Along the harbor in Barcelona is a two-hundred-foot monument to Christopher Columbus. “Why is Columbus so widely celebrated in Spain?” I asked. “He’s from Italy.”
“No one is completely sure where he was born,” I was told, which is Spanish for “We bankrolled him, so he’s ours.”
In 1486, after twice failing to convince the king of Portugal to finance his expedition, Columbus turned to the queen of Spain. Queen Isabella rejected him as well, but he was persistent.
After a few years and several revisions to his PowerPoint presentation, Isabella finally approved his project in April of 1492.
Six months later, Columbus landed in the Bahamas. Five hundred years later, his statue was removed from in front of the city hall of my hometown.
The geography we now call Spain was a battleground during the Middle Ages, as various kingdoms fought each other for control.
That changed in 1469 when two teenagers, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, got married. Their strategic merger unified Spanish lands and gave birth to an empire.
The couple ruled as equal partners under the motto “as much one as the other.” One of their shared hobbies was Reconquista, the “reconquering” of lands held by Muslims.
For nearly eight hundred years, the Moors dominated the Spanish peninsula. After centuries of war, the last Islamic stronghold was the city of Granada. Granada fell to the Catholic monarchs in early 1492, a momentous year for the couple.
The royals celebrated the victory by forcing all Muslims to convert to Christianity and all Jews to be expelled from Spain. Those who did not cooperate were arrested, tortured, and sometimes executed.
A few months after the victory, Columbus and Isabella finally reached their agreement. The goal of the endeavor was financial, not scientific. Columbus promised the queen a quicker trade route to the riches of the East Indies. She decided Spain would lose little if the expedition failed.
Columbus didn’t set out to discover a “new world.” Rather, he stumbled upon what we now call the Americas. Tens of millions of people were living there.
In his journal he wrote of the natives, “They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
In the Caribbean colonies he established, Columbus had a reputation for brutality. On his watch, thousands of Native Americans were abused, raped, tortured, mutilated, enslaved, or murdered.
Today, Columbus’s legacy is being reconsidered.
“You can’t rewrite history,” I was told.
Ah, but you can. For example, Columbus was long considered the first European to visit the Americas, until archaeologists determined that Vikings settled in northern Newfoundland in the early 1000s—nearly five hundred years before Columbus’s voyages. Voilà—history rewritten.
Another misconception is that Columbus had to overcome the objections of flat earthers in order to sell his endeavor. In reality, the theory that the planet is round had been widely accepted for centuries.
Columbus’s real accomplishment is that his daring first voyage, driven by commerce, unlocked the door between Europe and the Americas. Centuries of colonization and exploitation followed. Native populations were decimated, primarily by European diseases.
Columbus’s “discovery” generated huge wealth for Spain, underwriting its new position as a European superpower.
The negative outcomes that followed the voyage can be blamed only partially upon Columbus. Sooner or later, some European explorer would have chanced upon the Americas and set a similar series of events in motion. Someone had to be first, and it was Columbus.
An obvious link between Christopher Columbus and my hometown does not exist. The city was named at its founding in 1812, due to the influence of a state legislator and fan of the explorer. The city might have been called Magellan, just as easily.
The Germans of Spain
Although I often travel solo, I decided to join a group to tour Spain. Other than si, no, and hola, I don’t speak Spanish, so it was a luxury to have someone else fret the logistics. Our group of eighteen Americans hopped around the Iberian Peninsula by train and bus for fourteen days. We started in Barcelona.
On Sundays, locals gather on the plaza in front of the Barcelona Cathedral and dance the sardana, a meticulously choreographed circle dance. The accompanying music is slow.
Local guide Monica said,“We are not as expressive as the Spaniards in the south—the flamenco dancers. We are quiet. Our music and dance is boring. We are the Germans of Spain.”
She was referring to Catalunya’s music and dance, but certainly not its art and architecture.
Groundbreaking surrealists Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí are both from Catalunya. Picasso’s formative years were spent in the city. Each of them has a dedicated museum located nearby.
However, the artist who made the most obvious impact on Barcelona’s cityscape may be Antoni Goudí.
He developed his own somewhat whimsical version of the style of modernism known as art nouveau, featuring curving forms and images of nature. It’s called modernisme.
Seven of Goudís architectural works in Barcelona comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I examined two of them from the street, Palau Güell with ironwork forged to resemble seaweed and Casa Batlló with broken ceramic tiles evoking the scales of a dragon.
