He was a loser – no doubt about that. His fanciful dreams had been rejected by all, from the King of Portugal to the powerful advisers of Spain’s royal court.
Who could guess, as that debt-ridden Italian adventurer sought shelter in a monastery near the Portuguese frontier in southwest Spain, that history was being made?
The man’s name, of course, was Christopher Columbus. But back in 1484, when he knocked on the door of the Franciscan monastery of La Rábida, his gaunt, threadbare figure spoke of disappointment and rejection. His dream of sailing into the unknown and discovering the fabled land of a legendary ruler named the Great Khan had earned him only derision.
Legend has it that he told the friars: “I am a sea captain from Genoa, and I must beg my bread because kings will not accept the empires that I offer them.” Today the whitewashed monastery stands as solidly as ever, in a peaceful spot surrounded by flowers and orange and palm trees. Brown-robed Franciscan monks move silently through the cloisters just as they did five centuries ago. Here came the great turning-point. The Prior, Juan Pérez, and a monk named Antonio de Marchena, a cosmographer of repute, were enthralled by Columbus’s arguments.
Discussing the project, night after night, they decided that action was needed. Juan Pérez had once been confessor to Isabella, the Queen of Spain. He wrote a letter that so moved Isabella that she recalled Columbus to court, where finally he was able to muster support for his Voyage of Discovery to the New World. And the epic voyage began close to La Rábida. Visit the monastery and you can view a chapel containing a battered alabaster Virgin and Child before which Columbus and his men knelt before and after their voyage.
They sailed from the small port of Palos, where you find the house of the Pinzón brothers who provided and crewed his three ships. Replicas of La Niña, La Pinta and the Santa María can be seen at a riverside exhibition site near the monastery. Before the voyage Columbus and his crew attended mass at San Jorge church in Palos and filled their water barrels in a nearby well. They also loaded up with wine from local vineyards.
If you make a pilgrimage to La Rábida, it’s nice to know that they’re still making excellent wine in the area. Not only that. On the sandy soils here strawberry fields stretch for ever. This fruit ripens as early as February and thousands of tons are transported to European markets.
The spot where Columbus launched his voyage lies in the province of Huelva, famed for its fresh seafood and one of Spain’s most succulent delicacies: cured ham. Add to that miles of excellent sandy beaches and one of Europe’s most important nature sanctuaries, the Doñana National Park.
It could be worth a trip.