wrote, ‘The Orient that appears in Orientalism […] is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire’ (1979, p.202-203).

[2] The same awkward attempt to reconcile traditional Spanish values with the drastic social and economic changes brought forth to the country by the rapid expansion of consumer capitalism traverses the large majority of the comedia desarrollista films of the 1960s and early 70s. In these films, the cliché macho ibérico—a short, mustached, stocky and sexually repressed Spanish middle-age male pervert controlled by his bossy mother and bickering wife, and played with great panache by extremely popular actors such as Alfredo Landa or José Luis López Vázquez—have a close encounter with a foreign woman, usually German or Scandinavian, the embodiment of the famous Mito de la Sueca which haunted the sexual fantasies of repressed Spanish males of the time.

El mito de las suecas

In these films, as has been amply examined, the close erotic encounter between the Spanish Don Juan and the morally loose northern European female threatens to upend, in a brief, hot summer, hundreds of years of rigid moral norms. Easily succumbing to temptation, their protagonists severely struggle to grapple with the new reality and keep intact his close knit family. However, these films served as ideological vehicles that show their counterparts in real life how to come to terms with the disrupting foreign dangers. Ultimately, they always find narrative ways to contain those dangers and end up by reinforcing traditional moral norms. By showing in the screen more flesh that the Francoist censorship was usually willing to accept because were shot in the sunny beaches of famous vacation spots, such as Benidorm or Torremolinos, filled with bikini-clad foreigners and with the pretext of teaching a lesson, these films, mostly directed by Francoist sympathizer filmmakers, work homeopathically, as it were. But they also allow Spanish spectators traditionally subjected to the rigors of a severe censorship to have their cake and eat it too.

[3] Actually, according to Walker’s scholarly sources the only preludes Chopin composed entirely in Majorca were no.2 in A minor, no. 4 in E minor, no. 10 in C-sharp minor, and no. 21 in B-flat major (382). As he writes, ‘[s]ome of the Preludes had already been composed in Paris and were brought to Majorca in a portfolio containing his works in progress. Others were still in an embryonic state, mere sketches requiring something more than a final polish before Chopin was satisfied with them’ (2018, p. 382). However, as Kildea writes, ‘For his 2004 edition of the Preludes and in other writings, Eigeldinger examined drafts, correspondence, stylistic tics and additional works by Chopin, weighed up the probable limitations of the piano to hand [a Spanish piano built by cabinet maker Juan Bauza which was abandoned soon after the Pleyel piano he ordered from Paris finally arrive] (with Sand’s verdict on it in mind), and judiciously concluded that in Palma, Establisments and Valldemossa, Chopin propably composed nos. 2,4,5,7,9,10,14,15,16, and 18.” What it is beyond doubt is the fact that “for all the implicit uncertainty as he and Sand tended their nascent relationship, for all the limitations of Juan Bauza’s piano, these were months of exceptional achievement, handsomely repaying Chopin’s decision to join her in Majorca’ (p. 44).

[4] As José Alvarez Junco and Adrian Shubert explain, ‘[o]ne of the principal promoters of this worship of a romantic Spain was Victor Hugo, who was born in Madrid while his father was there as general in the French army of occupation. Significantly, most of his references to Spain are in a work entitled Orientales. Many of these allusions contain geographic errors or outright fabrications, such as the minarets of Alicante . . . Spain was, he said, ‘the homeland of his dreams’, and his enormous popularity ensured that the image of Spain he chose to embrace would wield wide influence.’ (p. 4)

[5] As Noyes writes, ‘for Jovellanos, Spain was divided into two classes: ‘one that works and one that does nothing.’ The system of mayorazgos, inalienable entailed lands, meant that nobles could count on a steady income of rents and could go into debt without fear of losing their states. With no incentive to stay home and improve their land, they usually moved to Madrid, where idleness was more enjoyable. The consequence was economic stagnation and rural misery.’ (p. 209).

[6] In her own autobiographical account, Un Hiver a Majorque, Sand gives a vivid first-hand account of the loyalist ‘Cristino’ troops she encountered in the outskirts of Barcelona. As she writes, ‘in the whole stretch we only met some ‘Cristinos’ … on their way to Barcelona. They told us they were the best troops in Spain. Indeed, they were men of fine presence and well enough equipped to go to war; but some of the soldiers were quite thin, with yellow, wan faces, whilst their horses were showing bones through their flanks; on seeing which, we sensed the evil effects of hunger’ (Kindle 352).

[7] In Un Hiver a Majorque, Sand described in heightened emotional language the bleakness that overtook them as the winter set it, ‘as winter advanced, sadness paralysed all my heartfelt efforts at gaiety and calmness. The condition of our invalid grew steadily worse [in her narrative she never reveals Chopin’s real name]; the wind howled down the ravine, the rain lashed our windows, the thunderclaps sounded through our thick walls and interjected a lugubrious note into the children’s laughter and games. The eagles and hawks emboldened by the mist, came down and snatched away our poor sparrows from the pomegranate tree right in front of my very window. The stormy sea kept the boats in the harbor; we felt like prisoners, far away from all intelligent help and any kind of proper friendliness. Death seemed to be hovering over our heads ready to alight on one of us, and we were alone in our struggle to ward it off its prey. On the contrary, there was not a single human creature around us who would not have liked to hasten him to his grave, and so finish as quickly as possible with the supposed danger of his proximity’ (Kindle, p. 150).