Our group visited Sagrada Família, considered Goudí’s masterpiece. The massive church has been under construction since 1882. (Gaudí is buried in the crypt.) It is projected to be completed by 2032.
Sagrada Família is the most-visited monument in Spain. Inside, the columns holding up the roof resemble giant branching trees.
In the morning sunlight enters red and yellow windows, warming the sanctuary. The interior resembles the floor of a forest beneath a canopy.
Outside the church, gegants (giants) paraded and danced to drumming. The giants are wearable ten-foot sculptures made of wood and plaster. Each is carried by one person.
The gegants were first documented in 1424. Many of them represent kings and queens of Spain, including Ferdinand and Isabella.
Others include Saracen (a medievel Muslim) and mythical Goliath. The giants are a highlight of parades and holidays in Barcelona.
On my own, I visited Goudí’s Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry), due to its rough-hewn stone facade and twisting wrought-iron balconies.
Natural images, such as flowers, leaves, shells, even bugs, are incorporated into ornamentation throughout the nine-story residence. It was completed in 1910.
La Pedrera’s showstopper is its rooftop. There, over thirty chimneys, stairwells, and ventilation shafts are sculpted in surreal, curved shapes.
Many look like gigantic chess pieces, mushrooms, or storm-trooper (Star Wars) helmets. A poet dubbed the rooftop “the garden of warriors.” I wandered among the sculptures in awe.
Throughout Barcelona, signs, flags, and graffiti indicate Catalunya’s independence movement is still active.
Some buildings are decorated with yellow ribbons, which honor those imprisoned for spearheading the movement. Belize was the last territory to leave Spain. Will Catalunya be next?
Violence and violins
I caught the speedy AVI train to our next stop, Madrid. Announcements were made in three languages—Spanish, English, and Catalan.
With local guide Rosana, we toured the Prado Museum, which houses one of the world’s finest collections of European art.
Of the museum’s fourteen thousand paintings, an overwhelming fourteen hundred are on display.
Fortunately, Rosana cherry-picked the highlights, including works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Bosch, and Spain’s three great masters, Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco.
Picasso visited the Prado at age sixteen and was enraptured by them all, especially El Greco, who influenced Picasso’s blue and cubist periods.
Velázquez, an inspiration for Monet, is considered a founder of impressionism. Goya was the first of the expressionist painters.
Coincidentally, we arrived in Madrid on May 2, a national holiday that commemorates the people’s uprising against Napoleon’s occupation. Goya captured the violence of the revolt in two paintings, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808, both on display at the museum.
In 1561, Ferdinand and Isabella’s great-grandson, Philip II, moved Spain’s capital from Toledo to Madrid. Several kings over several centures built, renovated, expanded, and redecorated the royal residence. Today, it is one of the largest, most ostentatious palaces in Europe.
Inside, I (again) noticed how Christopher Columbus is revered by the Spanish. In a ceiling fresco, Columbus presents the continents of the Americas to the Catholic monarchs as a gift, while cherubs flutter overhead.
The palace has over three thousand rooms, brimming with paintings, silverware, porcelain, and the world’s only complete Stradivarius quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello.
The instruments are worth millions—each. I was not allowed to photograph them.
Back in the real world, I visited Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s main square in the 1600s. There, hucksters, dressed as Disney characters, tease small children with balloon animals and then demand tips from their parents. An obese Spiderman posed for photos.
I stepped inside of La Torre del Oro Bar Andalú, a small bar and shrine to bullfighting. The walls are decorated with the stuffed heads of bulls and explicit photos of matadors being gored.
Dwarves and elves
Northwest of Madrid in the small city of Segovia is the most impressive Roman structure in Spain—a two-thousand-year-old aqueduct.
The engineering marvel towers one hundred feet above Segovia’s streets. Constructed of unmortared granite blocks, the aqueduct once transported water ten miles from the Frío River.
Inside the city, the watercourse is supported by one hundred sixty-seven elegant stone arches. A few of the arches were rebuilt in the 1500s, but otherwise the structure has stood untouched by time.
Throughout Spain, nuns sell cookies from within cloistered monasteries, like Keebler elves in hollow trees. Typically, they make change while hiding from view behind lazy Susans. For a mid-morning snack, we stopped at the Order of the Immaculate Conception.
