The complete guide to travels with Christopher Columbus

As the Italian city of Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, becomes one of this year's European Capitals of Culture, Cathy Packe ventures out in the footsteps of an explorer who helped shape the world
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The Independent Travel

WAS THAT HIS REAL NAME?

No, that's the Anglicized version; to the Spanish he was known as Cristobal Colon; in Genoa, where he was born in 1451, he is known as Cristoforo Colombo. At the time, the city was an important seafaring centre, and Columbus became a successful merchant-seaman with a fascination for the travels of Marco Polo. He convinced himself that it must be possible to reach India and China by sailing west rather than east, and he became obsessed with finding someone to finance a voyage that would prove him right.

Few people within the tangled network of nations now known as Italy were prepared to support him, and he was forced to look outside Italy for financial backers. Even then it took more than a decade before he was able to set sail, but finally, as every schoolchild used to learn, in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. His sponsors were the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who in the same year drove the Muslims out of Spain and united their country.

A great deal of myth surrounds Columbus and what he discovered. He sailed westwards in 1492 and landed on several Caribbean islands; in his three subsequent transatlantic voyages, he found more islands and landed on the coastline of the Americas. But his main achievement is that he made the first recorded voyage across the Atlantic, and opened the way for others to discover America.

IS HE REMEMBERED IN HIS HOME CITY?

Yes, at least in the Cristoforo Colombo airport, four miles west of the city. British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) flies in daily from Gatwick, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) arrives twice a day from Stansted. A cheap bus connection takes you from the airport to the city centre. But besides a square and a street named after him, there is little to commemorate the explorer.

One of the themes of Genoa's year as European Capital of Culture (00 39 010 576 791, www.genova-2004.it) is its heritage as a maritime city. A new exhibition centre - the largest museum complex in Europe - has opened in the restored dockyard area. Among other attractions, it houses the Museum of the Sea and Navigation (00 39 010 246 3678, www.portoantico.it) which celebrates the city's nautical history. It opens 10.30am-7pm from Monday to Wednesday and 10.30am-8pm from Thursday to Sunday; admission €5.50 (£4).

HOW DO YOU GET FROM GENOA

TO AMERICA?

These days, via Gatwick. But Columbus took a more tortuous course. Once he had persuaded the Spanish king and queen to fund his trip, he based himself in the small village of Palos de la Frontera, six miles from Huelva in the south-west corner of Spain. The river on to which Columbus' ships were launched is little more than a trickle these days, but back in the 15th century, Palos was a prosperous shipbuilding town, and the vessels that Columbus and his crew sailed across the Atlantic were built here.

WHAT CAN I SEE IN PALOS?

A monument in the square outside the church of St George commemorates the 35 local men who set off across the Atlantic with Columbus as part of el Descubrimiento, as his four voyages of discovery (or exploitation) are known locally. These men included Martin, Vicente and Francisco Pinzon, three brothers who were on board the caravels that sailed with Columbus on the first of these journeys.

On 3 August 1492, the night before they set sail, the whole crew went to pray in St George's, as was the custom before any major voyage. Just up the road is the birthplace of the Pinzon brothers, now a museum (open daily 10.30am-1pm), with contemporary maps and documents, and a model of the Pinta, the ship captained by Martin Pinzon. Nothing remains of this, or the other two ships, the Santa Maria, on which Columbus sailed, or the smaller Nina. However, all three have been reconstructed in a new museum at the Muelle de las Carabelas (00 34 959 530597; open 10am-2pm and 5-9pm from Tuesday to Friday, 11am-8pm at weekends). This is located on a quayside near Palos that has become the focal point of the Lugares Colombinos - the places connected with Columbus.

On a hill above the quay is the monastery of La Rabida (00 34 959 350411), where the explorer discussed the plans for his voyage with Father Marchena, a monk who was part of the royal household and had a crucial role in persuading the king and queen to back Columbus. There are still monks at La Rabida, and they show visitors where Columbus prayed and where he and Father Marchena held their meetings. The monastery is open 10am-1pm (Sundays from 10.45am) and 4-7pm daily except Monday.

NEXT STOP, AMERICA?

Before he could get very far across the Atlantic, Columbus had to stop to repair his ship at the harbour of San Sebastian, on the east coast of a minor Canary island, La Gomera. There are a few Columbus artefacts, including more models of his ships, in the Casa de Colon (Calle del Medio 56, open 10am-1pm and 4-6pm from Monday to Friday), where Columbus is supposed to have stayed during his stopover in the town.

