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Where Columbus got his start Add to ...

The tour guide in Seville's cavernous cathedral gestures toward an ornate coffin perched on the shoulders of four bronzed noblemen. "Here lies the body of Don Cristobal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. . . Its position, high in the cathedral, symbolizes Spaniards' respect for the great explorer."

Vallolidad, Seville, Santo Domingo, Havana and back to Seville -- the bones of Christopher Columbus have logged so many kilometres after his death that, notwithstanding the pronouncements of tour guides, it is not certain these remains are actually his, or if he lies in a tomb in the Dominican Republic.

An entry in a guidebook ("In the harbour near Huelva lie replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria") had piqued my curiosity and set me on a course through southern Spain and the Algarve to follow in the footsteps of the storied traveller. Now, under these soaring Gothic arches, my feet were touching the very stones that Columbus often crossed on his way to prayer.

Upon his return from the New World, Columbus came to Seville's Alcazar, its royal palace, to wait for word from the monarchs. Was he admiring the delicate tracery of these Moorish arches, I wondered, when a courtier handed him the missive addressed, "To Don Cristobal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Viceroy and Governor of the islands which he discovered in the Indies"? Or was it in the garden perfumed with the blossoms of Seville's oranges that he read the signatures, "I the King" and "I the Queen"?

My route would take me to meet not just the exalted Admiral of the Ocean, but to walk in the footsteps of the ordinary weaver's son from Genoa whose curiosity for the unknown would not be deterred.

It was at Sagres, Portugal, Europe's extreme southwest corner, that the 15th-century craze for exploration exploded, launched by Prince Henry the Navigator and his school of navigation. On a path skirting the Sagres Peninsula, I leaned into the wind as fishermen dropped lines over the cliffs to the ocean dozens of metres below. Staring to the misty horizon, I saw how the ancients could have conjured up a frightful abyss that swallowed ships foolish enough to venture too far away from land.

The vista to the southeast was no less tempestuous. Columbus's first foray into the Atlantic ended in near disaster, ironically almost in sight of Henry's school of navigation. Columbus, a young merchant seaman on his first voyage outside the Mediterranean, was saved from drowning by a passing fishing boat after an attack by French pirates.

Lesser travellers than Columbus would have ended their watery adventures. But his love of ships only continued to grow on merchant expeditions to England, Ireland, Guinea and, by some accounts, Iceland. His marriage to Portuguese Felipa Moniz Pestrello permitted him access to her father's maps and portolanos (navigation manuals), an encounter that opened Columbus's mind to the possibility of a westward route to India.

In 1485, his plan turned down by the King of Portugal, Columbus sailed for Spain, landing on its southwest Atlantic coast just outside of Huelva at the confluence of the Odiel and Tinto Rivers. With his son Diego, the pair trudged to the top of a hill to seek lodging at a Franciscan monastery, Santa Maria de la Rabida. Historians agree that without Columbus's happenstance arrival at La Rabida and his introduction to its abbot, Antonio de la Marchena, his dream would likely never have become reality.

I was greeted at the gate of La Rabida, as was Columbus, by a gentle brown-robed Franciscan. With audio guide in hand, I set out through the monastery, restored to look much as it did in that day.

In a country of grandiose monuments -- gold and silver-encrusted churches and lavish Moorish palaces -- La Rabida stands apart in its modesty. The chapel in which Columbus and his crew heard mass before heading into the unknown is crowned by a simple wooden cross. The sandstone pillars of its inner cloister enclose a space so intimate it seems to symbolize the Spanish word for cloisters, claustro.

An upper gallery of pure white arches overlooking the courtyard leads to a row of austere monastic cells, Columbus's home where he pored over the treasures of La Rabida's library for much of the next seven years. In La Rabida's dark-panelled conference rooms, Marchena and the other monks schooled Columbus in the sciences of navigation and helped to refine his ideas to make a convincing case to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Today, the walls of the monastery are filled with paintings: Columbus arriving at La Rabida; Columbus, a book open on his lap; Marchena introducing Columbus to the Spanish court; Columbus greeting the "Indians" in the New World. In a glass case at the nearby Muelle de las Carabelas (Harbour of the Caravels) stands a geography text, its margins crowded with annotations in Columbus's careful hand. In 1992, this museum on the bank of the Rio Tinto and its replicas of Columbus's three ships opened to honour the 500th anniversary of the voyage that began the era of Spanish colonialism. Beside Columbus's books lie El Libro de Marco Polo and Imago Mundi, the Rough Guides of his day.

Standing on the open deck of the replica Pinta, even in this quiet anchorage, the audacity struck me anew. What courage it must have taken to head into the unknown, armed with such crude instruments of navigation. How the timbers of these tiny caravels must have creaked, how intrepid his crew.

The crew for the first voyage and the captains of the Nina and the Pinta were recruited in Palos de la Frontera, four kilometres upriver from La Rabida. On Aug. 12, 1492, the three ships left Palos's harbour for the westward journey.

As I drove into the whitewashed town, a donkey, its saddle bags stuffed with straw, clip-clopped through narrow streets. Storks on their nests crowning the belfry and the slate-covered roof of San Jorge's church gazed regally down on quiet streets where on March 15, 1493, as the returning Nina was spied, the entire populace ran amid a clamour of pealing bells to greet husbands and fathers they feared had been lost forever.

How much greater an undertaking travel was in those times. So little known about the world outside; such rudimentary transport. So little resemblance to the casual jet-setting of the modern traveller.

And yet, I thought, what is the essence of Columbus's story? His curiosity aroused, he read and studied to learn what he could before venturing afar. Undeterred by the uncertainty of the unknown, he embraced unexpected encounters and turned them to his advantage. And when he returned to the great relief of those left behind, his world was changed forever.

Perhaps at its most fundamental, travel never changes.

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