At the end of Segovia’s rocky ridge stands the imposing Alcázar, a frilly medieval royal palace. Disney’s animators borrowed its look for the castle in the 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Our lunch in Segovia featured a regional delicacy, tantalizing to some and off-putting to others—roast suckling pig. Restaurante José María raises its own pigs, which are served just twenty-one days after their birth.
The presentation of the piglet to the table was an elabrorate production, which culminated in the shattering of plates on the floor.
Tale of two cities
Toledo, Ohio, like Columbus, has no obvious reason to be linked to its namesake in Spain. However, the cities have been sisters since 1931, the oldest such relationship in the world.
Over the years, the Toledos have engaged in academic, artistic, and athletic exchanges. In 1982 the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio hosted an exhibition of paintings by El Greco. In Ohio, a plaza is named for Toledo, Spain. In Spain, a street is named for Toledo, Ohio.
The city sits on top of a mountain, surrounded on three sides by a bend in the Tagus River. Visitors park below the peak and take escalators to the city center.
Toledo’s history is complex and tumultuous, featuring Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
We visited the Tránsito Synagogue. It was built in 1361 by Muslim craftsmen for the Jewish community with the approval of the Christian majority. The interior looks more Islamic than Jewish. That level of interfaith tolerance did not outlast the Reconquista.
As our local guide, Juanjo, walked us to the cathedral, we saw signs of the city’s preparation for its annual Corpus Christi celebration.
Along the parade route, canopies, wreaths, and lanterns were installed. The day before the event the route will be strewn with aromatic herbs.
The highlight of the procession is the appearance of the Monstrance of Arfe, dating from 1515. Holy Toledo, the monstrance is monstrous! It stands ten feet tall and weighs over four hundred pounds.
Between appearances, the bejeweled receptacle is on display at the cathedral. Supposedly, it is made of gold brought by Columbus from the Americas.
The impossible dream
“Manchego means from La Mancha,” Juanjo informed us. “Manchego cheese is from La Mancha. I also am Manchego.”
La Mancha is an arid plateau that overlaps portions of four modern provinces. It is the setting chosen by Miguel de Cervantes for the novel Don Quixote.
He intended the choice to be humorous, as mancha also means stain, which reflects poorly on his knight-errant wannabe. Due to the success of the book, however, La Mancha came to be associated with romantic heroism.
We drove through farm country, surrounded by orchards of grapes, olives, and almonds, as well as yellow, red, and purple wildflowers. Ruined stone farmhouses hid in the fields. The landscape hasn’t changed much since the novel was published in 1605. La Mancha remains Spain’s least populated region.
The story of a delusional old man who’s lost his mind after reading too many books on chivalry, Don Quixote is considered the first modern novel and one of the greatest ever written. Over the centuries it has been interpreted variously, as comedy, tragedy, and social commentary.
A memorable chapter in the book features Don Quixote’s battle with the windmills, which he perceives to be evil giants. We found the windmills, a row of twelve, spiking a stoney ridge above the village of Consuegra. They once ground wheat. They share the ridge with the Castle of La Muela, a stronghold of the Knights Hospitaller during the Middle Ages.
Coming down the ridge, the bus struggled to navigate the narrow streets into town. Briefly, progress was blocked by a farm tractor.
We stopped at Alacena del Azafrán, a shop that sells one product—saffron. Members of the local farming community welcomed us with migas manchegas (fried bread crumbs), sausage, cheese, and wine.
They explained how saffron is produced as our local guide, Maria, translated.
Saffron is harvested from the blossoms of crocuses. The red stigmas and styles, called threads, are collected by hand and dried for use. It takes seventy thousand crocus flowers and two hundred hours to produce one pound of saffron, which is why the spice is the world’s most expensive.
Moor or less
We arrived in Granada on a weekend. Stag and hen parties rampaged through the tapas bars. In the crypt below the Royal Chapel, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella lay entombed.
The royal couple were so proud of their conquest of the Moors at Granada that they made the city their capital and chose to be buried there.
The site of their vaults, the Royal Chapel, was completed in 1517. In the chapel’s treasury are Isabella’s crown and Ferdinand’s sword.
On a rocky bluff overlooking the city is the Alhambra, an expansive complex of multiple palaces built over the centuries. Once, the Alhambra was its own city, surrounded by gates and walls. A cursory walk-through took us half of a day. The snow-capped Sierra Nevada provided a dramatic backdrop.