[8] As Kildea observes, ‘Robert Graves, who lived in the tiny Majorcan village of Deyá from the late 1920s until his death in 1985, translated Sand’s memoir of her time on the island, Un Hiver a Majorque (A Winter in Majorca), annotating it with rare animosity (“Her memory is at fault . . . The Mediterranean has no tides . . . they are extremely clean people, et cetera. Graves thought her and Chopin’s visit represented “a personal clash between the pre-Revolutionary Classical world and the world of post-Revolutionary Romanticism”: (Sand had come to show the backward Majorcans they could free themselves of their moral and intellectual manacles if only they put their minds to it’ (p. 12).

[9] In her autobiographical account, Sand herself expresses similar views of the picturesque aesthetic appeal of Majorca, ‘…it is not possible to take a few steps in this enchanted island without having to stop at every bend in the road, sometimes to look at an Arab water tank shaded by palm trees, or at a stone cross, a delicate work of the 15th century, and sometimes to pause at the edge of a grove of olive trees’ (Kindle 162). Or in her dreamy description of the Mediterranean sea, ‘In Majorca, I was able to contemplate the ocean such as I had dreamed it to be, as crystal-clear and blue as the sky, gently rippled like a plain of sapphire carved with regular furrows whose movement is scarcely perceptible seen form a certain height and bordered by wood of dark green’ (Kindle, p. 154).

[10] In her description of some of the Majorcan houses she visited during her stay, based on the apparent lack of books in most of them, Sand hastily concludes that, ‘this absence of intellectual life turns the house into something dead and empty, which has nothing in common with our way of life, and makes the Majorcan appear more like an African than a European’ (Kindle, p. 49).

[11] However, in a testament to the intensity of his Majorcan experience and to everlasting romantic orientalist notions, despite the dramatic turn of events, ‘in subsequent years Chopin repeatedly told Liszt that this short visit to Majorca was one of the happiest period in his life, and that he was afraid “he would never find a time suffused with such female tenderness and musical inspiration. It was as if, like Linnaeus’ clock, the time of day was told by the blossoming of flowers, each with a different perfume and each disclosing other beauties as they opened outwards’ (Kildea, p. 55).

[12] Paul Kildea’s book, In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music reads like a detective novel. In his search, Kildea sets to find the whereabouts of the Juan Bauza’s piano Chopin had used to compose several of his preludes until he received the Pleyel piano he had ordered from Paris. As it turned out, Chopin’s piano, as the Bauza instrument is sometimes called, had a fascinating afterlife after Chopin discarded it in favor of the Pleyel. In April 1913, it was bought by keyboard virtuoso and concert superstar Wanda Landowska, who immediately sent it to her house outside Paris. During the Second World-War it was confiscated by the Nazis who shipped it to Berlin and then to Leipzig. Kildea summary gives us an idea of its spellbinding odyssey, ‘The Bauza instrument, midwife to some of the great nineteenth-century music, which travelled first those winding miles from Palma up the Serra de Tramontana to Valldemossa, from there to Berlin, then on to Paris, then Saint-Leu-la Foret, then back to Paris (the Louvre), from there again to Berlin, the Leipzig, then to a monastery not far from Munich, then to Munich itself, and from there once more to Paris and back to Saint-Leu: this most resilient piano is now, apparently, in a museum in Florida’ (2018, p. 275). However, as he reveals at the end of the book unfortunately this is not the case, the Bauza piano which was found in the monastery of Raitenhaslach—near the infamous Austrian salt mines where the Nazis hid a vast loot of stolen masterpieces—and returned to Landowska’s property near Paris was lost again, never to be seen again’ (p. 275).

[13] As for merits of the Juan Bauza piano, Kildea writes, ‘The piano maker working alone twenty years earlier, some distance from Paris, had no such facilities, no such procedures and records, precious few materials: he must have had to improvise relentlessly. Yet in such unpromising circumstances he built an instrument no more than four feet high, with six and a half octaves of ivory keys and ebony accidentals. He incorporated a folding keyboard (as on a ship’s piano) and affixed a small, finely written label to the front board, which then varnished over: “Manufactured by Juan Bauza, Mission Street, Palma’ (p. 4). Sand herself writes of the happy moment when the upright Pleyel piano finally arrived, ‘rescued from the hands of the customs officers after three weeks of argument and payment of four hundred francs in duty, filled the high, arched, re-echoing cell with a magnificent sound’ (2005, p. 144. Kindle ed.).

[14] As Kildea writes of the litigation, ‘the owners of the authentic apartment, number four in which Chopin’s Majorcan Pleyel was on display—along with keepsakes and manuscripts, photographs […] wanted the other cell (number two) to stop taking the money of tourists and pilgrims who made their way to Valldemossa from Palma—through those thirteen tunnels in the Serra de Tramontana, over the lovely viaduct and the series of narrow bridges—to pay their respects’ (2018, p. 282).