Sunday, 11 April 2010

Alcalá de Henares: A capital escape from Madrid

Plaza Cervantes in winter

Most visitors to Madrid choose either Segovia or Toledo as their day trip destinations. Their popularity is understandable: Segovia boasts an impressive 894 metre long Roman aqueduct and a fairytale-esque castle said to have inspired its Disney counterpart, while Toldeo is renowned as 'the city of three cultures' and has a wealth of Christian, Jewish and Muslim monuments to explore. However, being so appealing comes at a price: from spring to autumn, both towns are almost taken over by tourists, especially at weekends. So, for those seeking a bit more solitude on their sojourns out of Madrid, the university town of Alcalá de Henares is a great option.

Often overlooked by foreign visitors to Madrid, Alcalá is a mere 35km and 35 minute train journey from the city centre. Not only is it home to the third-oldest university in Spain (after Salamanca and Valladolid), Alcalá is also the birthplace of the renowned author of Don Quijote, Miguel de Cervantes. As the self-titled 'city of arts and letters', modern-day Alcalá certainly isn't lacking in culture either: it has an annual Cervantes festival in autumn and a nineteenth-century theatre with a diverse programme of concerts and performances. In June it plays host to a month of plays by Golden Age greats including the famous dramatists Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega. If you're wondering what I'm rambling on about, it's probably worth pointing out that I'm a closet Spanish theatre geek who once studied these two writers.

For those of you who don't share my admittedly specific interest in Spanish theatre, fear not: there's plenty to attract the casual visitor too. Stepping off the cercanías commuter train from central Madrid, it's a short walk from the station to the centre of town. And what a centre it is; full of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings, pretty plazas and the colonnaded Calle Mayor, part of Alcalá's former Jewish quarter. My visit began with a bargain breakfast on the sunny terrace of Café de los Libreros – just €2.50 for coffee and a generous serving of toast. After soaking up the spring sun for a while, we took a wander through the town, acclimatising to the relaxed atmosphere and gentle pace – a welcome change from the constant commotion of the capital city. We noticed lots of storks' nests perched atop the towers and spires of Alcalá's historic buildings: a bit of research has since informed me that the town is home to around 90 pairs of storks, attracted by its location near the Henares river. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was certainly quite an experience to see the huge birds swoop through the sky before landing in their rooftop nests. We reached the beautifully-designed Plaza de Cervantes, Alcalá's main square, and sat for a while on a bench amid the flower beds, watching the alcalaínos saunter past and being watched by the storks, sitting proudly above us.

Although people watching is always fun, the literature geek in me was itching to get to grips with Alcalá's erudite past. Our first stop was the birthplace of Cervantes on Calle Mayor (free), a well-restored sixteenth century dwelling mocked-up to show what life would have been like for young Miguel. Displays explained more about contemporary domesticity, and I took my time poring over the extensive selection of copies of Cervantes' most famous work translated into myriad languages. Next on my cultural itinerary was a guided tour of the main university buildings (€4/€2 concessions, English tours in high season). Our lively young guide began with a potted history of the university: originally called the Complutense, it was founded by Cardinal Cisneros in 1496 and quickly became a renowned Renaissance seat of learning, expanding throughout the town as it gained in prestige. However in 1836, the university's fortunes took a turn for the worse and professors, students and resources were moved to Madrid and the still-existing Complutense University of Madrid was born. The buildings of the original campus were sold off and had various uses (one of the most striking rooms even served as a stable) until an American buyer decided to ship the emblematic facade back to the States piece by piece. Naturally the inhabitants of Alcalá were none too pleased and clubbed together to buy the buildings for the town. They lay empty until current King Juan Carlos came to the throne, and in 1977 the University of Alcalá de Henares opened, breathing academic life back into the town.

Friends outside the old university

The 45 minute visit took us around the beautiful main patios of the university – so beautiful, in fact, that more than one pair of brides and grooms was posing for pictures as we passed by. Particularly impressive was the hall where the Spanish literary prize, the Premio Cervantes, is presented each year. Built in a mixture of architectural styles and with an eye-catching mudejar ceiling, it was formerly the place where students underwent an oral examination to decide whether or not they would be awarded a doctorate. Often lasting several weeks, the process involved the student taking to a stand reminiscent of a witness box, with an 'angel' of a professor guiding them over one shoulder and one playing devil's advocate over the other. The rest of the faculty sat around the perimeter, with the opportunity to ask one question each. In the gallery above were the students, shouting at and heckling the poor doctoral candidate. Once this exam-by-torture was over, successful students would be led out into the main square through the 'gate of glory'; where townsfolk, alerted by the ringing of the university's bells, would be waiting to celebrate at a party paid for by the new doctor. The not-so-lucky candidates would be dragged from the room, out through the 'gate of donkeys' and then pulled around town by the donkeys themselves, at the mercy of the party-deprived people of Alcalá. This was probably nothing compared to what awaited them back at the university: having the spit of fellow students hurled at them until their black tunics turned white. Unsurprisingly, nobody ever re-took the exam.

As we ate our picnic lunch in the shade of the grand old university, I felt quite glad I wasn't a student in Alcalá's heyday. Maybe being an editor isn't so bad after all: at least when I get something wrong, there's no public humiliation to endure.

Alcalá de Henares is a 35-minute train ride on the C2 or C7 cercanías from Atocha station. You can also travel on bus 223 from Avenida de América.

Post updated October 2014.

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