Go West! (part 1) On the Columbine Trail

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue...

It's a good thing that he had to hang about in and around Huelva, Spain waiting for the money and ships to start his expedition, as fourteen hundred and ninety (or any other year that didn't end in two) wouldn't have made such a good rhyme. This August, I paid a flying visit to Huelva to see where Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón as he is known here, stayed and researched before he did indeed set off in 1492, and discovered that there is more to Huelva than a historic departure point. 

Huelva has a rich history aside from Columbus. Located between the Odiel and Tinto rivers it is a source of copper. The Phoenicians made it one of their trading posts and there is evidence (now in the British Museum) that the Romans were mining there. The mining continued and the arrival of the British mining company, Rio Tinto, and other foreign companies in the nineteenth century made Huelva into a boom town. The iron wharfs (muelle) used for loading the minerals still jut into the river and are a popular place for locals and tourists alike. The muelle is the perfect place to be as the sun sets over the wetlands. Locals fish from the rusting iron, young and old alike, and couples have the (annoying) habit of attaching padlocks to the ironwork in a symbolic declaration of undying love.

Loving couples were not much in evidence when we walked the length of the muelle in order to savour the sunset; fishermen were. Two young boys clambered onto the top level with their rods and bait. Their first 'catch' resulted in nothing more than abuse from the men below as their lines tangled. The sunset was worth the walk out into the river as the sky suffused with dark orange hues as river boats passed, lines were cast and the sun sunk below the horizon.

Perhaps the most bizarre remnant from the British presence in the 1800s is the area known as Barrio Victoria. I've been away from the homeland for 5 years now, and it was like stepping back in time. At the bottom of a set of steps was a bar with a red telephone box outside. I wanted to step inside and see if the smell was the same - stale cigarette smoke and ageing paper from a disintegrating telephone directory - but it was just for show. At the top of the steps Victorian villas with front and back gardens, encircled areas which would have been green grass in England, but were dust bowls in the Andalucian summer, or lined suburban streets. The sloped eaves, which I bet allow for storage of fading photographs and schoolbooks, and brick chimney stacks reminded me of much of my home town. Home from home for those Victorian engineers, something out of The Truman Show for me. 

Aside from Barrio Victoria, Huelva town centre is reminiscent of Málaga 10 to 15 years ago. There is some beautiful architecture and lovely plazas linked with narrow lanes and alleys, but there is also a sense of tiredness. In places Huelva is showing her age. She just needs the odd nip and tuck to bring her back to how she was in her glory days, before the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 robbed her of some of her splendours. Huelva's beauty spots, though limited, are worth a note. The Baroque facade of the Cathderal de la Merced is inspiring and the Plaza de los Monjas is airy and attractive. Due to its compactness we were able to walk around the whole town in one afternoon, though the muscle soak in the bath was much needed afterwards! That left us one full day to follow in the footsteps of Columbus.

Our Columbus day started off shrouded in mist as we took the bus to La Rabia. The large memorial to Colombus that graces the  riverside next to the bridge was barely discernible. As usual we arrived early and wandered the grounds waiting for the sights to open. Breakfast in the restaurant prepared us for our day ahead and we walked down to the water's edge, to Muelle de las Carabelas (Harbour of the Caravels, to see the replicas of the boats in which Columbus set off to discover India and found the West Indies and America. 

He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

The replicas of the three ships - Santa Maria, La Niña and La Pinta - sit in  a shallow dock waiting for you to climb aboard. The first thing that I noticed was the size, or lack of it. The boats are tiny by modern standards.  The bravery of Columbus and his sailors is inversely proportional to the size of their craft, particularly when you consider that at this point many people still believed that the world was flat - not Columbus, obviously, as he would not be planning to sail west to get to the east! The living quarters were cramped, especially when you consider that sufficient rations also needed to be stored within these small vessels. It was enlightening to clamber over the ships, but I know that the life of a sailor is not for me now, let alone more than 500 years ago. Particularly interesting were the videos and displays that showed how the replicas had been built and how Columbus believed he could reach India. The ships are definitely worth a visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the accidental discoverer of America.

Columbus spent many years waiting for backing for his voyage, two of which he spent in the Monastery of La Rábida. After learning that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had rejected his request for outfitting an expedition in search of the Indies, Columbus retired to the Friary to work on his plans and with the intervention of the guardian of La Rábida and the confessor to Isabella, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, he was able to have his proposal heard. 

Walls are adorned with pictures by local artist Daniel Vásquez Díaz that detail significant moments in the life of Columbus; in the chapel is an alabaster statue of the Virgen de los Milagros (Virgin of Miracles), to which Columbus and his crew are said to have prayed. The church in the monastery is 14th-century Gothic-Mudéjar, where Captain Martín Alonso Pinzón, from Palos de la Frontera, who sailed with Columbus in one of his ships, is buried.

The monastery is home to more than just Columbine artefacts. The peaceful inner courtyards and cloisters bloom with flowers which echo the botanical gardens that surround the monastery. The chapel is architecturally interesting with Moorish styles (Mudéjar) mixing with the gothic, and a beautiful altar in one of the side chapels.

From the monastery we boarded another bus for the short trip to Moguer. Our timing was now out of kilter, and by the time we found the Convent de Santa Clara (where Columbus often went to pray) we had missed the last accompanied tour of the morning - a four hour wait lay before us. This meant no convent tour, we had other fish to fry. We made the most of the time before our return bus to wander the town. It was clear from the constant reference to Juan Ramón Jiménez Mantecó, the 1956 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, that the town is inordinately proud of its son's achievements. Moguer is a pretty little town but beyond a few attractions there is little to see other than the convent. The castle ruin is literally a wall, and when we visited that was hidden behind the stage for the summer festivities. With a stomachs telling us 'tenemos hambre'. We returned to Huelva and set off in search of a filling lunch.

Our time in Huelva was short, but interesting. If you have an interest in Columbus you have to add Huelva to your itinerary.


La Rábida Monastery opening hours and price

Huelva Tourism for information on beaches, culture, gastronomy and nature.



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