ON THE TRAIL OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
‘In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue’.
I remember that from my school days and that Columbus discovered the New World, but we learned so much more during our trip to Punta Umbria in October, and exploring the replicas of the three ships that made the voyages was just awe inspiring. They were so small to have made those journeys, with primitive facilities. Amazing!
Anyway, on our first day we set off to blue skies which lasted most of the way there, although it was overcast when we stopped for coffee at a beautiful place outside Loja where you can sit with your coffee on the terrace overlooking one of the sierras. The service was excellent – waiters actually hanging around waiting for someone to serve! There we were joined by our guide, Lena, a Danish lady who this time took the place of our good friend, Danny.
We had already discovered little TV screens in front of each seat on the coach, providing access to computer games, TV news channels and movies. When we got back on board Lena handed out earphones so for the rest of the journey we absorbed ourselves in these pursuits, or read books or dozed. We arrived at the Hotel Barceló, Punta Umbria Mar, in the province of Huelva, Western Andalucía – very close to the border with Portugal – with plenty of time to check in, freshen up and have drinks and dinner, or even a walk along the beach.
Next day we woke up to very dark skies so boarded our coach with raincoats and umbrellas at the ready.
A lot of the initial planning and sailing towards discovering the new continent was done in this area of Spain, in particular at the nearby Franciscan monastery of La Rábida. The building dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries and is a combination of gothic and Mudejar (Moorish architecture applied to Christian buildings). Not only is it a building to be admired for its beauty, but it has a lot of history to it: Christopher Columbus stayed here while planning his first voyage westwards. Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros was the Guardian of La Rábida and the confessor to Isabella. After learning that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had rejected Columbus’ request for outfitting an expedition in search of the Indies, he intervened and Columbus was able to have his proposal heard. ‘Conquistadores’ Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro also stayed here on their way back from the Americas.
It is a fascinating building. In one corridor you can see maps on the walls, charting each of the voyages to the New World, and there is an exhibition room where the flags of each of the Spanish American countries are hung next to a small vessel containing soil from this country. We spent over an hour happily gazing in wonder at everything on display.
After this we were meant to visit Muelle de las Carabelas (the Quay of the Carabelas) but because of the rain the museum was closed. We were so disappointed, as for some of us; this was the highlight of the trip. Luckily, Lena was able to reschedule this for Friday morning, so more of that later.
Instead of this we headed into nearby Mazagon, for a bit of shopping and lunch or tapas, losing a few umbrellas along the way.
On our third day, we went to Minas de Río Tinto – on the river Guardiana. We visited the museum, with a rich heritage of 5000 years of mining by the different civilizations that have lived in the area. We saw examples of some of the minerals found there – beautiful examples of Rose Quartz, Milky Quartz, Fluorite and Calcite. Amongst other things, there was a scale model of the mining villages of Rio Tinto and a general view of the society during the British period – showing the introduction of cricket, tennis, football, golf and polo. The first Boy Scout group in Spain was founded here. Then we saw two locomotives manufactured in Britain and The Maharajah’s carriage manufactured in Birmingham in 1892. It was built for Queen Victoria’s trip to India and then brought to Rio Tinto for a royal visit of Alfonso XIII. It is considered the most luxurious narrow gauge carriage in the world.
After some free time for lunch, we boarded some rather less comfortable carriages on the train which was originally introduced to connect Rio Tinto with Huelva, the capital of the province and the port from where the valuable minerals were taken abroad. On the journey along 12kms of restored track we passed the old smelting and industrial facilities belonging to the mines as well as beautiful scenery. A truly memorable journey.
After alighting from the train we visited the “Barrio Inglés de Bella Vista” where, at the end of the XIX century British engineers and miners lived, after moving into the area bringing along the industrial revolution. It was interesting to see how the British houses differed from the Spanish in design and decoration.
On our fourth day, we woke up to glorious sunshine and set off in anticipation for our trip to Seville. Our visit started with a panoramic tour of the city on our bus. We saw iconic buildings such as the San Telmo Palace, La Maestranza Bullring, the gracious promenade along the banks of the River Guadalquivir, the Golden Tower etc. We then stopped at the beautiful Plaza España, created for the Ibero-American Exhibition which was held in Seville in 1929.
Our guide then walked us into the historical centre of Seville where we had time to ourselves to visit some of the sights. There was the legendary Jewish Quarter (well known from the operas Carmen, Don Juan and The Barber of Seville). As the Jews were expelled from the kingdom by Queen Isabella I in 1492, you have some idea of the age of these narrow lanes and the delightful little squares redolent with the scent of the orange trees.
Seville also has the world’s largest Gothic cathedral with the burial place of Christopher Columbus (or some of his body! The Dominican Republic also claims to have his body – or some of it). The enormous gilded altarpiece is the most impressive one of its kind in Spain and there are innumerable priceless works of art to be seen around the building. The Moorish church tower, “La Giralda”, is 100 meters high, 800 years old and is the symbolic landmark of Seville.
Another option is the King Peter the Cruel’s Alcázar. This outstanding royal palace was originally built by Moorish labourers 700 years ago, but many of the following regents have added their bit to it: amongst others Carlos I and the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando.
Some of us took a boat trip along the Guadalquivir to view the city from a totally different angle and learn about the many bridges which cross it.
On our final day those of us who were interested visited Muelle de las Carabelas. The rest chilled around the hotel’s pool, took part in the various activities organized by the hotel, took advantage of the gym, indoor pool, sauna, steam room and/or whirlpool, went for a walk along the beach or shopped or even hired bicycles to explore the area.
Those of us who went to the museum were enthralled. This museum, opened in 1994, showed us in great detail anything that had to do with Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World. We actually boarded replicas of the ‘Santa Maria’, the ‘Pinta’ and the ’Niña’ as well as visiting a recreation of a medieval quarter by the quays and numerous charts and weaponry from the time. We also saw a film of his first voyage and when – after more than 60 days at sea, with no guarantee of ever finding land again, and with dwindling supplies – the lookout up in the crow’s nest shouted “Tierra ! Tierra ! Tierra!” most of us were in tears, or at least choked up. What an experience.
After this we had free time to explore Punta Umbria and have tapas at many of the fish restaurants by the port.
Our final day dawned, overcast again, and we bade a sad adios to Punta Umbria. But at least on the coach we had our TV screens and could occupy ourselves on the long journey home.
Thanks again to Ken and Danny for organizing yet another memorable trip.