Photo: MADRID REGION TOURIST BOARD
The ancient town of Alcalá de Henares, which is part of the Madrid region and is 35 km east of the capital, has some surprisingly strong claims to fame, enough to make it a Unesco World Heritage Site in fact. So why doesn’t it get the recognition – or visitor numbers – it deserves?
Founded by the Romans, it was a great cultural centre from the 16th to the 18th centuries and had one of the most important universities in Europe. Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s most renowned writer and the author of Don Quixote, was born there in 1547 and it has a functioning theatre that dates back more than 400 years. Key events in Spain’s history took place in its lavish palaces, churches, convents and monasteries, many of which survive to this day.
What with one thing and another, it is really weird that coachloads of tourists aren’t descending on the town every day. While I like the fact that it feels like a real place rather than a theme park, it does seem a shame that it doesn’t attract more people. The trouble is, I suppose, that a lot of visitors in Madrid are there for just a few days and only have time for one or two side trips – and there is of course some stiff competition from Toledo, El Escorial, Aranjuez and Segovia.
However… 2016 may well be the year when more people take the 40-minute train journey from the Spanish capital (the service is frequent, efficient and cheap). It is 400 years since Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid, an anniversary that he shares with William Shakespeare. This is being commemorated with events throughout 2016 in Alcalá de Henares – with the slogan Alcalá de Cervantes 2016 – as well as in Madrid, several other places in Spain and indeed all over the world. A major exhibition about the life of Cervantes has just opened at the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) in Madrid and is on until May 22nd. Have a look at Cervantes 400th Centenary for the full programme of events – things are being added all the time as, surprise surprise, the organisation has been a bit sluggish getting things off the ground. For what is going on in Alcalá, look at the town’s tourism and culture sites.
Cervantes was born in a house on the corner of Calle Imagen and Calle Mayor, right in the heart of Alcalá. This family home has been reconstructed in the traditional style of the mid-16th century and is now the Miguel de Cervantes Birthplace Museum which has guided tours, exhibitions and lots of activities going on.
The tourist board organises walking tours that follow the Cervantes Route, taking in places such as the chapel on the Plaza de Cervantes which contains the font where the great writer was baptised. The building now houses the Universes of Cervantes visitor centre. A college dating back to the 16th century is now the headquarters of the Cervantes Institute, the worldwide organisation that promotes Spanish language and culture and is of course playing a key role in this year’s festivities.
If you do muster the enthusiasm to go to Alcalá, there is a lot more to do too. You can stroll along the colonnaded high street and have a look at the opulent archbishop’s palace, where Cristopher Columbus beseeched Queen Isabella to finance his voyage across the sea in 1486. As you walk around, look up at the belltowers of the various monuments, as more than a hundred storks choose to make their nests in this fascinating town.
You could visit the magnificent Renaissance university, founded in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, who was head of the Spanish church. In the 17th century, it comprised 40 colleges, attended by numerous luminaries of Spain’s Golden Age, including Quevedo and Lope de Vega. Spain’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Cervantes, is awarded on April 23rd in the university’s great hall, which has a remarkable Mudéjar coffered ceiling.
For me, Alcalá’s most intriguing building is the Corral de Comedias, where there is a lively programme of plays, music, dance and poetry. There is quite a story behind this theatre on the Plaza de Cervantes, which was previously a scruffy cinema and had closed down in the 1970s. Back then, the citizens of Alcalá had no idea that their local fleapit, which had been showing films since 1927, was of international importance.
It transpired, however, that it dates back to 1601, making it the only theatre in Europe to have been almost continually in use for more than four centuries. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the theatre has not been rebuilt as such, as the original structure was still intact.
Back in the 17th century, the theatre was an open-air courtyard, where plays by leading writers such as Calderón de la Barca were performed. The cobbled stone floor remains, showing the original shape of the site. Also still surviving are the roof, which was added in 1785, and the tiered boxes, installed in 1830.
The theatre’s unique heritage may well have lain undiscovered had it not been for the inquisitiveness of three students who started poking around the site with torches in the early 1980s. Clearing their way through decades of dirt and clutter, they found posters from the 1920s, when it was last used as a theatre, which referred to the space as the Antiguo Teatro Cervantes.
Hmm, they thought, antiguo teatro? Old theatre? They started peeling back the layers and soon realised that a 19th-century elliptical theatre lay underneath the cinema. To their amazement, further investigations revealed the wooden 17th-century structure.
Two of the students, Miguel Angel Coso and Juan Sanz, continued working on the restoration of the theatre, alongside their own careers as theatrical producers and designers, and it finally reopened about a decade ago.
I think you probably get my drift by now that Alcalá de Henares deserves a visit. But just in case you need another push, I’ll just mention that it is chock-full of bars too, quite a few of which hand out a generous tapa when you order a beer or a glass of wine…