Most jaw-dropping is the Old Royal Palace, which is actually three palaces in one. Dating to the 1200s, the Palacio Nazaríes is considered one of the best-preserved historic Islamic citadels in the world. The architecture stuns with keyhole doorways, scalloped windows, colorful tiles, ornate stucco ceilings, alcoves, courtyards, reflective pools, and fountains. Every surface is covered with geometric patterns and Arabic caligraphy. Sensory overload.
After defeating the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella moved into the showplace and set up shop. Thousands of American tourists, me included, pause reverentially in the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors, the room where Columbus finally got the go-ahead from Isabella.
There’s more. At the head of the ridge is the Alcazaba, a former fortress and the oldest structure at the Alhambra. Nearby, King Charles V built his own palace in Renaissance style in the 1500s. And further up the ridge are summer palaces that belonged to various sultans, surrounded by landscaped gardens.
For a couple of centuries, the romantic allure of the Alhambra was forgotten. Then, in the 1800s, adventurous grand-tour travelers rediscovered it. The most influential of them was American author Washington Irving, who lived briefly in the palace. His book, Tales of the Alhambra, published in 1832, brought international attention to Granada.
A clichéd perception of Spain might include flamenco dancing and bullfighting. Both are largely Andaluçian in origin.
Andaluçia is the region of southern Spain. If you’ve watched a spaghetti western, you’ve seen the landscape. It is the only European region with a coast on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
We left Granada for Ronda, driving through rolling hills, dotted with stone farm houses. Bright red patches of poppies interrupted the wheat fields. Early crops included asparagus, strawberries, and onions.
On the ridges wind turbines have replaced Don Quixote’s windmills.
In town we watched a religious procession. Beneath the floats, dozens of men carried the heavy likenesses of Mary and Jesus.
The carriers’ shuffling feet were visible beneath the curtains. Women watching the parade wore mantillas (lace shawls) and peinatas (decorative combs).
I toured Ronda’s bullring, the oldest one still in use in Spain. Andaluçia is Spain’s center for both bullfighting and bull breeding with over one hundred bullrings and over two hundred farms.
We visited one of the farms, ReservaTauro, owned by bullfighter Rafael Tejada. Our local guide, Paqui, provided background on the raising of bulls. As we were preparing to leave, Tejada himself appeared.
When asked if he had ever been injured, he raised the pant leg of his running shorts to reveal an eight-inch scar. “Of course,” he replied. “You cannot avoid injury.”
Paqui mentioned to him that I had run with the bulls in Pamplona. (See post here.) Tejada fixed me with steely eyes. “You are a fool,” he said. I quickly agreed.
Past craggy limestone bluffs, a herd of goats, and miles and miles of gnarly olive trees, we found the Oleum Viride mill.
The mill nestles in a valley beneath the sleepy whitewashed hill town of Zahara de la Sierra. The ruins of the town’s Moorish fortress perch precariously on top of the peak.
At the mill, owner Luis explained the process of producing oil. The olives are picked by hand from steep groves. Milling is scheduled, “like a dentist appointment,” by the area’s farmers. From October to February, the mill operates around the clock.
Eighteen percent of an olive becomes oil. The rest, pits and mash, are repurposed as compost and fuel. I sampled a flight of oils, some of which were infused with tomato, fennel, seaweed, orange, lemon, or ginger. I was surprised to learn Spain produces forty percent of the world’s olive oil.
In Jerez de la Frontera, we stopped at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. A school guide, Anna, toured us around the grounds.
We visited the stables, the indoor arena, and the hospital. Everywhere, horses were being fed, bathed, and trained. The school stables two hundred and eighty of them—stallions, mares, colts, and fillies.
Wherever we turned, the horses approached us. Anna invited us to pet them. The Andalusians are a calm and friendly breed.
Anna showed us the room where semen is collected from the stallions for artificial insemination of the mares. In the middle is a structure covered with foam rubber and a tarp. “We deceive them,” Anna said. “A mare stands in a corner. The stallion is brought in. He sees and smells the mare, and gets excited.”
Anna continued. “We use a fake vagina,” she said with a nervous laugh. “To the stallion, it’s not much different.”
“I wonder if they are available in the gift shop,” someone whispered.
