Alcala de Henares
The University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares was the first city in the world deliberately to be designed and built as the seat of a university, by the concept of an Ideal City. This concept (Civitas Dei) was spread to the Americas by the Spanish settlers.
In 1499, Cardinal Cisneros founded the Universidad Complutense in Alcalá, which became famous as a centre of learning during the Renaissance. His primary objective was to train administrators for the Church and for the Spanish Empire. It was at this university that the Spanish language was given its definitive grammatical structure.
Alcalá is also the place of birth of Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote).
Visit November 2011
Alcalá de Henares wasn’t quite what I had expected. University towns usually have a distinct atmosphere: cozy, lots of young people, interesting museums, small budget restaurants. The thing about Alcalá de Henares is that its university was moved to Madrid in 1836. Only recently, in 1977, a new university has been set up. But a lot of damage had been done in the 1.5 century in between.
After leaving my rental car in an underground car park, I set out for the city center. Information boards in Spanish, English and Braille guide the visitors along to the most important things to see. You’ll definitely need this guidance or bring your own map, as the highlights are somewhat hidden between the dull features of another provincial town. The cityscape isn’t very coherent, because of the many demolitions and modern reconstructions that were executed before they thought of conserving the place. ICOMOS in its AB evaluation states that the city has retained “a substantial degree of authenticity” - which I think is an euphemism.
I first walked to the Archbishop’s Palace. A very fine building with Mudéjar elements. The three trees in front of it in full autumn colours, a couple of passing nuns and dozens of storks nestled on the surrounding roofs gave it a bit extra. In the same area lies the Cathedral. It’s a Magistrial Cathedral, which means that the priests are also professors in University. It is known for its elaborate iron fence (?!). In the past Alcalá de Henares had separate quarters for Jews, Christians and Moslims, but not much more that an information shield here or there reminds of that.
The best part of my visit was the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes. This house is located next to the 15th century hospital, where his father worked as a surgeon-bleeder. It is quite a pretty dwelling, the family was clearly prosperous. It now holds a free museum which is more geared to reenacting the 16th century than to the literary works of Cervantes. In front of it is the statue of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza sitting on a bench. The museum was full of schoolchildren, it probably is a popular school trip for the Spanish.
So should this one be a WHS? It has earned its place more because of its former importance than for what is left nowadays. Spain already had entered its university town par excellence 10 years before: Salamanca.
More photos can be found in the Picture Gallery
|Ian Cade (England):|
Initially I was rather underwhelmed by Alcala; it just seemed like an unremarkable commuter town. However a slightly rambling wander finally saw me arrive at the grand edifice of the main university building. From then on things started to look up.
Wandering around the main campus I was reminded of my own time studying at an historic European university and I was suitably impressed by the way that the long-standing buildings had been updated for 21st century needs, especially in the chapel that has now become a hi-tech library. The buildings were well presented and buzzing with academic life. Unfortunately the tours didn’t match up with my own travel arrangements so I had to make do with just wondering around looking like a lost foreign student.
The main square was pleasant though nothing out of the ordinary; and the same could be said for the cathedral, though the presence of nesting storks on every roof time was thoroughly enjoyable. After this I headed to Cervantes rebuilt birthplace. It was a nice pleasant place to stroll around and get an idea of what a 16th century abode looked like. There was also a good collection of various editions of Don Quixote, making me think I should finally dust off my copy and get past the first 150 pages!
After this I headed back to the station and encountered an unexpected delight in the Laredo Palace a rather wonderful neo-mudjear/ modernisme building that wouldn’t look out of place in Eixample in Barcelona.
Alcala ended up being a nice little trip out from out from Madrid. I wouldn’t say it was particularly astounding; but it was a nice way to round off my second trip to the Spanish capital. The familiar feel of an old European university town was enough to win me over despite its sometimes work-a-day appearance, and the direct association with a colossus of Western literature is a lovely added bonus.
[Site 4: Experience 4]
| Date posted: December 2012|
|John Booth (New Zealand):|
My memory of this picturesque town is of sitting in the Plaza de Cervantes having a picnic lunch watched by a dozen or so storks. These ungainly birds seem to have taken up residence of the roofs of many of the surrounding buildings.
| Date posted: March 2010|
We travelled out to Alcala de Henares from Madrid by train. Althought it has its origins back in Roman times, it is now a lively university town with lots of your people around the place, and lots of outdoor spaces in which to sit and contemplate the fine architecture.
As a bonus you can visit Cervantes' birthplace and immerse yourself in his books and life.
|Frederik Dawson (Netherlands):|
Alcala de Henares, a small town near Madrid, is a home of Spain’s most prestigious university and the birthplace of great Spanish novelist, Miguel de Cervantes, so this city breathes with two things – university and Don Quijote.
As the first planned University town in the world, Alcala de Henares is another example of city planning on the World Heritage List; however, this special characteristic is less obvious as I think this town is just a typical Spanish town in term of urban layout. The prime attraction of the town is university (for sure) which is situated in the town centre area. Strolling around this large and beautifully constructed in Spanish renaissance style university complex is a very nice experience. The must see is the amazingly Paraninfa Hall where the Spanish monarchs give out annual Cervantes Award to outstanding writer.
Alcala de Henares was a prosperous town, in the historic precinct, which is just next to the university, has many nice and attractive balconied buildings and churches. The large city square with a statue of Cervantes is a really surprised as it gave an Italy reminiscent to me. The main reason for most tourists who come to this city is Cervantes Museum which is located on the site believed to be his birth place. The museum is OK with many objects from Cervantes period or the scene from his novels. The most disappointed from this museum is no one can speak English, but it is a free museum so I didn’t expect much for language service. In front of the museum is a statue of Don Quijote and his partner, Sancho Panza with a long queue of tourists who want to sit between them for a good photo opportunity.
Alcala de Henares seems to be a quite popular place for Spanish tourists with considerably amount of restaurants and souvenir shops; I hardly heard any foreign languages except Spanish. I think the town has a horse riding school, as I saw many students rode their horses to the city centre making the town’s atmosphere more memorable with the old time charm. I even saw one guy withdrew some money from ATM while he was sitting on the horse! What’s a combination of old and new worlds!
This town is a true jewel of Comunidad de Madrid and should get more attentions from foreign tourists even though I afraid the charm of the town will lose forever with the influx of tourists like other WHS. From Madrid, there have many frequent suburban trains connect Madrid with Alcala de Henares in just less 50 minutes.
| Date posted: September 2006|
|Florencio Moreno-Anega (Spain):|
Same than Cáceres this WHS is special to me as I live here. Therefore I had to be fond of WHS as I was born in one and live in another one...
Alcalá de Henares is a nice town, with a long history and a fabulous old University building. It's a universitary town therefore you see here a lot of students from many places of Spain and the whole world.
It's only half an hour from Madrid so perfect for a day tour.
| Date posted: May 2006|
|Eric Greene (United States):|
I lived in Alcala for 2 months in the summer of 2004. The people are amazing, the city is beautiful and so much fun. It almost makes me cry to write this I miss it so badly.
| Date posted: July 2005|
Hi, I am living already in Manchester, UK, but i was born and lived in Alcala de Henares all my life. I would just like to tell you how beautiful this place is. We spanish people are really friendly and are always happy to welcome visitors who respect our place. I hope you come to madrid, that is at 20 miles from alcala, and enjoy my city even for only one day. Spring is marvellous and the city looks amazing!!!. I am a tourism management student and i have been in many places, but nothing can compare to Alcala!!!
Hope you come and visit!!!
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