However, every time I discussed this explorer's deeds, my mind would stray back to the Dominican Republic, where a Peruvian friend of Inca descent was incensed by his very name. When I asked him if it was true that Columbus's tomb was located in Santo Domingo, he blurted out, "Columbus was a murderer who set the stage for enslaving the Americas!" His eyes blazed. "The world has made a hero out of a gold-seeking monster. I hope that he is burning in the hottest furnace of hell." To him, this, the most famous sailor the world has ever known, was no saintly figure.
Loved or hated, there is no denying that this discoverer of the Americas changed forever the history of mankind. His life, thoughts, works and movements, even in death - Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Spain all claim his tomb - have been studied and volumes have been written, mostly glorifying his deeds. Only in the last few decades have a number of historians disputed the actions of this adventurer, who sailed halfway around an unknown world to enrich the treasury of Spain and, in the process, convert the ‘infidels’.
Taking the gentleman’s advice to heart, I became intrigued with La Rábida; the place from where Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery. Renting a car for a day, my travelling companion and I set out driving westward from Seville. The seductive atmosphere of Seville, with its world-wide reputation as a town of flowers, dark haired beauties and exquisite Moorish patios, was soon forgotten as we drove through a rich-looking countryside filled with the footsteps of Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and, especially the Arabs, who had left deep imprints on the people and landscape.
Past Sanlúcar la Mayor, noted for its ruined Moorish castle, we drove on until the red-brown misty Arab walls of Niebla, towering on the crest of a hill like a pale mirage above Rio Tinto (Red River), came into view. Crossing a well-preserved Roman bridge, we entered the town through a charming Moorish gate - one of the four remaining from Arab times in the impressive ramparts.
Inside, our hope of finding a fascinating Moorish city was dashed. All around us were flaking and decaying homes, divided by dusty spaces where buildings have vanished. Gone were the days when Niebla, whose name comes from the Arabic Lebla, itself derived from the Roman Llipula, was a splendid capital of a small state, established after the downfall of the Caliphate of Cordova.
I could not see why Alfonso Lowe, in his book The South of Spain, called it the noblest ruin that ever excited the senses of the romantic. Perhaps the outline of its walls with their 46 towers, said to be the only complete Moorish ramparts in Spain, gives it that aura.
After parking our car, we explored the ruins of the Moorish Alcázar and the Church of Santa Maria de la Granada, which still retains a Moorish doorway, ablution-fountain and some exquisite tiles, then departed.
In less than half an hour we were in Huelva, known in Roman times as Onuba. Situated some 94 km (55 mi) west of Seville, in the centre of Costa del Luz, the city lies between the joint delta of the Rio Tinto and Rio Odiel. As the capital of the Province of Huelva and the seat of a bishopric, it’ becomes a busy and prosperous fishing and ore exporting port, but is not known for its tourist attributes.
While touring the exquisite San Pedro Church, built on the ruins of a mosque, I asked a well-dressed man standing near the doorway, in my broken Spanish, the way to the Franciscan Monastery of La Rábida. He answered in perfect English, "Follow the Avenida de los Pinzones along the banks of the Odiel and in about 10 km (6 mi) you will reach the monastery that gave Spain its greatness."
I smiled and said, "Others are not so enamoured with this launching pad for discovering America." I was thinking of the words of my Peruvian friend. The man grinned, "Columbus was a giant among men, a world sailor who once called this monastery home. Men must not judge him by today's standards."
Crossing the Rio Tinto we saw La Rábida, known to many as the birthplace of the Americas, atop a hill, gleaming in the sunlight. Parking our car, we walked through a pleasant garden to the famous Franciscan holy spot, constructed in the early 1400s. It is said that the building, encompassed by towering palms and pines, has retained the same outline as when it was first seen by America's discoverer.