The author of "Don Quijote de la Mancha", Miguel de Cervantes, was born in Alcala de Henares in 1547. It was only four centuries later, in 1948, that scholars succeeded in identifying the house where Cervantes was probably born. The place was then bought by the government, restored and transformed into a museum. While some rooms are furnished with antique furnitures, thus giving the visitor an idea of what the house might have looked like when Cervantes was born, others are dedicated to his work, displaying rare book editions in Spanish and other languages. Some of the most valuable editions are the 1605 Lisbon edition, the first illustrated Spanish edition (1674) and the first illustrated English edition (1687).
The Cervantes Birthplace Museum is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (closed on Mondays). Admission is free.
The University of Alcala's origins date back to 1293, when King Sancho IV of Castile created a school in Alcala de Henares. Under Cardinal Cisneros, this school was granted full university status in 1499, which makes it one of the oldest universities in the world, and was named "Universitas Complutensis". Five faculties were then established: Arts and Philosophy, Theology, Canon Law, Philology and Medicine. Spanish playwrights Felix Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderon de la Barca are among some of the University's most famous graduates.
In 1836, the University was moved to Madrid, and some of the buildings of the former Alcala campus fell into disrepair. The impact of the move on the city of Alcala de Henares was very deeply felt: the population went from about 60,000 people to about 10,000 by 1900. In 1977, a new university was founded, and it is especially well-known by foreigners for its Spanish language immersion program.
A visit to the university will take you through the Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso. First off, it's worth taking some time to admire the magnificient 16th century plateresque facade. Your guide will then take you through the Patio of Saint Thomas, the Patio of the Philosophers and the Patio of the Three Languages, where Greek, Latin and Hebrew were taught. The visit also includes a tour of the San Ildefonso Chapel, where you'll see a remarkable monument dedicated to Cardinal Cisneros, and the Paraninfo, an imposing hall where Ph.D. students had to defend their thesis.
Guided tours last for about 45 minutes, and tickets can be bought at the tourist information center. Admission costs 3 Euros (included if you're going on the guided walking tour).
The Corral de Comedias is one of Europe's oldest theatres. It was founded in 1601, and it is well worth going on a guided tour to learn about the different improvements that have been made throughout its 400 years of existence. The Corral de Comedias started out as a modest open-air theatre, where university students would put on different plays, until a roof and some bleachers were added at the beginning of the 18th century. Significant improvements were made throughout the 19th century, only to see the Corral de Comedias become a movie theatre for most of the 20th century. It has now been restored to its original vocation, and it is still possible to see the stone floor on which people would sit to watch plays four centuries ago, and the rather primitive "sound-effect system" that was brought in during the 18th century. It's a very interesting tour and admission only costs 2.50 Euros.
Next to the Monasterio de San Bernardo you'll find the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop's Palace). Although it was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1939 and is not open to the public, people interested in history might still want to take a look at the place where Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII of England and mother of Queen Mary I, was born in December 1485. Catalina de Aragon was the youngest child of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, who held court in Alcala de Henares at the time of her birth. Also, the Palacio Arzobispal is where Christopher Columbus first met with the King and Queen of Spain, in 1486, to convince them he could reach Asia by sailing around the world. This first encounter would of course eventually lead to the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492.
The first thing I would recommend doing when you get to Alcala de Henares is to head over to the tourist information center and sign up for a guided walking tour. These tours depart every half-hour or so, and last for over 2 hours. On top of learning about the history of the city, you'll get to visit several historic buildings, ending with a tour of the University of Alcala - all for only 6 Euros! I thought it was a really great way to discover the city since our guide, who was really nice and very interesting, took us to some places we might not have thought about visiting on our own. Truly the best way to start you day in Alcala!
The Plaza de Cervantes dates back to the 13th century, although it obviously had a different name back then. Like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, this square was the social and economic center of the city - a weekly market was held there and most holidays and public events were celebrated in what was then known as the "Plaza del Mercado". The square was substantially remodeled during the 19th century, which is when it took on the name of Plaza de Cervantes, and the beautiful bronze statue of the Alcala-native writer that sits in the middle of the plaza was added in 1879. Even though there no longer are bullfights in the plaza, it is still a popular meeting place visitors and students.
