Columbus in Seville?

I am standing in the Plaza del Triunfo in central Seville, facing south, with my head tilted at an angle of roughly 45 degrees. In the foreground rises the world's third largest cathedral, with its fine Moorish courtyard and its ingeniously designed Giralda bell tower. Medieval stone statues guard the perimeter walls, and inside, a patio of leafy orange trees has been laid out in perfect symmetrical lines.

I crane my neck to take it all in - the unique mix of Muslim and Christian styles, the chaotic fusion of some of the most inspired architecture the world has ever produced.

The Cathedral of Seville is a colossus without equal. Understandably, I'm not the first visitor to be awed by its bold Gothic beauty. Byron, Hemingway, Bizet, and Rossini all came here - with their poems and their songs, their pens and their quills - in pursuit of a legend.

Some cities seduce you at the airport. Others infiltrate your senses in a more subtle way. Seville in Andalucia is one of the latter variety, a place of strange contradictions and colorful contrasts; vicissitudes that alter and shift, often all in the space of 24 hours. You can hear it in its music and taste it in its tapas. With Flamenco-filled passion you can feel it in the vibrancy of its bustling streets. Indefinably, as you drive through the sun-bleached suburbs, the atmosphere quickly grabs hold of you and draws you in.

It's hard to let it go.

People have been flocking here for centuries in search of characters, real and imagined: the hot-blooded Carmen and her string of jealous lovers, the artist Murillo and his dark religious paintings, the Gypsies who reside in the Triana district across the river, with their mysterious musical prowess.

But for me the lure was of a slightly different nature.

"Christopher Columbus is buried in a mausoleum inside," says Andreas, the hardworking waiter in a cafe on Avenida de la Constitucion.

He takes a pen out from behind his ear and points it instructively at the huge southern door of the cathedral. I give him a supportive nod and finish my espresso, but I'm cynical to say the least.

I've already done my Columbus homework. The great explorer's death in 1506 - rather like his rags-to-riches life story - is shrouded in mystery.

First, there are the Dominicans, who will tell you that he was buried in the West Indies; then there are the Cubans, who will suggest that he was interred in Havana. Now there are the Spanish....

"Santo Domingo? Havana? No way, amigo," proclaims the paper seller on Calle Feria. "Without a doubt, I can assure you, he never left Valladolid," the Spanish city where he died.


The plot thickens.

With a few hours to spare at the end of a busy week, I am treating myself to a walking tour of the city center. The challenge isn't formidable. In the not-so-distant past I worked as a tour guide in Seville. I had the local geography down cold. I was pretty sure I'd nailed the Columbus myth, too.

Or had I?

I never tire of visiting Seville Cathedral. So large is the gloomy interior of this strangely majestic monument that I'm apt to discover something new at every turn. Built originally as a mosque by the Moors in the 12th century, it was rededicated to the Virgin Mary after the Christian reconquest of Seville in 1248. When the Spanish took over in 1402, a new cathedral was built in its place.

For the victorious Christians size was everything. The building of the cathedral itself took more than 100 years to complete, and the altarpiece - an intricate portrayal of 45 scenes from the life of Jesus - was the life's work of just one man.

They've even reclassified the building since I was last here, ranking it as the largest church in the world - ahead of St. Peter's in Rome when measured by volume, at least - although the Italians might not agree on the revised ranking.

I pay my entrance fee and negotiate the crowds in the small museum by the door. Where to investigate first? The Giralda is always a good starting point. The bell tower was a minaret left over from the old mosque, built as part of a magnificent trilogy of religious monuments in the 1190s by the great sultan El-Mansour of the Almohad dynasty (the other two are in Rabat and Marrakech in Morocco).

There are no stairs to the top - just a long ramp that ascends through 35 staggered levels. Legend has it that the sultan, in the days before elevators, liked to be able to ride up on his horse in order to take in the stupendous view.

I can see why. To get the real scale of Seville Cathedral you have to get up above it and look down, rather than up. Huge stone buttresses dwarf the surrounding shops with their dramatic Gothic simplicity. Highly skilled craftsmanship promotes a sense of harmony and balance that interplays between the inherently different Christian and Islamic styles. The tiny specks in the street below remind you of the sheer grandiose scale of a building that took more than a century to construct.

"We're going to construct a building so large that future generations will think we were mad," the designers and builders wrote.

Yes, they were mad all right.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the narrow lookout gallery at the top of the bell tower an interesting debate about Columbus's final resting place ensues.

"Santo Domingo," exclaims a young student to a couple of his less-than-convinced colleagues. "He was buried in Santo Domingo on the Island of Hispaniola. They've proved it, I'm telling you."

When in Seville, the great explorer is hard to avoid.

Let's track back. Christopher Columbus died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain, in relative obscurity. It was only after his death that his legend flourished and his remains went on a kind of transglobal odyssey. In 1509 they were moved from Valladolid to La Cartuja monastery in Seville. Then in 1537, on the instructions of his son's widow, they were transferred to the New World, along with those of his son Diego, and interred in Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola.

So far, so good.

The confusion arises in 1795, when the Spanish, after becoming embroiled in the revolutionary conflicts that were wracking Europe, ceded Santo Domingo to France and, in order to preserve the legend of "their" celebrated explorer, shipped his remains off to Havana, Cuba, for safekeeping. Here they lay until 1898, when Spain, having lost a three-month war with the United States, ceded Cuba to the Americans and shipped Columbus back to Seville. Or did they?

In 1877 workmen renovating the cathedral in Santo Domingo dug up a second coffin, inscribed with the fateful words "Herein lies Christopher Columbus."

One man, many unanswered questions.

So where do the remains of Columbus lie? Did the Spanish move the wrong body to Cuba in 1795? (That of his son Diego, perhaps?). To date, nothing has been able to settle the question. But scientists from the University of Granada are seeking authorization to travel to the Dominican Republic to test the remains there.

Meanwhile, back downstairs in the dim light of the cathedral, I make my way to the southern door or Puerta de Principes and the bronze-carved Mausoleum of Seville's famous adopted son. The coffin, carried respectfully by four ceremonial pallbearers representing the four old kingdoms of Medieval Spain, looks rather grand and imposing in its pride of place. It gives away no secrets about its contents.

Then again, why should it?

Maybe some mysteries have a right to remain that way.

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