Alcalá de Henares is the first planned university town in the world. It was founded in the 16th century by Gonzales Jiménez de Cisneros as an “ideal city” and soon rose to become a center of European intellectual life. 12,000 students studied here in the 16th century. In 1836 the university was moved to Madrid. Today the most important literary prize in Spain is awarded annually in Alcalá de Henares. In the old town, numerous churches and monasteries shape the cityscape.
Alcalá de Henares old town: facts
|Official title:||University and historic center of Alcalá de Henares|
|Cultural monument:||12,000 students enrolled in the 16th century and today it is the place where the most important literary prize in the country, El Premio Cervantes, is awarded every year; University with university chapel, as well as the church of Santa María, the Casa Cervantes, the archbishop’s palace and the monastery church of the Cistercian monastery of Las Bernardas|
|Location:||Alcalá de Henares, northeast of Madrid|
|Meaning:||For centuries one of the most important university cities in Spain with a well-planned university|
Old town of Alcalá de Henares: history
|1118||Christian reconquest of the city and naming it after the Moorish fortress Al-Kal’a on the banks of the Henares|
|1135||Granting of special municipal rights|
|1495||Archbishop Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros becomes Primate of Spain and Advisor to Isabella the Catholic|
|1499||Foundation of the university|
|1506/07 and 1516/17||Reign of Cardinal Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros|
|1537-1553||Design of the main facade and courtyards of the university in the style of the Spanish Renaissance|
|1547||Birth of the writer Miguel de Cervantes|
|1617-1662||Construction of the courtyard of St. Tomás de Villanueva|
|1833||Relocation of the university to Madrid|
|1960||Reconstruction of the Patio de los Filosofos|
|1978||Resumption of university teaching|
The cradle of Cervantes
Since the stormy industrialization of Spain in the sixties, according to oxfordastronomy, high-rise castles have surrounded the medieval city center, even the train station is in the middle of an industrial area. During a ten-minute walk through a veritable trail of building sins, the question arises as to why UNESCO came up with the idea of declaring the city a “cultural heritage of mankind”. But there is a good reason for this: Alcalá is home to “the first fully planned university in the world”, and the Universitas Complutensis, which opened at the end of the 15th century, was one of the most important universities in Europe well into the 19th century.
Once you’ve made it to Plaza Cervantes, the university town looks much friendlier: Numerous terraces invite you to take in the panorama. Stork pairs breed on almost all of the surrounding roofs, and the numerous monumental buildings are reminiscent of paintings from the golden 16th century Spain. One could feel transported back to the time when Miguel de Cervantes grew up just around the corner in a small house on Calle Mayor and wrote his famous book “Don Quixote”, with which he went down in literary history.
Spain’s King Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V, seriously considered making Alcalá his residence and capital, as the city was one of the leading cultural metropolises in Europe and also an important trading center in those days. Even if the monarch opted for Madrid, the city’s heyday continued until the university was moved to the new metropolis in the first half of the 19th century.
Modest teaching was only resumed after 1977, and since then the Complutense has once again been the lively center of the city. This university has three beautiful courtyards with multi-storey arcades, Arabic Mudejar ceramics and a garden in which, in addition to Cervantes, the playwright Lope de Vega, who was nicknamed the “Phoenix of Spain”, also studied with preference. All essential aspects of the culture of that time are carved into the renaissance facade of the university building – from the church fathers Gregorius, Augustine, Ambrosius and Hieronymus to the deities Minerva and Concordia to Hercules.
In addition to the university, the cathedral and the house where Cervantes was born are eye-catching. In the cathedral lies the body of St. Diego in a crypt under the main altar. There are also the relics of Justo and Pastor, two boys who were murdered by the Romans at the age of seven and nine after an apparition of Mary.
At the end of a visit to the city of Cervantes, we recommend a detour to the Baroque monastery of San Bernardo, whose oval dome is considered the largest in Spain, and to the Archbishop’s Palace, which stands at the end of Calle Mayor. In 1486 Spain’s Queen Isabel I, known as “the Catholic”, had her first conversation there with the navigator Christopher Columbus, who later discovered the American continent. Right next door, in the monastery of Our Lady, an archaeological museum has been set up to display the most beautiful prehistoric and Roman finds from the 2400 year old city. Above all, works of art from the Roman settlement Complutum stand out, the ruins of which are in the east of the center.
Once you have seen these treasures, there is no doubt that the city, whose historic buildings were used as barracks after the Spanish Civil War and suffered accordingly, has earned its title of cultural heritage.