Spain is filled with cities that represent very authentic glimpses into the famous lives and history and cultures of its colorful past. While most places offer a unique blend of both old and new there is no place like Alcala de Henares when it comes to a full on cross section of art, architecture, culture, gastronomy and history from the Spanish golden age. The entire town is so well preserved and monumental that it has in fact been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The success of the town is undoubtedly linked to the university founded at its center which makes it the world’s first city planned around a university. The ideal which inspired this model of a town was founded on the concept of a “Civitas Dei” (City of God) an understanding of the ideal city where man lived ordered in truth and enlightenment. Ultimately this town influenced many later European and New World university town developments. The University of Alcala still stands today as the heartbeat of this thriving education, tourism and arts scene.
The town is located about thirty km. Northeast of Madrid and it can be easily reached by car or by trains running from the Atocha Station and the Nuevos Ministerios station. Probably the most direct and affordable option (as it usually is in Spain) are the buses which run from Avenida de America all day long. Catch the 223, 227 or 229. Once in the town one will have no need of public transit. The historic area is completely contained within the ancient walls, it is flat and very easy to navigate. Every street offers views of historic churches and convents, university halls, theaters and squares with impressive fountains, markets and palaces. The first sight worth a look is undoubtedly the Universidad de Alcala. The front fascade of the University is a unique Spaniard style known as plasteresque with excellent details and symmetry and its twin structure can be found on the University of San Diego campus in California. The entire campus is spread out into various halls with immaculate courtyards, ivy covered walls and manicured lawns, it is a museum in itself.
What would a university town be without some famous intellectual residents? Spain’s foremost author Miguel de Cervantes was a native of this city and his contributions are not forgotten. The University gives an annual prize in his name and his house of birth is wonderfully preserved to exhibit the life of a 17th century Spaniard. It is a true Castillian abode with courtyards and outbuildings. The house is home to many old editions of his most famous work Don Quixote and many famed translations of the work as well. For any fan of Cervantes this is a must see. Named in his honor as well is the Plaza de Cervantes. This is arguably the most open and central square in the whole town. The layout transports one back to a simpler time when the towns inhabitants must have gathered for the daily market to exchange goods and gossip, to eat and enjoy the afternoon sun and even today it is a busy pedestrian area full of students, tourists and locals about their business. The square is full of monuments and quotes from Don Quixote as well as the town hall, the famous chapel of Oidor and the Teatro de Cervantes which is a great tour of how ancient theater operated and is home to many famous performances.
After the university the singular most impressive complex is that of the Cathedral. It is a large Gothic construction with an equally impressive belltower in a Herrara style. One might look up here as in many other high towers and chimmney’s in Alcala and see an unusual sight, huge nests, often occupied by giant storks sit atop the structure. It is no mistake, these birds are as much a part of the patrimony as the famous halls and palaces. They are a symbol of the city and have been notable residents since its inception. The cathedral is filled with many precious works of art and sculpture and serves as the backdrop for the famous Don Juan play held on its steps every November 1st.
Other places not to miss are the Archbishop’s Palace which is an impressive fortress like castle, it is here where Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of king Henry VIII and the German Emperor Ferdinand died. Also the Colegio de San Ildefonso which houses the tomb of Cardinal Cisneros, the visionary and founder of the university town, the house of the interview where Queen Isabella first heard the proposed plans of Christopher Columbus and of course the many great open air restaurants and café’s which serve all kinds of Spaniard gastronomy which s famous for its freshness and intense flavor.