Columbus Day

The capital of northern Portugal is the city of Oporto, famous for the production of Port Wine. The river Douro, literally “of gold”, snakes its way through Castilla la Mancha in Spain, where it is locally known as the Duero.

Along the banks of the river, and up on slopes along the watershed, grow some of the best grapes in the world. Don’t let the French tell you any different. In Castille a varietal called Tempranillo produces a velvety, full bodied red wine. The locals call the grape “tinto fino”, and in The India Road the “tinto”, or red wine, is consumed by the Portuguese and Spanish delegations that negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, which split the world along a meridian three hundred seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

To the west of the archipelago, all newly discovered lands belonged to the Spanish crown. East, they belonged to Portugal. The treaty, signed and ratified in 1494, paved the way for the “golfão”, the sailing route across the South Atlantic from West Africa towards Brazil, then a downwind run parallel to South America, and finally the Roaring Forties, the westerly winds that blew the caravels east toward the Cape of Good Hope. The great circle, a broad anticlockwise tour of the Atlantic, mirroring the winds and currents, is the long way round. But the alternative, tacking south along the Congo, Angola, and Namibia, blasted by the trade winds and pushed back by the mighty Benguela current, had been a recipe for suffering and death in the expeditions that preceded Vasco da Gama.

The great circle route of the South Atlantic taken by Gama, illustrated in an old stamp from Mozambique, in the days of Portuguese Africa

The new route was so good that it was used right up to the end of the days of sail, even by the XIXth century tea clippers racing to China from Western Europe and the USA.

In 1479 the undiscovered world had been split along the twenty-eighth parallel of latitude. It was the first major negotiation conducted by the Perfect Prince, two years before he become John II of Portugal. The horizontal line runs from the Canary Islands to Orlando, Florida. After Columbus reached the Bahamas in 1492, at latitude 24ºN, Castille was faced with a thorny political problem. Since the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had sailed all the route after the Canaries in Portuguese waters, and made landfall in Portuguese territory, it was rather a stretch to claim the “Indies” for Spain.

The Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, allied with the pope, who just happened to be Spanish, decided to change the rules. Forgotten was the parallel division, with the northern part for Spain and the rest for Portugal, now what was needed was a line from north to south, so the new “Spanish” lands would be in the western half. Columbus proposed the line should go through the Azores. It would have meant immediate war between Portugal and Spain, and the pope had the good sense to reject it. The Spanish proposed a meridian one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.

The ailing king of Portugal, then only thirty-nine but slowly dying of arsenic poisoning at the hands of his wife, played his last master stroke against Queen Isabella of Spain by moving the meridian line a further two hundred seventy leagues west so the Portuguese ships could sail the route without entering Spanish waters. King Francis I of France was so incensed by the Treaty of Tordesillas he demanded to know where it was written in the testament of Adam that the Iberians had a right to split the world in this way.

In recent years the treaty has been invoked in international law by Argentina, to make the case for possession of the Malvinas, or Falkland Islands, and by Chile, to secure exploration rights in the Antarctic.

Tordesillas sits high on a hill on the north bank of the Duero, near the old Castillian capital of Valladollid, and the old Roman town of Setimanca, where some of the major archives of the Spanish empire are kept. The Ribera del Duero is the local wine region, practically unknown internationally. One of the wineries, bearing the proud old Spanish name of Vega Sicilia, produces a “tinto fino” modestly called “Unico”, that commands a price in the hundreds of dollars.

After the Douro river enters Portugal, the escarpments that form its banks have been terraced by hand, and are carefully cultivated to produce the Douro wine. Currently this is the best wine Portugal produces. Some of it is fortified with brandy and goes to the Port Wine industry, and some is bottled and sold. Production is relatively low and most of the distribution is in Portugal. Port, on the other hand, is mainly exported.

You can take a boat trip upriver from Oporto on one of the old vessels that were used to transport the wine and see the terraced slopes for yourself. Rivers were the great arteries that secured the flow of trade, the lifeblood of nations. As the boat sails back down to the estuary, you’ll see the great port wine houses on the left bank, to the south. On the northern bank you’ll see a magnificent building, dated from 1859, the old customs house of Oporto.

The "Government Hotel" in Oporto

The customs building is called the “Alfândega” in Portuguese. Any Portuguese word starting with “Al” is of Moorish origin. The terrorist events of this decade have made this linguistic root common knowledge in the West. The Arabic version is Al Funduq, which literally means “The Hotel”.

In the days of the spice caravans, the long land routes from the East, these “Government Hotels” were the places where at nightfall the convoy would stop and be provided with food and shelter. The caravans were also provided with a visit by the tax inspectors, which undoubtedly affected both digestion and slumber.

That was before the Portuguese defined the new sailing routes to the East and changed the world.


One Response to “Columbus Day”

  1. Algarve Removals Says:

    Superb blog thanks for posting it.

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