When Columbus set out from across the Río Tinto to chart a new sea passage to India, he brought rugged Huelvan sailors with him. After the sailors stumbled on the Americas, Huelva entered into a grand period of prosperity based on trade with the New World. Eventually Huelva's supremacy was lost to Seville and later to Cádiz, which came to dominate the gold and silver routes from the New World. A final blow was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that flattened much of Huelva. The city entered a long period of decline, and only in the past 50 years has it begun to make a comeback.
A major event is the Fiestas Colombinas, which begins on August 3, a weeklong riot of concerts, corridas (bullfights), food, processions, and competitive races.
A large statue on the west bank of the river at Punta del Sebo commemorates the departure of Columbus on his third voyage of discovery. About 7km (4 1/2 miles) up on the east bank of the Tinto River, this monument marks the exact spot where Columbus's ships were anchored while being loaded with supplies before departure.
To see other sights of Huelva, begin in the center of town at Plaza de las Monjas, a palm-lined square. From here, you can branch out in several directions to take in the highlights.
To the immediate northwest, reached along Avenida Martín Alonso Pinzón, is the Museo Provincial, Alameda Sundheim 13 (tel. 95-965-0424; www.museosdeandalucia.es), open Tuesday 2:30 to 8:30pm, Wednesday to Saturday 9am to 8:30pm, and Sunday 9am to 2:30pm. Admission is free. The archaeology department focuses on the port's illustrious past. Regrettably, this museum is in decline and some of its treasures are in storage with no set date for their return. Notably this includes its Bellas Artes collection of fine paintings. You'll have to make do with what's left, including artifacts that range from the Stone Age to the era of the Moorish takeover and an exhibition about the ancient city of Tartessus. Otherwise, a good dusting is in order.
After leaving the museum, you can visit Barrio Reina Victoria, east of the museum alongside Avenida de Guatemala. Constructed by the Río Tinto Mining Company in the early part of the 20th century, it was designed by British architects to evoke their homeland. Workers lived along the tree-lined streets in bungalows with rose gardens.
Huelva's grandest church is Catedral de la Merced, Plaza de la Merced s/n (tel. 95-924-30-36). Constructed in 1606, it was not damaged in the earthquake. Its facade is painted a vivid salmon pink with beautiful belfries. In the interior a white baroque decor predominates. The church contains an image of the Virgen de la Cinta, patron saint of Huelva. The building is usually open during the day, though it occasionally closes unexpectedly.
For a church with links to Columbus, head for the restored 15th-century Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Cinta, Plaza Conquero (tel. 95-925-11-22), 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the center on the road heading to Portugal. This was one of the churches where Columbus came to pray for the success of his voyage. Attractions under its Mudéjar ceiling include an impressive altar grille, a fresco of the Madonna dating from the Middle Ages, and a series of 1920s tiles depicting scenes from the life of Columbus, each by the artist Daniel Zuloaga. To reach this church from the center, head west along Avenida de Manuel Siurot. Once here you can take in views of the Odiel estuary. Opening hours of this church vary. Admission is free.
At the little town of La Rábida, 8km (5 miles) east of Huelva, you can visit the Monasterio de la Rábida, Zona de la Rábida s/n (tel. 95-935-04-11; www.monasteriodelarabida.com), in whose white chapel Columbus prayed for success on the eve of his voyage. Columbus stayed at the monastery with his son, Diego, and it was here he revealed his plans to friars Juan Pérez and Antonio de Marchena. They were so convinced of the brilliance of his scheme for a new route to India that they interceded on his behalf with Queen Isabella, who agreed to finance the expedition. This monastery, which is also called Santa María de La Rabadía, is known as "the birthplace of America."
The church's chief treasure is the venerated Virgen de los Milagros (Virgin of the Miracles), dating from the 1300s. In the gatehouse are frescoes painted in 1930 by Daniel Vázquez Díaz, a noted artist from Huelva. Of particular charm is a Mudéjar cloister from the 15th century, adjoining the monks' refectory where Columbus and his son dined.
Upstairs you can visit a gallery with an exhibition of all the known pictures of the explorer, including Chantal Goya's Admiral of the Ocean. Also upstairs is the Sala Capitular (Chapter House) where Columbus made his final plans before disembarking.
The monastery is reached via Calle Rábida, which is lined with ceramic tiles marking all the countries of the New World. The buildings at the complex had to be restored after the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Admission is 3€ ($4.80). Hours March to July and September to October are Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 4 to 6:15pm; in August, Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 5 to 8pm; November to February, Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 1pm and 4 to 6pm.
While pursuing Columbus' trail, you can also visit El Muelle de las Carabelas, the wharf from which his ships set sail, at Paraje de la Rábida, Palos de la Frontera (tel. 95-953-05-97), 4km (2 1/2 miles) north along the Río Tinto estuary and 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the monastery just visited. From this now heavily silted bay below Iglesia San Jorge, three caravels -- the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María -- set out to explore the Sea of Darkness. In those days Palos was a busy little port. In the complex stand replicas of the three caravels -- shockingly small to house a crew of 90, plus 30 officers, for 2 months and 10 days. Look also for maps tracing Columbus's voyage, and a 20-minute film of the trip, which kids will enjoy. Admission is 3.50€ ($5.60) for adults, 1.50€ ($2.40) for children 5 to 18. From June to September hours are Tuesday to Friday 10am to 2pm and 5 to 9pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 8pm; October to May, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 7pm.
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