(I wrote this post only a few months after my arrival in Spain, while I was still mostly ignorant of the country and its language. With the exception of Chinchón, I have visited all of these places since then, so I have appended little notes at the end of my posts about what I now know. I have also broken up my original post for ease of navigation.)
There are many advantages to living in Madrid. It’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to all points of the compass. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.
As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. In these posts, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.
Alcalá de Henares
As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.
“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.
“Oh yes, he’s incredible.”
“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”
This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)
The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway—just the featureless tan wasteland of the dry foothills. Before even coming to Spain I had terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back; but then it was just stressful and scary.
We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.
But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the famous monuments of Alcalá. It was originally built as a private house for Manuel Laredo, a polymath artist who served as the mayor of Alcalá de Henares. Nowadays, it serves as a museum of the Cistercian order, as well as a specialized research branch of the Complutense University.
Looking back now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different Spanish architectural elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird.
We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.
As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.
We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.
Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.
(As we later learned, this was the Cervantino, a medieval fair named after Cervantes, which is held in the first couple weeks of October. I have since gone back twice, and I highly recommend it.)
We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.
Behind the bench was the Cervantes House—the house where Cervantes himself was born and reared. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.
In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.
Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is an embarrassing mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.
The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.
After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.
Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.
Addendum: Since this initial trip, I have since learned that Alcalá de Henares has been more than simply the birthplace of Cervantes, but has played an important role in Spanish history.
The city has existed since at least Roman times, when it was known as Complutum. It was in this town that Cardinal Cisneros, one of the leading functionaries of the Catholic Monarchs, founded the University of Alcalá in 1499. Under his direction the scholars of the university undertook and completed one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the Spanish Golden Age, the Polyglot Bible, which contained the entire text of the Old and New Testaments in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—and sometimes Aramaic. The University was eventually moved to Madrid, where it was renamed the Complutense (which comes from Alcalá’s Latin name); and it remains one of the major universities in the country.
The original university building still stands in Alcalá’s main square. Its frontal façade is magnificent, and for a small price you can take a guided tour to learn about the university’s history.
The Cathedral of Alcalá is also worth a visit. Although it was burned during the Spanish Civil War, thus destroying many of its decorations and altars, it remains an attractive building. The cathedral is, curiously, the unique for being the only one in the world which possess the title “Magistral Church,” which requires that all of its priests be doctors in theology.