Alcalá de Henares and its famous university

Two thousand years of history, residence of royalty, birthplace of Cervantes, it is nevertheless its famous old university that earned Alcalá de Henares its world heritage status

Sophie Adler,


A Unesco World Heritage Site in Alcala de Henares. Photograph: Huber Johanna/SIME-4Corners Images

Spare a thought for those unsuspecting 16th-century students who entered the university at Alcalá de Henares for the first time. Rich or poor, each luckless greenhorn was forced to endure an especially irreverent initiation prank. It was called the gran nevada, or the great snowfall. The new student would don a black tunic and parade to the centre of the elegant, stone Patio of the Philosophers, where a mob of older students would spit on him until his entire garment turned white.

“He couldn’t escape,” my tour guide quipped as we crossed the patio. “He would have 800 students chasing after him.” I nearly dropped my camera at the thought of this charming welcome. I was not expecting the Renaissance courtyards of the university, founded in 1499 by the powerful Spanish Cardinal Cisneros, to come to life in such a vivid way.

Alcalá de Henares, now a quiet suburb of Madrid, is packed with 2,000 years of history (and dozens of spectacular nesting storks). It was settled by Romans, Moors and conquering Christians. As a former royal residence, it is where Columbus met Queen Isabella for the first time. In 1547, it even saw the birth of Spain’s greatest literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.

But Alcalá de Henares earned Unesco world heritage status in 1998 thanks to this venerated university, which produced a handful of saints and generations of powerful Catholic bishops.

On this warm summer day, I stood with my guide and two dozen Spaniards inside the famous Colegio de San Ildefonso, with its ornate Plateresque facade sculpted with the symbols of royal power and piety: columns, crowns and coats of arms.

This was the heart of one of Europe’s leading universities of the Renaissance era, a place of scholarship and theology that produced the first polyglot Bible with texts in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. It was also a fashionable romping ground for Spain’s budding nobility until 1836, when studies were transferred to a modern campus in Madrid. Spanish Golden Age writer Francisco de Quevedo also studied here and described the less-than-saintly student brawls and brutal initiation rites in his novel, The Swindler.

The colegio seemed like the perfect place to begin my day’s exploration of the city, and my expert guide on the €6 tour did not disappoint. He regaled me with tales of male mischief amid the shady study halls.

Some students, he said with a wink, risked time at the university jail by frequenting the two brothels outside campus. Other students sent their servants to class after a wild night on the town.

All of the students, who would go on to become the movers-and-shakers of Spanish society, heckled each classmate who sat for final examination in the Paraninfo, an awe-inspiring theatre decorated with painted wood, intricate plasterwork and ceramic tiles. Fifty professors fired questions at the degree candidate before a packed audience of rowdy peers. The true test was not knowledge but composure under duress.

When a scholar passed, church bells rang and drinks poured at taverns throughout the city, on the tab of the scholar’s family. When the young man failed, however, he was strapped with donkey ears and jeered out of school.

We moved on to elegant Capilla de San Idlefonso, which does not look like a place to perform pranks. It is an ethereal chapel that once hosted mandatory student mass. It contains an empty marble sarcophagus of Cardinal Cisneros on his death bed. But even here students demonstrated the picaresque of a Cervantes character. They chiselled pieces off the heads of the sculpted muses on Cisneros’s tomb, my guide explained, to bring them wisdom during exams. Why so much naughtiness? It could have been ennui. After all, it took 14 years to graduate.

I crowned my back-to-school experience with a stop for sweets at a nearby convent, the Convento de Clarisas de San Diego, near the Colegio de San Ildefonso. The nun on duty passed me a €4.50 box of caramelised almonds, the convent’s specialty, through a wooden turnstile. As I plunked down my coins, I heard a soft young voice say “gracias” behind the wooden door.

I munched on a delicious few over coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes, on the Calle Mayor, the colonnaded main street of the former Jewish quarter.

The area, at the heart of the city, is packed with churches, convents and what seemed like an inordinate amount of bridal shops. They must do a fine business. All afternoon I saw visions in white ruffles gliding into churches or posing on the city’s sunny main square, the Plaza de Cervantes, which is lined with thick, blossoming rose bushes.

