Monday 13 September 2010

A Day with a Knight

By Richard Morley.

The skinny, sad knight sat on the bench, expounding his view of a long gone chivalrous world to his chubby squire. Meanwhile a snow white stork flew overhead.

I was taken aback by the stork. Being no ornithologist it took me a few moments to realise that it wasn’t just a large seagull. Then I remembered that the town I was in was famous for them.

I was in Alcala de Henares, a town some thirty kilometres east of Madrid. One of the oldest towns in Spain it dates from well before the Roman Conquest and in its heyday was a far larger town than Madrid. Less than a forty five minutes train journey from the capital, Alcalá would not take kindly to being described as a Madrid Suburb, although it falls within the greater Madrid Communidad.

I arrived by train on a hot August morning. Alcalá is served by the Cercanias system of commuter trains that drag weary commuters into Madrid every morning. On leaving the station the visitor is immediately faced by a memorial to those citizens of Alcalá who took the seven o’clock train to Madrid one grey Thursday on the 11th of March 2004.

Just after 7:37 the seven o'clock train from Alcalá and its passengers were ripped by the force of terrorist bomb as it pulled into Atocha station, and by eight o'clock three more trains lay wrecked and stained with the blood of the dead and dying. Among the 182 people who lost their lives that day, many came from Alcalá. They have not been forgotten.

The terrorist bombing affected all; Young and Old.
From the station to the historical centre of Alcalá is a short walk and in fifteen minutes I was in the Plaza Miguel Cervantes. I take it you guessed from the description of the sad, mournful, sorrowful, rueful, woeful knight, (depending on which translation you read) or “El Caballero de la Triste Figura”, at the beginning of this piece that I am writing about Don Quixote.

Plaza Miguel Cervantes.

On the 29th of September, 1547, Don Quixote’s creator, Miguel Cervantes, was born here. It has always been one of those spooky coincidences that Spain’s greatest writer, Cervantes, and England’s greatest writer, Shakespeare, were not just contemporaries, but actually died on the same day, the 23rd of April 1616.

Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford upon Avon, set in the middle of “Shakespeare Country”, milks the reputation of its favourite son for every tourist penny it can get.

But Alcalá must share Cervantes with other places. Much travelled, he was a soldier, sailor, civil servant and crippled war hero. He was kidnapped, enslaved and ransomed. He had homes in Sevilla, Valladolid and Madrid. He was jailed for his debts and suspected murder and was lucky enough to marry a woman eighteen years his junior. So, he had a full life, which he wrote about in many other works besides Don Quixote.

But the knight of the woeful countenance has almost completely eclipsed his creator. It’s as if Shakespeare was only being remembered for Hamlet and nothing else.

So Alcalá honours its best known export rather than exploits him. The centre of town is given over to the Plaza that bears Cervantes name, you can find the tower of the long gone church of Santa Maria where Cervantes was baptised, and you can visit the house where he was born. However, Cervantes celebrity takes second place compared to his creation. The sides of the plinth of the author’s rather diminutive statue in his eponymous plaza are decorated with scenes from Don Quixote, the knight and his side-kick repose on a bench outside the author’s home in the Calle Mayor and the tourist shops sell Don Quixote tat. And the day I visited, a parade of giant figures was led by effigies of the sad knight and his sidekick.

Sancho Panza and Don Quixote take the sun outside Cervantes birth place.

But Alcalá has a history that goes back much farther than the day Cervantes was born.

Its name, Alcalá, comes from the Arabic for “the fort” and Henares is the river that flows there. And yes, unlike Madrid’s arthritic trickle of a stream, it is a real river.

Owing to the river there has been a settlement here since prehistoric times. And when the Romans came, they named it Complutum.

Now, a small digression to right a wrong.

In 1293 King Sancho IV, known as “The Brave”, founded a seat of learning in Alcalá. In the middle ages this was converted into a full university and named the Universitas Complutensis after the old Roman name for the town. The Complutense University is now the most famous university in Spain – but in Madrid.

The university flourished for three centuries in Alcalá until 1836 when the town upset the Queen Regent Maria Cristina by taking the opposing side in the Carlist wars. In a fit of pique she ordered the university closed and moved the entire faculty to Madrid. From 1851 until the 1970s, it was called the Central University of Madrid, but was then allowed to call itself by its original name. But in Alcala, they now have a new university, housed in the ancient buildings of the original, but they have to call it the University of Alcalá as The Central University of Madrid won’t let them have their name back. I think this is very unjust.