Calle Mayor connects the Plaza de Cervantes with the Plaza de los Santos Niños, where you'll find the Cathedral of Alcala. It used to run through the Jewish neighborhood and for a while it was the city's most important commercial strip. Today, you'll still find different shops and restaurants on both sides of the street, but what I mostly remember about Calle Mayor is the beautiful architecture, thanks to the numerous half-timbered houses and flowery balconies that just beg to be photographed!
If you travel to Alcala by train, you'll most probably walk by the Palacio Laredo and it's impossible not to notice its very unique style of architecture. The house was designed by Manuel Laredo y Ordoño for himself - he simply wanted his house to stand out, and I guess we can all agree that he succeeded! His idea was to include all of the Spanish architectural styles into the design, while also making sure to include some pieces that were salvaged from old palaces, such as tiles and columns. Construction began in 1880 and the masterpiece was completed four years later.
The Palacio Laredo now houses the Cisneros Museum, which mostly focuses on the polyglot bible that was printed at the University of Alcala under the supervision of Cardinal Cisneros. It also includes a visit of the palace. Tours run every half-hour (2.50 Euros, closed on Mondays), and if you get there early you have to wait outside until the next tour begins. As it was raining that day - and also because the people who greeted me at the front door were none too friendly - I decided to skip it, so now I'm left to wonder whether the rooms inside of the palace are as extravagant as what you see on the outside!
The Hospital de Antezana is located right next to the Casa natal de Cervantes. It was founded in 1483, and it is believed to be the oldest hospital in Europe. Rodrigo de Cervantes, the father of the famous Spanish author, worked there as a surgeon. St. Ignatius of Loyola also worked there as a nurse and cook while he was studying at the University of Alcala. Right from the start, the main purpose of the hospital was to provide free healthcare to the less fortunates. There was only room for about 12 patients at a time, which earned it the nickname of "El hospitalillo" (the little hospital). The architecture of the hospital is also very interesting since it's a beautiful example of the typical 15th century Spanish "casona", a two-storey house built around a nice inner courtyard surrounded by wooden balconies.
Admission is free.
The Cathedral of Alcala de Henares was built between 1497 and 1516, with the addition of a bell tower during the 17th century. It is the only Gothic-style cathedral that can be seen in the entire Communidad de Madrid. The Cathedral was very badly damaged during a fire in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Although some priceless pieces could not be replaced, such as the original wooden retable, the restoration work that began in 1947 suceeded in giving back to the Cathedral most of its former glory.
As a wedding was about to start when I stopped by the Cathedral, I only took a look around the nave; however, for a small fee, it is possible to visit the Cathedral's museum, which includes a display of religious objects and art.
Located at the end of the Plaza de Cervantes, la Capilla del Oidor is one of the only buildings that remain after the destruction of the church of Santa Maria la Mayor during the Spanish Civil War (the campanile that stands in front of it was also part of the church). The Chapel dates back to the 15th century and as Miguel de Cervantes was baptized on October 9, 1547 in the parrish of Santa Maria la Mayor, the baptism register is on display at the Capilla del Oidor. Other expositions dedicated to Cervantes are also organized, and there are no admission fees to visit the Chapel (closed on Mondays).
There are several different convents in Alcala de Henares, but the Monasterio de San Bernardo is considered by many as the most important one. Construction of the Baroque-style church began in 1618, and the quality of its different architectural details is still admired by many designers and architects today. In fact, it is almost impossible to imagine what the church looks like just by looking at its facade, which is rather austere-looking. The focal point of San Bernardo is the elaborate canopied structure that stands where you'd normally find the retable, and the many paintings that can be found in the church are all the work of one Italian painter, Angelo Nardi.
The San Juan de la Penitencia convent was one of the historic buildings we got to visit as part of the guided walking tour organized by the tourist office. This Franciscan convent was founded by Cardinal Cisneros during the 16th century and it was both a hospital for women and a school for young girls. We got to visit the convent's church, elegant in its simplicity, and decorated with some pretty interesting works of art. Yet another reason to go on that walking tour!
University founded by Cardinal Cisneros in 1499, the best conserved renaissance university in Europe.
... to be completed
This building was earlier a college and convent in the name of Convento de San Carlos Borromeo.
Building was built in 17th century and was altered to a Ayuntamiento in 19th century.