Right on the square are two of the city’s other star attractions, the Corral de Comedias, a recently restored theatre founded in 1601, and the Capilla del Oidor, where the author of Don Quixote was baptised. Corral de Comedias is the oldest known example of Spain’s traditional theatres, which were humble, uncovered courtyards of a city apartment block. Some neighbours could watch from their windows. This lovely Corral still contains an original stone floor, a well and wood beams from the days when university students such as Calderón de la Barca enacted their works there.

My guide took me to the theatre’s small, top-floor balcony called the cazuela, or “stewing pot,” where a designated “compressor” would squeeze in 50 women, crushing their dresses for space. We also visited a balcony seat with a private entrance, used by widows and secret couples.

The Capilla del Oidor, the surviving chapel of a 16th-century church nearly destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, contains the font in which Cervantes was baptised in 1547 and little else of historical interest, but is nonetheless a pilgrimage site for Quixote fans like me, who admire the hidalgo who endured so many drubbings while dreaming of his love Dulcinea of the marble bosom and coral lips.

Later that afternoon I would comb Cervantes’ birthplace, now a museum, remembering my favourite misadventures of that endearingly crazy knight. And I would wander the sunny streets, watching the storks nesting on rooftops against dry blue sky that reminds me of the hot horizons of La Mancha. But at that moment, at the Capilla, my thoughts turn to food-obsessed Sancho Panza, and I decided to break for lunch. I had been planning to make a reservation at the Hostería de Estudiantes, housed in a restored convent across town, but like Quixote’s impulsive sidekick, I was too hungry for such formalities.

So I stumbled into a cosy Basque tavern, housed in a 300-year-old building on the Calle Mayor, El Basserí, and tore into a lunch of spicy sausage, grilled vegetables and hake stewed in clam sauce – for only €10.50. Then, gulping my beer, which was included in the modest price, I silently toasted to Sancho.
Cervantes and Alcalá: birthplace of a national treasure

Miguel de Cervantes may have been born in this book-loving town, but the creator of Don Quixote, that deluded hidalgo who tilted at windmills, did not have the opportunity to study in its hallowed halls. His father, a blood-letting “surgeon” who pulled teeth to make ends meet, could not afford to send him to school with the naughty young nobility of his day (although Cervantes would later depict those society figures in his pastoral novels).

Cervantes spent his infancy in his grandfather’s home on the Calle Mayor, where he slept in a small room with his sisters, his mother, his grandmother, a cousin and an aunt.

That two-storey house is now a charming museum that recreates the daily life of a well-off family of the 16th and 17th centuries, with some elements particular to Cervantes’ family, such as a tooth-extraction chair and spit plate like the ones his father would have used. But the polished restoration belies the economic hardship that haunted Cervantes after the family left Alcalá – and likely gave birth to memorable Quixote adventures.

When Cervantes was four, his father left Alcalá de Henares to earn a better living, and the family wandered from town to town for 15 years. They travelled on dusty dirt roads on a mule-pulled cart presumably not much better than Quixote’s scrawny, yet beloved steed Rocinante, and often slept in “uncomfortable inns of ill repute,” as a museum plaque puts it, like the one in which sidekick Sancho Panza was cruelly tossed in a blanket.

Like his chivalrous hero, Cervantes sought to improve his fortune through acts of bravery and joined the Spanish infantry. He fought against the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, and was taken prisoner by Algerian pirates. He was jailed for five years while his family scraped together the ransom money for his release with the help of Trinitarian nuns, an experience hinted at in Quixote’s “captive’s tale.”

The museum on the Calle Mayor contains an extensive collection of Quixote editions, including one copy from 1605, the year the first part was first published to popular acclaim, and another illustrated by Salvador Dalí. The often-slapstick tale, with its embedded narratives, societal critiques and comic characters, is considered the world’s first modern novel.

The museum also showcases the female universe of Cervantes’ day. It recreates a room in which the women slept, sewed and entertained guests (or hubby) – and where in spare moments they read those popular novels of chivalry that were the root of Don Quixote’s madness.

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Category: Alcalá de Henares
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