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Looking for Columbus, finding Valladolid

Christopher Columbus died on May 20, 1506, an hour’s high-speed train ride away from Madrid in the picturesque town of Valladolid.

columns Updated: Jun 14, 2012 00:19 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Christopher Columbus died on May 20, 1506, an hour’s high-speed train ride away from Madrid in the picturesque town of Valladolid.

The Spanish economy was better at that point than now, and when the Spanish queen, Isabella I of Castile and Leon, sponsored Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the East Indies — which he got wrong by landing in America in 1493 — the big debate was not about whether Europe should choose austerity over growth but whether the world was flat or round.

Like Columbus, with my phone GPS not working, I ended up at the Casa de la India (House of India) instead of paying my homage at the Christopher Columbus House Museum that was pointed out to me from the balcony of the mayor’s office overlooking the magnificent plaza that served as the model for the main square of other Spanish cities including the modern capital Madrid.

I figured that if the Genoan seafarer couldn’t make his way round the Cape of Good Hope to the ‘real Indies’, I might as well spend my time before going to Casa de la India where I had to attend a panel discussion (‘India in the 21st century: Challenges and opportunities for Spain in a global (sic) world’) to my real pilgrimage — the Casa de Cervantes, where the author of Don Quijote lived between 1603 and 1606 and where he finished his masterpiece.

Put a bunch of Indians inside an India House and they will argue over the decor. And sure enough, on seeing the bust of Rabindranath Tagore near the entrance, a few of my compadres from ‘the Indies’ demanded to know from Guillermo Rodriguez, the director of Casa de la India, why there was “no sign of Gandhi”. The soft-spoken but terrifically articulate Rodriguez replied, “I was given a choice between Gandhi and Tagore. I chose Tagore because he was a poet.”

Rodriguez studied at Loyola College, Chennai, doing his thesis on poet AK Ramanujan. It was only after he tells me this that I realise that Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuit order along with Ignatius Loyola, was from Spain. No wonder that as a student of St Xavier’s, Calcutta, Valladolid looked strangely familiar and inviting.

Clearly, these days aren’t the only days when Spain has been going through a rough patch when it comes to money. The main cathedral, designed by the architect Juan de Herrera in the 16th century, was never completed after the city — which was the Spanish capital in the 15th century until 1561 and then again between 1601 and 1606 — ran out of money. But it is the National Museum of Sculpture, housed in the magnificent Gothic building of the theological College of Saint Gregory that is a stunner.

This 15th-16th century building, with a facade that looks as if it’s a vertical sheet of coral reef until one looks more closely at the figures adoring it, not only houses fabulous religious works from the 13th to the 19th century, but certain sculptures such as the wood-painted lying Christ, complete with post-crucifiction wounds, should be fascinating in its utter yet heightened realism for the Quentin Tarantino aficionado.

But Valladolid, I’m told, is not every modern Spaniard’s cup of tea. The town is dotted with active churches and the liberal Spaniard isn’t comfortable with the stark no-nonsense conservatism of the town. But it boasts of being the epicentre of Spanish language scholarship. The University of Valladolid, the oldest university in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe, was founded in 1241. But its rector, Marcos Sacristan, makes it a point to emphasise the university’s modern disciplines, especially popular courses in law and bio-technology.

It’s the library, however, that makes me swoon. As soon as I enter the glorious room, its walls lined with numerous volumes dating from the Middle Ages, I step into an age of uninhibited knowledge-gathering. I am told that there are more than 900,000 volumes. I linger over two special ones displayed under a glass case. The first is an early printed volume of medicine, showcasing the illustration of a human skeleton as studied by the Dutch anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The second is a theological textbook — but with much of its content blacked out. In the age of non-mass publication, the Spanish Inquisition’s version of censorship was a simple ink-driven crossing out. I try to make out the content that upset the Catholic grumpys so much. But my Latin is non-existent. So I can’t even make out what’s been left untouched.

Much easier is to register the fact that the annual Spanish Tapas Competition — ‘tapas’ being Spanish for snacksi or finger food that includes meat, cheese, anything actually — in Valladolid will be held in January. And our very own chef Sanjay Kapoor (whom I’ve promised to serve my legendary tea one day) will be a member of the jury.

First Published: Jun 14, 2012 00:16 IST