La Gomera has recently acquired its first airport, but it is too small to take direct flights from Britain. Instead, you can fly to Las Palmas or Tenerife North, and connect - or fly on one of many charter and scheduled airlines to Tenerife South, and take the ferry from the nearby port of Los Cristianos. A leading specialist to La Gomera and other Canary Islands is Corona Holidays (020-8530 2500, www.coronahols.com).

From the Canaries, Columbus set sail across the Atlantic, convinced that the next stop would be the Orient.

BUT HE DIDN'T GET THERE?

He certainly got across the Atlantic, and although confusion surrounds the exact place where he first disembarked, it is thought to be somewhere in the Bahamas. But it is an established fact that on 27 October 1492 - nearly two months after he had set sail from Palos - Columbus landed in Cuba, returning there again a couple of years later. It must have been a shock to find tumbledown shacks rather than the graceful palaces he was expecting.

These days, Cuba is still more ramshackle than elegant, but there is plenty to offer visitors: modern beach resorts around the capital, Havana and along the north coast, and colonial architecture in towns such as Santiago, as well as in the capital.

Columbus landed on the Atlantic coast, and sent emissaries inland. They found a settlement that later became Holguin, a pleasant city with several parks and a collection of buildings that could have come straight out of eastern Europe during the Cold War. Its historical attractions have more connection with the independence movement of the 19th century than with Holguin's colonial past.

There is more evidence of Columbus in his next stop, Baracoa, a scenic spot at the eastern end of Cuba's Atlantic coast - close to the island's "Land's End". On the basis of a cross he is supposed to have planted, which is now in the Iglesia de la Asuncion, Baracoa feels entitled to claim the title of oldest colonial city in the Americas. Inevitably, this has spawned a collection of other firsts, notably the oldest house in the Americas (Calle Juracion 49). Extended several times since it was built, it still contains the single room that was the original dwelling. The house is not open to the public, but the owner may be persuaded to invite callers inside for a peek.

More importantly for future explorers, Columbus wrote about the surrounding terrain in his diaries, describing a mountain now known as "el Yunque" for its anvil-like shape; this became a reference point for others sailing along the Cuban coast.

Columbus returned to Cuba at the end of his second voyage, reaching a headland now known as Punta Colombo, at the north-eastern end of the Isla de la Juventud. This island off the Caribbean coast is now popular as an escape from Havana.

To reach these far-flung corners of Cuba, consult a specialist such as Regent Holidays (029 2021 1711, www.regent-holidays.co.uk).

DID COLUMBUS GET AS FAR AS COLOMBIA?

Surprisingly, given that the country is named after him, Columbus was not involved in the first European exploration of this South American nation, although one of his companions, Alonso de Ojeda, landed there in 1499.

The only foray Columbus himself made into South America was during his third voyage. He had first found himself on the island of Trinidad, where he is now honoured in the capital, Port of Spain, by a colourful statue in a square that bears his name near the cathedral. As he sailed away from the island, he found himself skirting the narrow and isolated Paria peninsula. This is part of the mainland of Venezuela close to the Orinoco delta, and not, as he first assumed, another island. This was to be the only time he set foot on the South American mainland. The main conurbation on this strip of land has been christened Puerto Colon, and a huge, bronze statue of the town's namesake dominates the main square, taken there in 1968 from the hill of El Calvario, in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Reaching Venezuela is tricky: the only scheduled airline from the UK is British Airways . To reach Puerto Colon is a long and gruelling journey for which specialist advice is an asset; consult South American Experience (020-7976 5511, www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) or Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk).

WHAT ABOUT CENTRAL AMERICA?

It was not until his final, fourth voyage in 1502 that Columbus landed in Central America. Following a visit to Hispaniola, he headed south and had to negotiate the treacherous waters of the Honduran coast. His relief at leaving these depths - or Honduras, as the deep waves were called in Spanish - gave the country a name which has stuck ever since. He landed on Guanaja, the most easterly and most attractive of the Honduran Bay Islands.

Guanaja was named Isle of Pines by the man who discovered it, and it is still a densely wooded area. It is now relatively easy to reach by air, an asset for the visitors who come to enjoy the luxury diving resorts that have opened up on the island. The Latin American specialists above can advise on reaching Guanaja, most easily accessed via Honduras' main airport, San Pedro Sula.

From here Columbus followed the Central American landmass to the east and south, until he found himself on the Mosquito coast, a swampy and unpleasant part of Panama, from which he quickly moved on. He has been commemorated, though, in towns at the Atlantic end of the Panama canal, Cristobal and Colon, the two halves of his name in Spanish.

