Following in the Footsteps of Columbus
Following our recent Journey to Machu Picchu in Peru where we saw the influence of the 16th century Spanish conquistadors, it was by chance that our next holiday took us to southern Spain where this epic chapter in world history all began.
It was from the small seaport of Palos de la Frontera, in the province of Huelva, that the explorer Christopher Columbus first sailed west into the unchartered waters of the Atlantic on behalf of Spain. He was determined to find a waterway linking Europe directly to Asia. As my 8-year-old put it ‘he sailed off in search of another country and crashed into America’.
Although Columbus never encountered the Incas, or indeed any of the major civilisations inhabiting the Americas at the time, his discovery paved the way for Europe’s exploration and colonisation of the Americas.
What I hadn’t appreciated until now was that Columbus’ expedition may never have happened if he hadn’t sought refuge here in the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida in this relatively unknown (on the tourist map) corner of Andalucia in southern Spain.
Columbus had come to Spain after King Joao II of Portugal declined to sponsor his expedition to sail west. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias had just discovered a potential sea route to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope and as a result, Portugal was no longer interested in Columbus’ proposal (Vasco da Gama confirmed Dias’ route when he reached Kerala, India in 1498)
It was here in this small friary of La Rábida where Columbus befriended a Franciscan monk named Juan Perez who would help him gain sponsorship from the sovereigns of Spain. At first Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand didn’t believe the world was as small as Columbus claimed it to be and rejected his proposal. They were of course right, but fortunately for all involved, the Queen changed her mind at the last minute (thanks to Columbus’ well connected pals he had made through Perez who intervened).
We visited the Monasterio de La Rábida with family and friends (children ranging in age from 6-12 years) and spent an hour or two exploring the two-storey building with audio guides. (NB. All the text that is presented throughout the museum is in Spanish)
One of the many myths surrounding the tales of Columbus is that Queen Isabella sold all her personal jewellery to fund his trip. This romantic gesture particularly touched my daughter but alas! it’s not true. Apparently she put her jewels up for collateral to finance his voyage but her offer was rejected as it wasn’t deemed necessary.
La Rábida, meaning ‘fortress’ in Arabic (it was built on the site of a Moorish stronghold) dates back to the 14th century. It was partly damaged in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that flattened much of Portugal and western Spain and after extensive restoration work was declared a national monument of Spain in 1856.
I could have happily hung out all day in the Mudéjar-style cloisters admiring the beautifully restored frescos that fill its corridors on all four sides, or perhaps plotting my own great adventure as Columbus did back in 1485 when he first arrived in Palos, penniless and disheartened after his sponsorship rejection from Portugal.
In the Gothic-Mudéjar chapel is an alabaster statue of the Virgen de los Milagros (Virgin of Miracles) to which Columbus is said to have prayed to and at the other end a sculpture of Christ, which replaced an older version destroyed in the Spanish Civil War. And don’t forget to look up; the Mudéjar-inspired ceiling is impressive too.
My children enjoyed the modern frescos in one of the entrance rooms that feature significant scenes from Columbus’s life, painted by local artist Daniel Vásquez Díaz in the 1930s, and the Sala de Banderas or Flag Room which showcases the countries of the New World. Under each flag is a casket of earth from each Latin American country. My daughter was immediately drawn to the familiar flag of Panama (where we currently live).
As a side note, on Columbus’ 4th voyage to the Indies in the early 1500s, he sailed along the coast of present-day Panama. (We all wondered if he sailed past this little island where we saw the new year in). One of his ships – the Vizcaina – is even thought to have sunk off the port of Portabello. This is a regular weekend destination for us as it’s so easy to reach from Panama City. Researchers believe that up to 20 Spanish boats that sank between 1500 and 1819 may also be lying on the seabed near Portobello. I must refresh my diving skills on our return!
During this age of exploration, sailors were naturally apprehensive of the unknown waters and spoke of sea monsters and other fearsome beasts that they claimed to have encountered. These were depicted in beautifully illustrated maps, examples of which line the staircase at La Rábida. Before continuing to the Muelle de las Carabelas (Wharf of the Caravels) we had lunch in the nearby Restaurant Plus Ultra (‘Further beyond’). Although not much to look at from the outside, it’s a great example of what this part of Spain excels in – great food and friendly service without any of the unnecessary frills.
We enjoyed typical Huelva-style tapas which we liked to think Columbus ate a lot of too when he stayed here. These included chocos (fried squid – always a hit with kids), coquinas (cockles), atun con pimientos (tuna with red peppers) and a plate of delicious oil-drizzled tomatoes. Who knew that the tomato originally came from the Aztecs? (Not me!) It was one of the many products that were transferred between the Old and New Worlds as part of The Columbian Exchange (also known as The Grand Exchange).
The Monastery of La Rábida is located on the outskirts of Huelva in Andalucia, Spain. If coming from the direction of Huelva, look out for the huge Monumento Fe Fescubridora (Monument to the Discoverer Faith) as you cross the Rio Tinto bridge. The cubist statue, often mistaken for Columbus, is actually of a Franciscan friar from La Rábida. Designed by American artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, it was donated by the USA to honour Columbus and his crew and as a gesture of gratitude and friendship to Spain.
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