We arrived too early. The Feria del Caballo, the horse fair, was only just setting up. The festival dates to 1284. We walked the grounds of the park as two-hundred-plus food stalls began prepping for the day. Overhead were elaborate lighted arches. Trucks sprayed water on the sand to tamp down dust.
Later in the day, the park would feature a parade of horses and carriages, jumping and dressage competitions, a polo match, and livestock auctions. Music and dancing would continue into the wee hours.
Our guide found a stall selling glasses of sherry, which we sampled. Sherry, a fortified white wine, originated in Jerez de la Frontera.
The authentic Spanish version, served chilled, is much drier than the sweet dessert wines sold in the United States. As we sipped, we watched a couple practice their flamenco moves on the dance floor. Flamenco was developed by the Gitanos (the Roma) of Andaluçia.
Barbie and Chris
Bitter orange trees line the streets in Sevilla. The buildings are white (to reflect the hot sun), ochre (the color of bullring sand), and red (the color of blood).
With local guide Alphonso, we toured the Basílica de la Macarena, home of the life-size Barbie doll known as the Weeping Virgin.
The Macarena has human hair and sparkly tears of crystal. In the mannekin’s wardrobe are opulent crowns and mantles. (She wore all black when her favorite bullfighter died.)
Usually she is enshrined on the high altar of the church. (Her famous son is relegated to a side chapel.)
However, during Holy Week, she is carried slowly around town on a three-thousand-pound float, a ritual that takes up to eighteen hours.
The float carriers work in shifts to complete the journey. Crowds of emotional worshippers wait for hours, weep openly, and throw roses.
In the working-class neighborhood of Triana, I stepped into Bar Santa Ana. The walls are covered with religious images of Mary—and photos of bullfighters.
A replica of Magellan’s flagship, Victoria, is moored in the Guadalquivir River. In the early days of the Age of Discovery, Portugal led the way with the likes of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama. However, Portugal turned down both Columbus’s and Magellan’s requests for sponsorship and Spain picked them up as free agents.
Magellan left on his voyage to the Spice Islands with five ships and two hundred seventy men in 1519. Three years later, one ship, the Victoria, and eighteen survivors returned after completing the first circumnavigation of the world.
Magellan was not among the survivors. He had been killed during a battle while en route.
With his and Columbus’s successes, the balance of naval power shifted from Portugal to Spain. The country is currently celebrating the five-hundred-year anniversary of the completion of Magellan’s voyage.
Alphonso led a tour through the huge Sevilla Cathedral, the fourth largest church in Europe. It was finished in 1511.
Afterward, I climbed the church’s three-hundred-foot bell tower. No stairs, just a winding ramp, designed so that a man could ride a donkey to the top to call Muslims to prayer. The tower used to be the minaret for the mosque that stood where the cathedral now stands.
Christopher Columbus’s ornate tomb is inside the cathedral. Columbus was first buried in Valladolid, Spain, then moved to Sevilla, then the Dominican Republic, then Cuba, and then back to Sevilla.
He may have traveled more in death than in life.
I hope you are doing well, Kirk, and thanks for sharing. Sounds like you had another amazing journey. My oldest son Ben and his wife Morgan will be visiting Barcelona, Madrid, and many spots in Italy over 3 weeks in July. I will share this with them. I’m sure it will be valued. I hope to see you in Cbus sometime soon!
Our own Rick Steves though a bit more cheeky. Love the tour and the Columbus highlights. Familiar places we love.
Hi Kirk- Great article- you are a great teacher of history!
Glad to see that you’ve resumed traveling the world and your Spain adventure looks very interesting. As I recall, Portugal was your second port of call after the initial Edinburgh visit. If ever you do return temporarily to your “Columbus-less” hometown, let me know and I will buy supper for you at an agreed venue here.
It might be interesting if you put together a summary showing the countries visited and the years in which each visit was made by you. I haven’t seen Tibet yet, so that may be in your future.
I was hoping you could visit Putin in Russia to attempt to get him to end the war against Ukraine.
Good luck and safe travels to you.
So good to hear your travel tales again. Brings back memories of places visited in Spain and whets the appetite to see more. It is a long time indeed since we met you in bonnie Scotland staying in the same b&b and going for a pub meal. Remember the deer? Keep up the good writing. Always learn something new. Great to be on the road again after the last two years. Cheers and keep well.
Regards Anne and Derek
Great to hear from you, Anne. Hi to Derek.