There should be a protest!

Sorry, where was I. The history of Alcalá goes back millennia. The town’s brilliant Archaeological museum in the Plaza de las Bernardas attests to that. Prehistoric settlements, mammoth and dinosaur bones, wonderful Roman mosaics are displayed quite magnificently in the museum. The building has lots of space and tells Alcalá’s story very well.

The Shady Acade of the Calle Mayor.
Compared with Alcalá, Madrid is just s recent upstart. The shady arcaded pavements of the Calle Mayor leading to the grand Plaza of the cathedral, the winding, narrow streets that mark the position of the old town wall, buildings twisted by deformations of ancient timber framing all lend a definite air of the medieval to the town.

The Cathedral Of Alcalá de Henares and its plaza.

From above, the old town looks rather like a flower, a tulip, the petals displaying the lines of the ancient lines of defence. Calle del Tinte ( the street where cloth was dyed) and Calle de Libreros (Street of the booksellers) are an indication of how town and gown coexisted in the ancient seat of learning.

The line of the old city wall is visible. Alcalá, a Spanish tulip.

The day I went, the streets were a riot of activity. In the middle of the long summer school vacation, volunteers were organising activities for kids. There were games, face painting, drawing classes, craft activities and plain silliness going on all around.

General silliness and fun for the kids.

The adults were not forgotten. Outside a bar in the centre of the calle Mayor, surrounded by a huge neck-craning crowd, a Mus tournament was taking place.

For the uninitiated Mus is a card game which I have tried unsuccessfully to understand. Played with partners like Bridge, somehow it’s possible to win and lose with the same hand (I think!). Partners secretly sign to outwit their opponents, the cards are strange, the play intense.

Playing Mus in the Calle Mayor.

After standing in the sun, watching the tournament for a few minutes, I was in need of refreshment, so at the neighbouring bar I took a beer which came with free tapas. There was a huge choice and I chose a simple dish of chorizo and potatoes to keep me going until lunch. But when a huge plate of tapas arrived, lunch became unnecessary.

Cold beer, free food and a wonderful half hour spent people watching. Life is good sometimes!

Alcalá has its own delicacy, if that's the word. A cake made from Almond paste, Puff pastry and merangue. A thousand calories in every bite - but delicious.

Alcalá is a busy town, but far less frenetic than Madrid. There is a surprise around every corner and a bar not far from that. I recommend a visit.

The Shady Plaza Palacio.

Alcalá is very easily, and incredibly cheaply, reached from Madrid. A ride from Nuevos Ministerios on the Cercania rail system will cost €2:70. Because I live in the east of the capital, I took metro line 7 to Estadio Olimpico, switched to MetroEste for two stops to Costlado, where I took the Cercania. The two different metro lines cost me €1 each time and the cercania ticket another €1:45. As it cost me a euro to get home from Nuevos Ministerios, I saved a whole 25 cents by taking the metro half the way. But it’s still dirt cheap.


  1. I always wondered how Madrid's Uni got its name. Now I know! The only time we've been to Alcala de Henares, it rained and rained and rained. Time for another visit, methinks, before winter sets in.

  2. You write some very interesting blog posts. I don't always comment, but I always read them!

  3. Jan, thank you for your encouraging comment, and please feel free to make more.

  4. Richard, your articles just get better and better and your account of Alcala de Henares is absolutely fascinating – I can’t wait to read about the next town or village on your tour of Spain. You really should consider writing a book of your travels around and about Spain. You have a unique way of adding humor and human interest to your articles and with facts that research and include makes for an enjoyable read. Please keep them coming!

  5. I love Alcala de Henares, I spent my Erasmus year there 10 years ago. Unfortunately the beauty and history of this city is pretty much lost on Erasmus stuents but I have many amazing memories of Alcala.

    Thank you for the trip down memory lane!

  6. I'm reading Don Quixote at the moment so this was fascinating. I even bought it in Spanish to read alongside the excellent Edith Grossman translation but so far those efforts have been farcical. Still. It's one of the best things I have ever read and I would love to make it to Alcala de Henares some day.

  7. Nice post about Alcalá de Henares, it is really a beautiful spot very close to Madrid to go from time to time, nice to walk around and nice to have tapas! Regards and nice weekend,

  8. I agree, Richard. I wish more travellers would take the opportunity to visti Alcala. It tends to get lost in the shuffle. But, for those of us who DO like to visit, that's probably a good thing! One of these days, you'll have to take a trip out to Talavera.