The three main reasons why the city of Alcalá de Henares is so well-known
First of all, it is the city where the writer Miguel de Cervantes was born.
He was born in 1547. The author of the famous novel Don Quixote de la Mancha, published in 1605, he is considered to be one of the greatest Spanish writers.
Next, Alcalá de Henares is famous for its university with the same name, founded in the 16th century by Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros.
The project included the construction of colleges, university residences, publishing houses, and hospitals. To build these infrastructures in one place, he acquired land in the east of the medieval town. This campus, thus developed, contributed to the excellence of the University of Alcalá. It was the first time in history that one designed a town to be specifically a “university town.”
The way the city was organized was remarkable. The religious orders, the citizens, and the academic circle lived in harmony. It was also the reason why the cardinal Jiménez de Cisnero considered it the ideal city — the “City of God.” This model was exported by the Spanish missionaries to the Americas. Soon after, many universities in Europe and America followed suit.
The final step of the city’s consecration was that of Miguel de Cervantes and his writing. It elevated the city to the highest level of reconnaissance.
The cardinal’s ambition to recreate the City of God then became a reality.
And finally, the third and most unlikely reason is the number of storks that nest on the city’s roofs.
I didn’t notice them right away. But when looking up to admire the buildings, you can’t miss them. There are nests of white storks all over the roofs! I later learned that the city had counted up to approximately 130 nests. The white stork has even become a symbol of the city. Incredible! I didn’t expect this spectacle at all.
Alcalá de Henares is the perfect city for these storks. In addition to the town’s calm—far from the main roads, the city takes good care of them. They replace the old nests with sturdy platforms and place artificial nests when necessary. Also, they rescue the chicks who fall from the nest and/or are injured and carry out public awareness activities.
The place is so perfect that some say that the storks forget to migrate!
To better understand these guests, researchers set up a comprehensive project to study the white stork. They equipped a stork named “Alcala” with a GPS and tracked him in real time. The study was a success! Not only did Alcala survive his first year, he also made the round trip from South of the Sahara. This excellent result delighted everyone in the city. 😃
But let’s now explore this city full of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.
Our city tour
As we arrived by car, we parked on the outskirts of the old town. We stayed a few hours in Alcalá de Henares and opted for a walking city tour with a stop at the Cervantes Museum.
The Archaeological Museum of the Community of Madrid
The city inaugurated The Archaeological Museum on May 25, 1999, 14 years after the decision to convert this former convent of the Madré de Dios into a museum.
The first part of the museum tells the story of the convent. Built initially for the Dominican Order, it was then a barrack, a prison, a court of justice until it became a museum. Then, there is a chronological display of the Madrid region evolving from prehistory to the present day.
The Cistercian Convent of San Bernardo
Cardinal Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, Toledo’s archbishop and cardinal, founded the Cistercian Convent of San Bernardo in 1613. Popularly known as the Convento de las Bernardas, 24 cloistered nuns lived there when it opened, but over time, only six remained. They then had to close it in 2000, the six nuns having to join another nunnery.
Catherine of Aragon
Alcalá de Henares was Catherine of Aragon’s home before leaving the peninsula to marry Henry VIII, King of England. Unfortunately, as she didn’t give birth to a male heir, Henry VIII asked the Pope to cancel the marriage. The Pope refused the request. Henry VIII then had the “Act of Supremacy” drafted, declaring the King as “the sole and supreme leader of the Church of England.” This writing led to the separation of the Church of England from the Catholic Church.
Isabelle I or Isabella the Catholic
Spaniards considered Isabella I, Queen of Castile and Queen Consort of Aragon as the first queen of Spain by herself. After struggling to claim her right to the throne by usurping her niece’s place, she reorganized the government system. She brought the crime rate back to the lowest level in years and relieved the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Alcalá de Henares
It was here that, in the 1480s, Christopher Columbus would have had his first encounter with the Reyes Catalicos—King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, who financed the journey to discover America.
The main street, Calle Mayor
The main street, built in the 12th century, followed the route of the ancient Roman road. It is the longest street in Spain with arcades.
