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City Walls & Town Planning

palma's city walls and its town plannersIt is believed that Palma started life as a Talayotic walled settlement on the high ground where the Royal Palace and Cathedral now stand and back then it overlooked a river estuary. The Romans turned the area into a military camp when they conquered the island in 123 B.C., preferring to make Pollentia, on the outskirts of modern day Alcúdia, their capital for the next 500 years. Check out the Roman Era and Pollentia webpages to find out more about this important time in Mallorca's history.

Following another 500 years of what can only be described as the Dark Ages, the Moors conquered Mallorca and they established a new capital where we find Palma today, calling it Medina Mayûrqa or Mallorca City. The Moors turned the high ground into their economic and spiritual centre and the Emir's palace, great mosque and market were surrounded by a wall. Over time housing, gardens and mosques were built around the Medina and a wall was built to enclose them all, to protect the people from enemies and pirates.

palma's city walls and its town plannersJaime the Conqueror besieged Medina Mayûrqa in the winter of 1229, choosing to focus his attack on the Bab al-Kofol Gate at the north east corner of the city. Check out the Puigpunyent webpage to read about the three month siege of the city. The Moorish walls were thin and vertical but they served well for another 300 years; that is until the sacking of Mahón by the Ottoman admiral Barbarossa in 1535. New powder charged artillery had replaced siege engines and new walls were needed.

Unfortunately, money was short and while the engineer Fratin initiated planning the new walls, the Council had to consider the defence of the entire island. They opted for a ring of more than 80 watchtowers around the coastline to warn against attack, allowing the Viceroy to call out his troops. Check the Watchtowers and Pirates webpages to find out more.

palma's city walls and its town plannersWork started on Palma's new walls in the 1574 and the new walls were thicker and angled to deflect cannon balls while bastions allowed cannons to fire in any direction. A dry moat also stopped an enemy mining under the walls but it was soon became a wet one when the river was diverted outside the city walls.

Extra bastions were added over time and the two main ones can still be seen. St Peter's bastion at the southwest corner of the city once housed a gunpowder store and a large water cistern for visiting ships. Cannonballs were made in a furnace located at Prince's Bastion at the southeast corner of the city and it acquired the nickname, the Red Bullet Bastion.

While parts of the original sea front wall can still be visited (check out the Calatrava city walk) the rest have disappeared. Yet if you look at any map of Palma, you can trace their zigzag line around the old town. So why were Palma's walls demolished, all five kilometres of them?

palma's city walls and its town plannersBy the end of the 19th Century, the city was an unhealthy place. The population had increased from 41,000 inhabitants in 1842 to 61,000 in 1887 and it was going to keep expanding. With so many people crammed into a small space it was a disaster waiting to happen. A lack of clean water and open sewers contributed to the low life expectancy and the chances of a devastating epidemic were rising all the time.

The problem for Palma was that the army insisted on a 1,250 meter wide 'no build' zone outside the walls to give their cannons open fields of fire; and no one wanted to live so far away from the city. Although Councillor Gabriel Humbert suggested demolishing the walls in 1868 it took five years of disputes with the army to get an answer.

Even then only the section of wall along the sea front was demolished and it only released building land for the harbour. The only area where new housing was allowed were two districts known as Es Jonquet and Santa Catalina on the west side of the city (check out the Santa Catalina webpage to visit these districts).

palma's city walls and its town plannersEusebio Estada explained the problems of population growth, the people's needs and the ineffectiveness of the walls in his 1885 book 'The City of Palma' but it was another ten years before the 'no build' zones were done away by law in May 1895

A town planning contest for the expansion of Palma was held two years later and Bernardo Calvet's plans won. They used the five main roads out of the city to divide the new suburbs into five districts. Calvet wanted wide streets and low buildings to make the suburbs airy and light, in contrast to the dark narrow streets inside the walls.

In February 1902, King Alfonso XIII signed the order allowing the demolition of the walls and the debris was used to fill in the moat. Work immediately began on the suburbs and although the completion date was set at 1940, many things happened before then.

Population growth outstripped construction and building heights had to be tripled in the narrow side streets to accommodate everybody. So while the main avenues remained bright and airy, the suburbs became modern versions of those in the old town; planned parks were often done away with and built on too. Rapid changes in architectural styles meant that districts were built in different ways. Palma did not turn out like Calvet expected.

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