In 1492 … Colón sailed the ocean blue
–by MALCOLM ANDREWS
You would be hard-pressed to find a port in Spain that doesn’t boast a giant statue of Cristóbal Colón.
We can see the look of bewilderment that has already crept across your face. Cristóbal Colón? Who is he and why would he be so revered by the Spanish. The answer is simple. He is the famous explorer we know by his Italian name of Christopher Columbus. Remember the ditty from our schooldays? “In 1492 … Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
In the first week of August we celebrated the anniversary of his setting sail on the first of his four voyages to ‘discover’ America. And, as happens each year, all those Spanish ports along the Atlantic and the Mediterranean use the day as excuse to party on long into the night, whether or not he had anything to do with the town or city in question.
Colón was a Genoese sailor of Spanish-Jewish extraction and is credited with driving a hard bargain to finance his adventures. For eight years he had been trying to persuade his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, to come to his aid. He wanted a knighthood, the hereditary ranks of Grand Admiral and Viceroy, and 10 per cent of all income raised by the admiralty. It was a tidy sum as Spain had one of the greatest navies in the world and would regularly plunder foreign ports and ships of other nations.
At first Colón received a curt: “No!” But then the monarchs relented and he sailed off from the Atlantic port of Palos de la Frontera on August 3, 1492. He was actually looking for a new route to India – but central America got in his way and he found even greater riches that had envisaged.
The city of Cartagena on Spain’s south coast had little to do with Colón. Nevertheless it boasts two prominent statues of the explorer, one in the old town, the other on the foreshores of the Mediterranean. The latter is an impressive sculpture with his right arm outstretched as if pointing to the Americas.
Although he never lived in Cartagena, the locals tell us he is important to the city because it is one of the most famous ports in the whole of Europe and home to the Spanish Navy since the 16th century. Today it is a Mecca for cruise vessels that ply the Mediterranean and SeaDream I and II regularly stop off for the passengers to soak up the unique ambience. And the SeaDreamers pose for ‘selfies’ with the wharf-side statue as a giant backdrop.
The good folk of Cartagena are also known for their love of festivals, and not only those with links to the explorer. When the two SeaDream mega-yachts docked on the same day in May, the locals were in the process of commemorating May Day, the international public holiday devoted to workers.“It is a pity you cannot stay on,” we were told. “The Festival of the May Flowers begins in a few days time.” No one is quite sure what the festival celebrates. But priests, brothers and nuns from various religious orders make crosses out of a variety of flowers and decorate the streets, especially in the old town. Women put on their traditional flouncy Spanish dresses. The men don the high-waisted trousers. Guitars and flamenco dancing are the order of the day (and night). And vast amounts of Spanish food, sangria and sherry are consumed. Even without the partying, Cartagena is an interesting place to visit.
A ‘must-see’ for SeaDreamers is the Roman theatre, one of the biggest in all of Europe. The theatre was built between 5 and 1 BC, at the behest of Emperor Augustus Caesar and dedicated to his grandson Gaius and Lucius. In the 3rd century AD a moorish market or Kasbah was built over much of the theatre and some 10 centuries later a cathedral was constructed adjacent to the site using material purloined from the ancient theatre. The cathedral was destroyed in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War and the ruins have since remained virtually untouched. It wasn’t until 1988 when much of the site was being excavated for a new regional arts and crafts centre that the original theatre was discovered. The area was turned into a giant archeological dig. Restoration was finished in 2003 and a new museum has since been completed. Colón or Columbus … whatever you call him … would have been pleased!
MALCOLM ANDREWS is an Australian author and travel writer who has been a SeaDream devotee for the past decade.