The World, Our Heritage
Alcalá de Henares University courtyard. Juan Manuel Sanz/©ICEX
Author: Anke van Wicjk/©ICEX
The World Heritage Convention came into being in 1972 under the auspices of UNESCO with the imperative and ambitious goal of protecting the world's cultural and natural heritage so important to us all. Today almost 900 sites worldwide benefit from such protection, and Spain, home to 40 of them (13 of which are entire historic city complexes) happens to be one of the countries with the largest number listed. Alcalá de Henares is one of them.
We propose a roundtrip starting from Spain's capital, Madrid. Alcalá de Henares lies at a comfortable half hour ride by car or train. This "lettered city" (Ciudad de las Letras) not only holds the earliest specifically laid out university complex, i.e. the first campus, but it is also the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), author of the renowned novel Don Quijote de La Mancha. It is the world's second most widely translated book after the Bible and, not surprisingly, it is intrinsic to Alcalá de Henares' nomination as a World Heritage site.
This nomination is based on three pillars: the city';s 15th century layout as a modern university city; the more lofty concept that it represents the Augustinian ideal of Civitas Dei, the City of God, as a model of knowledge, solidarity and high moral standards; and its contribution to universal culture through language and, more specifically, through Cervantes.
However, a fourth pillar should be added: it has a lively atmosphere that immediately invites the visitor to partake. Alcalá de Henares is marked by many small terraces and countless benches, crowded with people from all walks of life, all generations, and of course lots of students, with the unique Calle Mayor (the longest porticoed walkway in Spain) as its central artery and the Plaza de Cervantes at its core.
A Bit of Background
But let us, for a moment, turn back the clock and briefly put the city in a historical context. Alcalá owes its full name to the river Henares. The site gained its first great relevance as a strategic location in the very center of the Iberian Peninsula under the Romans when it was called Complutum.
A new period of revival came in the 8th century under the Moors, who built a fortress that gave the city its present name (qu'alat, or castle). Although practically nothing remains of the original site, the influence of Arab culture appears repeatedly in the beautifully intricate mudéjar (a fusion of Christian and Arab elements) ceramics and wood-carved ceilings, like that of the Auditorium of the magnificent University's Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso. It is here where the annual prestigious Cervantes Award ceremony (the Nobel of Spanish literature) takes place.
After being recaptured in the 12th century, the city became the seat of the Archbishop's palace of Toledo and started to thrive, in large part owing to a large Jewish merchant community. But it is indeed the avant-garde University of Alcalá that took the city to new heights from the 15th century onward, thanks to the visionary Cardinal Cisneros (1436-1517).
Adjacent to the medieval city, he proceeded to build a university complex specifically laid out in grid-like squares and offering full service to scholars and students, including colleges, residences, a hospital and even a jail. Vicente Pérez, an expert historian at Alcalá's city hall, explains that brilliant students without means were granted scholarships, academicians were brought in from all over Europe, and there were exchange programs with other university cities that mutually accepted credits.
In the midst of such a universal academic melting pot, it comes as no surprise that not only was Europe's first vernacular grammar written here (Gramática de la lengua castellana by Antonio de Nebrija, 1441-1522), but it is also where the first polyglot Bible appeared as a compilation of the original (but not necessarily identical) versions in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.
This set the stage for Spain's Golden Age (16th and 17th centuries) which, in terms of literature, greatly evolved around Alcalá. In addition to relevant clerics such as Mazarin (1602-1661) and Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and famous writers and poets including Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645), mystics such as Teresa de Jesús and Juan de la Cruz left their imprint here. And then of course there is the towering figure Cervantes, who was born here in 1547 and, although he did not work in Alcalá, he is claimed to be the city's most outstanding offspring.
For political reasons, all academic activities were moved to Madrid during the 19th century, but the university reopened in 1977, occupying the original buildings that, thanks to a most laudable initiative from a consortium of locals, had been kept from major decay. This has enabled a more than 500-year-old university complex of great monumental value to continue its modern day activities in much the same way as it had done in the past.
Today Alcalá is a modern city with large industries on its outskirts, yet thanks to its historic center, it has become one of the most interesting places to visit within a short radius from Spain's capital. This was, of course, fully recognized in its nomination as a World Heritage City in 1998.
"It has definitely made a difference," says Ana Magallares, the dynamic Director of the Tourism Excellence Plan, which aims at improving, structuring, innovating and consolidating tourist activities in and around Alcalá, also with the city's candidacy for Cultural Capital of Europe in 2016 in mind. "Becoming a World Heritage city has provided a great value-enhancing impulse," she comments.
Not only have people in Spain and tourists from abroad become increasingly interested in visiting, it has also spurred locals to take pride in their town.
But authorities in Alcalá are looking ahead and taking a great number of practical and creative steps to further Alcalá's appeal, not only as a tourist stop, but also as a linguistic and congressional destination, where culture goes hand-in-hand with fun. In this vein, two areas stand out in particular: theater and gastronomy, and all throughout the year, events and re-enactments are organized, often combining the two.
What to Visit
Although there are guided tours, a great thing to do is to simply take a map and just stroll through the streets. There are sites you really should see: the emblematic Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso, with its magnificent 16 th-century Plateresque façade its patios, and the aforementioned Auditorium; the porticoed Calle Mayor, where you'll find the reconstructed Home of Cervantes, the nearby Hospital de Antezana, and where you can enjoy a wide range of tapas on any of its numerous terraces; and the Plaza de Cervantes and its endearing Corral de las Comedias, a 16 th-century theater (rehabilitated several times) where all kinds of performances are held, from classic theater to jazz.
You can walk freely in and out of the magnificent college buildings and their patios, but make sure to look up from time to time to admire the many cupolas and turrets, and to get a glimpse of the storks that fly in and out of the roughly 100 registered nests.
Mandatory stops include Salinas in the Plaza de Cervantes to sample the famous costradas de Alcalá (a light puff pastry with cream and meringue, topped with crushed almonds and lightly oven broiled). According to baker Manuel del Rosal, they were already a tradition here before the shop opened in 1846.
Another not-to-be-missed treat are the typical sugar-coated almonds that you can purchase, while you recite an "Ave Maria", after passing through a small revolving door at the Clarisses Convent just off San Diego Square.
Finally, if you happen to be here on a Sunday, especially with children, do as the Spaniards do and enjoy migas con tropezones (fried breadcrumbs with morsels of fresh bacon, ham and chorizo) or migas con chocolate (fried breadcrumbs with chocolate) at the classic Hostería del Estudiante.
Also have a peek across the street at the impressive and innovative Parador that opened last October. With its intricate rooftop garden, it represents a great architectural feat (the model was shown at the MOMA in New York in 2006) and it epitomizes Alcalá's symbiosis between old and new. It is also a valuable asset to a city that is so effectively bringing the past into the future.
Anke van Wijck Adán is a sociologist and has a Master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe.