The Serra de Tramunta rose behind me, a towering limestone mountain covered in wild olive trees, pines and rosemary. Below, a valley filled with ancient olive groves plunged to the Mediterranean.
As sheep grazed around us, Sofia Graves, the granddaughter of Robert Graves, the author and poet, led me across a terraced field toward a proscenium and stone steps built into the hillside in the 1960s.
Every summer, a couple of hours before sunset, Ms. Graves told me, her grandfather gathered family, friends and local people to this Greek-style amphitheater on the outskirts of Deià, a village on the northern coast of Majorca, the Spanish island, and put on performances that he had prepared over the previous days. A mix of village gossip, politics and excerpts from Graves’s works-in-progress, the plays took place one day every year around the late July birthdays of Graves, his son William and his daughter, Lucia, and featured a rotating cast of amateurs.
“My grandfather wrote the script; my father, William, played the guitar; and everybody from the village was invited,” Ms. Graves said.
Robert Graves moved to Deià in 1929, fleeing the psychological turmoil that had plagued him after he was badly injured at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. It was a horror that he evoked with terrifying immediacy in perhaps his greatest work, the memoir “Good-bye to All That,” published the same year he took up the expatriate life.
For the next 56 years, except for a forced decade-long interlude in England during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, Graves made this mountain hamlet his home. He built a house called Canallún (Catalan for the faraway home), took bracing morning walks through the hills and down to the sea, read his airmailed Times of London at a local cafe, fraternized with farmers and shopkeepers, and wrote prolifically.
Besides “I Claudius,” a compelling “autobiography” of the Roman emperor, which appeared in 1934, and “Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina,” a sequel that came out the following year, Graves produced at his island home a torrent of novels including “Count Belisarius,” “Seven Days in New Crete” and “The Golden Fleece.” There were also poems, book-length essays such as “The White Goddess,” and translations, including “The Greek Myths,” a respected retelling of the classic myths.
“Perfect tranquillity reigns; or you can call it vacancy,” he wrote about his adopted village. “The Majorcan countryside is not at all a place to go in search of inspiration; but admirable for people whose minds already teem with ideas that need recording in absolute quiet. …”
After a long decline into dementia, he died here at 90 in 1985, and was buried in the village churchyard. Graves’s second wife, Beryl Pritchard, who moved with him to Deià in 1946 and married him four years later, continued to live in the house until her death in 2003. (The pair had four children, William, Lucia, Juan and Tomas.)
Today the life that Graves created for himself on this Mediterranean island is far more accessible than it was a few years ago. Shortly after Ms. Pritchard’s death, their oldest son, William, an oil company executive and the author of a lyrical memoir about growing up in Deià called “Wild Olives,” decided to open the home to the public.
After donating his father’s manuscripts, letters and other papers to St. John’s College at Oxford, he worked closely with the local government to turn the home into a museum and exhibition space. Mr. Graves restored the rooms to the way they looked when he was growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s, and put together a pastiche of photographs, videos and mementos of his father’s life in the village. The house, which opened in 2006, received about 6,000 visitors last year.
In mid-August I met Ms. Graves, who was born here in 1970 and still spends most summers in the village, at the front gate of Canallún. She had graciously agreed to give me a private tour of her grandfather’s property, set back from the winding main road that runs from Deià to the port of Soller, along the island’s rugged northern coast.
The house is a handsome, two-story building of beige, locally quarried stone and mortar, surrounded by a garden filled with tomato vines, lemon and orange trees and ancient gnarled olive trees. Most were planted by Graves, a vigorous man who “needed physical activity,” Ms. Graves said, and who was rarely more serene, she said, than when he was composting.
Graves was born into a middle-class family in Wimbledon, in south London, in 1895, nearly died of double pneumonia as a boy and, at the outbreak of the First World War, enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Fighting alongside the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who became a close friend, he was struck in the lung by shrapnel during a charge through a cemetery at the Battle of the Somme and was initially reported killed in action.
After a long and painful recovery, he married Nancy Nicholson, had four children and wrote a popular biography of his friend T. E. Lawrence, whom he met while teaching at Oxford. But unhappy at Oxford, facing financial pressures and plagued by nightmares, tears and constant twitching caused by what was then known as neurasthenia, or shell shock, he decided to leave England for good.
By then he had left his wife and was living with Laura Riding, a strong-willed American poet who was also looking for an escape. Gertrude Stein, whom he and Ms. Riding had met in Haute Savoie, France, recommended Majorca.
“I chose Majorca as my home … because its climate had the reputation of being better than any other in Europe,” he wrote. “And because I was assured that I should be able to live there on much less money than in England.”
In Deià, he wrote, “I found everything I wanted as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring water, shady trees, no politics and a few civilised luxuries such as electric light and a bus service to Palma, the capital.”
Ms. Graves swept her arm across a landscape of stone terraces covered with olive trees that dropped away sharply below Canallún. “They first rented a house on the east side of the valley,” she told me, “but discovered that it got absolutely no sun during the winter, so they moved.”
The couple built Canallún in 1932 and steadily extended their property down to the Mediterranean. They also bought additional houses, including La Posada, in 1935, a former rectory next door to the village church, which served as a guesthouse for close friends.
(Robert Graves split from Ms. Riding in England during World War II and began a relationship with Ms. Pritchard shortly after.)
