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Places of Cycling: Majorca, a sanctuary for cyclists and poets alike

Words by Paul Maunder

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The road that follows Majorca’s north coast will be familiar to many cyclists. Its undulations connect the towns of Port de Pollenca and Soller, making it an essential part of many routes in the north of the island. Riding west past Soller the road hugs a steep forested hillside. The Balearic Sea rolls away to the horizon. And just before the village of Deià is La Casa de Robert Graves. This is the house where the English poet lived for 53 years, until his death in 1985. Built in 1932 from local stone at the instruction of Graves and his partner, the American poet Laura Riding, the two-story house has an air of peaceful creativity.

Robert Graves (foreground) drinking at a cafe in Deya, Majorca, January 1954. On the left is his wife, Beryl, and their son Juan. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

In his simple ground floor office, Graves produced an extensive body of work of poetry, non-fiction, historical fiction, and translations. His reputation was established by the memoir Good-bye to All That, published in 1929, the year he first moved to Majorca. Five years later he published I, Claudius, a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Both books sold far beyond expectations and the money allowed Graves to settle into a comfortable life by the sea. When he wasn’t writing Graves went hiking in the Serra de Tramunta behind his house, swam at the local beach, or worked in the vibrant garden that included olive and lemon trees and groves of orange and tangerine. A tranquil existence. Majorca, Graves said, was not a place to inspire books, but a good place to write books if you had a head brimming with ideas.

Serra de Tramuntana mountain range in Mallorca. Image: Getty Images.

It was Gertrude Stein who suggested Majorca as a place for Graves to make a home, citing the climate and the cheap living. When Stein gave this advice to Graves in 1929, he had already left his wife Nancy Nicholson and their four children. For three years he had tried to maintain a three-way relationship with Nicholson and Riding; unsurprisingly he was forced to make a choice. Graves had a turbulent and intense love life; the concept of the female muse was a recurrent theme in his poetry. Though he and Riding eventually separated, she was to play an influential role in shaping his finest work.

Picardy, France. Image: kodachrome25/Getty Images.

The deeper reason for his flight from England, however, lies in a very different place. Bazentin-le-petit is a tiny hamlet, 60 miles south of Roubaix. Marooned in the middle of a wide, flat farming landscape, this place seems inconsequential. The kind of place you drive past on the motorway, the kind of place the Tour de France peloton flash past on the way to a bunch sprint. Yet if we note the name of the nearby river, the River Somme, we know the dark significance of these fields. The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest of the First World War. On the first day, in July 1916, the British Army lost 57,000 men. When the offensive was called off, five months later, over a million men had lost their lives. The British line had advanced just seven miles.

Interview from 1969. Credit: ThamesTV on YouTube.

Three weeks into the battle, 20-year-old Captain Robert Graves of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was leading his men through the cemetery at Bazentin-le-petit. A German shell exploded. A piece of shrapnel pierced Graves’ lung. His wounds were so severe that the authorities informed his family of his death. Days later, as he began a long and painful recovery, Graves got word to them that he was still alive. Returning to England for his convalescence, Graves suffered intensely from shellshock. He took up his deferred place at the University of Oxford, married Nicholson, then in 1926 secured a teaching job at the University of Cairo. Yet while his writing continued to develop in these years, the trauma of war lingered. His marriage was strained, his view of English society bitter. Good-bye to All That describes the intense horror of the Somme, Graves’ difficult marriage, and his miserable public-school education. For Graves, the freedom to work and love in the way he wanted drove him away from his home. His memoir was his proverbial line in the sand. Beyond, Graves’ life turned to sunshine, simple physical exertions, and poetry. Who can blame him for that?

Images: Getty Images.