In Europe, as a person under 25, there are a ton of deals and discounts. One of these is that our monthly Madrid metro pass (that includes the commuter train, light rail and buses) includes all of the zones of the province for the same price. We decided to take a spontaneous day trip to a famous local city and it was thus free! Or rather, we had already paid for the trip through the travel passes we already had. Day trips are my favorite kind of travel because sometimes accommodation can be the most expensive and annoying thing to deal with. Having it be a moot point is my idea of perfect! Madrid’s excellent rail system means that hopefully I will have a wide variety of day trips this year.
We went to Alcalá de Henares, a city quite close to Madrid. The town’s main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.We had to hunt a little bit to find the more touristy section of the city, but a man saw our cameras out and asked us “Cervantes?” We replied in the affirmative and he gave us directions. We found there a whole plaza dedicated to Don Quixote, pictured below. The weather was perfect, and the clouds looked positively unreal, though the bright day did not yield very clear pictures, unfortunately.
Not everything in the town is dedicated or centered around Cervantes, however. The town reminded me of Stratford-upon-Avon, which I visited in 2014. As Shakespeare’s birthplace, everything in the town is centered on the playwright. While this led to some cute discoveries (a jewelery shop called Iago’s and a man dressed as the bard himself and painted in silver paint) it at times felt kind of like a Shakespeare-themed Disneyland. However, it was still a beautiful place to visit!
Alcalá de Henares does not focus as much on their famed historical author, and there is a variety of other neat historical spots that we visited.
One of the neat places we encountered was Antezana Hospital, the former home of some Spanish nobility from the fifteenth century. We took the guided tour, which was only available in Spanish. The husband and wife took care of people who passed through, leading to it being titled a hospital, though it never functioned as one in the traditional way. It is now an old person’s home, and we saw a few of the residents pass through during the tour.
The tour was definitely worth it. The guide explained to us a few of the hidden details (like painted heralds on the walls, and the fresco that had been behind a wall that is now barely visible) and described to us how the house had changed from its prior use. The house was also the home at one point of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a person every other person on the tour seemed to know instantly. For us non-Catholics, he was a Spanish knight who renounced his titles in the fifteenth century and founded the Society of Jesuits. What was his room was turned into the dome of a church, so unless you enter the church you can only see some fragments of Latin writing on the wall.
The Hospital also includes beautiful gardens and two 15th century wells, as well as this original heraldic carving from the first residents:
However, let’s not forget the city’s most famous resident: Cervantes. The house in which he was born is open as a free museum, so we went there next. We encountered, however, that the place only allows a few people in at a time so we took some opportunistic shots with some famed residents on a bench.
In front of the house is a bench on which sit bronzes of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote himself! Don Quixote was quite tall, so both our faces didn’t really fit in one selfie. However, Panza is much closer to my size.
Many rooms of the house are on display, and they’ve been decorated so as to look period to the time of Cervantes.
However, the museum does include a few other exhibits. There is a room of puppets and marionnettes depicting scenes from Don Quixote, which is both creepy and adorable simultaneously.
There is also a large exhibit of comic-strip retellings of Don Quixote, which was quite interesting and amusing. It definitely shows how important and formative this text still is to Spanish culture, even this long after its publication.
Tucked along the town are constant reminders of these famous characters, and we found this bright and adorable mural adorning a wall across from a church.
There are very interesting things in the city that have nothing to do with Cervantes! We trekked out the Archbishop’s palace, part of which is attached to this Antiquarium. The different parts of the tower have different ages, but the center piece is original from the 15th century! We followed the wall around, not really knowing that we had arrived at the Archbishop’s palace. We soon read the plaques and realized what the magnificent building in front of us was. We wandered in the open gate and looked around the courtyard.
Inside the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace
Inside the courtyard we found a plaque, in Spanish, detailing that this was the birthplace of Catherine, Queen of England, or as she was known there, Catherine of Aragon. You may have heard about her: she was Henry VIII’s first wife, who he left for Anne Boleyn. As someone very into Tudor history, I was understandably very excited at this revelation.
A statue of Catherine outside the palace
We continued on our way, but I’m still quite surprised that Alcalá de Henares seems to only be known as the birthplace of Cervantes. I feel that the birth of a queen that most all of the English-speaking world has heard of is equally, if not more, interesting. However, I may be showing my bias here to certain historical time periods! I’m pretty annoyed that we had to find out about this by accidentally stumbling onto these plaques.
The town is full of tiny, beautiful gems like this door and the Complutum. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful place to visit, full of lovely hidden gems, making it definitely worth the short train ride from Madrid!