Among those who stayed at La Posada were the preadolescent Martin Amis and his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, who managed to back his car over a sharp drop at the edge of the driveway at Canallún. (“No major damage,” reports William Graves, who sold the house in 2007.)
I followed Ms. Graves up a flight of stairs to her grandfather’s northeast-facing office, lit by sun only in the early mornings and on midsummer evenings, its bookshelves lined with first editions of his novels, essays and poetry. In the adjacent room stood a circa-1872 English printing press where he self-published many of his works.
“He was a self-disciplined person who needed to be in control of everything,” she told me.
The printing room led to the Graveses’ small bedroom, with a bed that seemed impossibly narrow for two people. “How they slept on it is a mystery,” Ms. Graves said.
An exhibition room displayed Graves’s voluminous correspondence with Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes, Pearl Buck, T. S. Eliot and other literary lights. In the downstairs dining room, the Graves family entertained a summertime stream of guests, including Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov and Ava Gardner, who drove him to blissful insomnia and inspired his poem “Not to Sleep.” “Fanciful details of the promised coming,” he rhapsodized. “Will she be wearing red, or russet, or blue, / Or pure white? — whatever she wears, glorious: / Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy. …”
After meeting Ms. Graves, I walked along the road leading into Deià, a village of stone houses with red tile roofs, clustered on a steep hill known in the local Catalan dialect as Es Puig. The cafe where Graves sat for two hours each morning answering letters and reading the paper over coffee is long gone. Now tapas bars, restaurants and souvenir shops line the main street, and rental cars and tour buses clog it during summer.
I descended a switchback trail through bramble and olive groves, each turn offering another precipitous view of the sea. A 20-minute hike through the brush brought me to level ground, and I skirted a dry ravine — a swirling torrent during the island’s stormy winters — to the Cala Deià, a rocky cove hemmed in by hundred-foot cliffs, where Graves went for his short swims before starting work each day.
I climbed a footpath high above the Cala that follows the coast all the way to Soller. Steep steps in the rock face lead down to secluded coves where one can snorkel, kayak and picnic, rarely encountering another soul. Perched on the cliff above the Cala Deià is a one-story stone house.
During previous visits to Deià I had wondered what to make of this lonesome aerie. Ms. Graves told me that it had served as the police observation post during and after World War II, when locals did a brisk illicit business smuggling cigarettes and other goods across the Mediterranean from Tangiers. The smugglers turned to hashish and heroin in the 1970s, and the atmosphere for a time grew tense. “When I was growing up here” she told me, “we were told not to go down to the beach at night.”
During Graves’s later years, his behavior became increasingly erratic. Hippies, drug dealers and hangers-on made their way to his doorstep. He became infatuated with a series of young women whom he called his muses, experimented with hallucinogens, and made bizarre public comments: In a magazine interview he once claimed that homosexuality was caused by drinking too much milk.
His notions about artistic inspiration became more eccentric. “There are some sacred places made so by the radiation created by magnetic ores,” he told an interviewer in Playboy in 1970. “My village, for example, is a kind of amphitheater enclosed by mountains containing iron ore, which makes a magnetic field.”
On his 80th birthday, “he wasn’t able to recognize me,” said William Graves, who maintains that his father’s mental decline was brought about by his war injury, the lingering effects of a near-fatal Spanish influenza contracted in 1918, and his avid experimentation with “magic” mushrooms. By his early 80s, “He was in good health, physically active, but his mental faculties were gone,” Ms. Graves said. “I remember him wandering off, getting lost and the villagers bringing him home.”
On my last day in Deià I walked back up Es Puig to the small cemetery beside the church. I found Beryl Pritchard’s gravestone almost immediately, but had to search for 20 minutes before I located her husband’s, half-hidden across the churchyard, in the shade of a cypress tree. A pen, a dried rose and a scrap of paper with a scribbled tribute lay across the slab of concrete, crudely inscribed with Graves’s name and life dates. Below his name was written a single word — “Poet.” It was a fitting tribute to a charismatic figure who had helped transform this rural retreat into a social hub of Europe, but who, in the end, remained wholly dedicated to his art.
If You Go
Where to Stay
We found our house, a satisfactory three-bedroom property on the outskirts of Deià, through the website ownersdirect.co.uk.
There are also several excellent hotels. The best, and by far the most expensive, is the Belmond La Residencia (Carrer son Canals, 39-971-63-90-11, belmond.com/la-residencia-mallorca), tucked in the foothills of the Serra Tramuntana just outside Deià. Rooms start at 825 euros a night (about $900 at $1.09 to the euro) on bookings.com.
More economical is the Hotel Es Moli, Carretera Deià-Valldemossa, 34-971-63-900-00, esmoli.com/en, a charming villa. Rooms from 249 euros.
What to See
La Casa de Robert Graves (Carretera Deia a Soller, 34-971-636-185; lacasaderobertgraves.org/en). A five-minute walk from the Deià town center. Admission, 7 euros; 3.50 for children under 12. Self-guided audio tours available in English, German, Spanish and Catalan. A visit to the house, garden and a small museum takes about an hour.
Correction: July 6, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of children Robert Graves and his second wife, Beryl Pritchard, had. They had four, not three: Williams, Lucia, Juan and Tomas.