It has been preserved as it is, and when you pass under the arcades, you can see the buildings’ dilapidated foundations.
The street runs through the old Jewish quarter, whose houses have retained their original facades.
This 15th-century house belonged to Miguel de Cervantes‘ family. Around a beautiful courtyard with Renaissance-style columns are the rooms of a traditional Spanish home.
Don Quixote de la Mancha
Don Quixote de la Mancha was published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, and described as the “first modern novel” after the Middle Ages’ writings. Many authors consider it the best literary work ever written. It is one of the most widely read in the world.
The plot revolves around the adventures of Alonso Quixano. This nobleman from La Mancha, obsessed with chivalrous novels that he devours, loses his mind and decides to become a wandering knight. He goes to fight evil and seek his dulcinea across Spain on his horse, Rocinante. He then takes the name “Don Quixote de la Mancha.”
In his quest, he recruits as squire a simple farmer, Sancho Panza. The latter, obsessed with food and aware of his master’s madness, still decides to accompany him to help him protect the oppressed.
San Diego Square with a statue of Saint Cisternon
San Ildefonso University
Located in San Diego Square, Cardinal Cisneros founded it in 1499. It has one of the most remarkable facades of the Spanish Renaissance. Inside is the Paraninfo, where the royal couple award every 23 April the Cervantes Prize, which honors an outstanding writer’s lifetime achievement in the Spanish language. There is also the San Ildefonso Chapel, where Cisneros’ tomb rests.
We were a little disappointed, as the university only offers guided tours in Spanish, with no possibility of a free visit.
We continued our tour, crossing the Cervantes Square—the former market plaza that served for a very long time to house fairs and popular festivals, to go to the theatre.
Corral de Comedias
Alcalá de Henares built this theatre in 1601, the oldest preserved theatre in Europe. Over the years, it has undergone some modifications. A roof was added above the auditorium and dressing rooms were built, giving it an elliptical shape. On the other hand, the building’s original rectangular structure, the stage, the pit, the bleachers, and the space occupied by the “the cazuela” are still in their initial state.
Before the 16th century, there were no concrete theaters in Spain. The shows took place in houses or inns’ courtyards rented for this purpose, and the companies then had to improvise a scene at the back of the patio. The nobility used the upper floors of the houses that overlooked the courtyard as loges, while the rest of the spectators stood facing the stage. After this period, real theaters were built around closed patios, with the same rectangular shape they had until then.
Unfortunately, the Corral de Comedias was closed when we came to Alcala de Henares, so that we couldn’t visit it.
The town ramparts
The Faculty of Philosophy and Letters
College-Convent of the barefoot Trinitarians—Trinitarios descalzos
The Trinitarian John Baptist Of The Conception founded the Congregation of the Barefoot Trinitarians in 1601. The convent’s construction began in 1626, with architecture in Madrid’s typical Baroque period.
Magisterial Cathedral of Saints Justus and Pastor
Its origin dates back to Justus and Pastor‘s martyrdom, which took place at the beginning of the 4th century. The two schoolchildren aged 13 and 9 were killed for their faith during the persecution of Diocletian. Whipped and beheaded, today they are considered the patron saints of Alcalá de Henares and schoolchildren.
What also makes this church’s originality is that it is the only church with the Saint-Pierre church of Louvain, in Belgium, to have the title of “Magistral church.” It obtained this title in 1519. It assumes that all its canons must have a doctorate in theology. Later in 1991, it became a cathedral.
Hermitage of St Lucia
It’s one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Initially built in a Roman-Mudejar style in the 12th century, it was renovated in the Baroque style in the 17th century. But it was the third reconstruction in 1966 that gave it its current appearance.
But the reason it’s emblematic is that it was the first place where the city’s municipal council sat. From the Middle Ages and until 1515, the city council gathered there.
Since the 90s, it has become a Polish Catholic chaplaincy dependent on the diocese of Alcalá de Henares.
Alcalá de Henares is a lovely city that surprised us with its history and its buildings’ beauty. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to enjoy it fully. A whole day would have been perfect.