Colon is now Panama's second city, not the most attractive place in Central America, but an interesting day trip from Panama City.

ANYWHERE MORE ATTRACTIVE?

Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1494, during his second voyage, and he came ashore at St Ann's Bay, not far from Ocho Rios, now a popular tourist destination on the north coast. Some 15 years later, the first Spanish settlement was established slightly inland at Sevilla Nueva, and its ruined fort is worth a visit. It is hard to imagine that this relaxed, colourful island could be a low point in anyone's travels, but by the time he reached Jamaica Columbus had lost several ships. This could ultimately prove to be an added tourist attraction: marine archaeologists are now exploring the area for wrecks, and have found a number of timbers that may have come from two of the caravels that were accompanying Columbus and his party. Hayes and Jarvis (0870 89 89 890, www.hayesandjarvis.co.uk) is one of a number of operators offering holidays to the island.

DID COLUMBUS HAVE A

FAVOURITE DESTINATION?

At the end of his first voyage, Columbus landed in Hispaniola, which he described in his diary as the most beautiful place he had ever seen - and this despite the trauma he must have suffered when his ship, the Santa Maria, sank close to the shore, leaving him to return to Spain on the smaller Nina.

Scenically, the beauty of the island, with its high mountain ranges and coastal plains, is hard to deny, but it has always been a miserable place to live, as the men left behind by Columbus quickly found out. It is now divided between Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, closely associated with voodoo and violence, and the larger Dominican Republic to the west, which is an increasingly popular tourist destination, with excellent beaches and good diving opportunities, particularly along the Atlantic coast between Puerto Plata and Cabrera. Try Tropical Places (0870 160 5017, www.tropicalplaces.co.uk) which offers packages to a number of hotels along this coast.

On the opposite side of the island - and a feasible day-trip - is the capital, Santo Domingo, the oldest European city in the Americas: the first wooden houses were built by Columbus' brother, Bartolome, who remained on the island after the second voyage. Christopher's son, Diego Colon, later took control of the city and developed it into a capital. The colonial district is a tiny part of the modern city, but it still has some worthwhile monuments dating from the Columbian period. These include the Fortaleza Ozama, the oldest fortress in the Americas, and, alongside it, the cobbled street of Las Damas, where Diego Colon's wife would stroll with her friends. America's first cathedral is the basilica of Santa Maria (open 9.30am-7pm from Monday to Saturday and 10am-3pm on Sundays, entrance RD$10, 14p), whose foundation stone was laid by Diego Colon.

WHERE IS HE BURIED?

Even after his death, Columbus, or at least his mortal remains, continued to travel. Originally buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid, where he died in 1506, his remains were moved to Seville, and then, in the 1540s, to Santo Domingo, where he was buried alongside his son. Despite an apparent move to Havana, at the request of the Cubans, an urn bearing his name was discovered under the altar during restoration work at Santo Domingo cathedral, and the contents have been identified as genuine. The cathedral is at the junction of Calle Arzobispo Merino and Calle Isabel Catolica (001 809 689 1920, open 9am-4pm Mon-Sat, entrance free). The remains of Columbus now lie in a mausoleum in the recently-built, and very controversial, Faro a Colon lighthouse in Santo Domingo (Parque Mirador del Este, 001 809 591 1492, open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, entrance RD$1.50, 2p). The lighthouse was built to a British design in the shape of a cross, and it contains a chapel and a number of exhibition rooms. The construction cost up to $250 million (£150 million), according to which estimate you believe, although the human cost was even higher, as thousands of people were removed from their homes in return for very little compensation. Nevertheless, it is a spectacular sight, and is periodically illuminated with beams of light that form a crucifix around it.

What's in a name?

A legacy that survives today

Columbus can be credited with, or blamed for, native Americans becoming known as Indians. He arrived in Cuba to find many of the local people wearing gold jewellery. On enquiring where the gold had come from, he was given the answer "Cubanacan". Columbus interpreted this as "Kubla Khan", and took it as the proof he needed that he had succeeded in reaching the Indies, where the native people would be Indians. The gold had in fact come from "the middle of Cuba", but native Americans are referred to as Indians to this day.

A number of places, in areas never visited by Columbus, bear his name or a variation on it, including British Columbia and Washington DC. At least three American cities, in Georgia, Indiana, and Ohio, are called Columbus, and Columbia appears across America in states that include California, Missouri and South Carolina.

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