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Must-visit: This little-known city an hour from Madrid makes the perfect day trip for history buffs and literature lovers   – Olive Press News Spain


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JUST an hour from Madrid, this city makes the perfect day trip for both history buffs and literature lovers. 

While Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca boast the oldest universities in the world, few people know that just outside Madrid lies the world’s first university city. 

Established in 1499, Alcala de Henares quickly became a beacon of knowledge and learning, so it’s no surprise that it is also the birthplace of ‘Spanish Shakespeare’ Miguel de Cervantes. 

Some 30 km from Madrid, this small city is easily accessible by train or bus, both taking just over an hour. 

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Photo: The Olive Press

Stepping off the train in the modern area of the city, we recommend you start at Alcala’s main attraction, the university. 

The University of Alcala de Henares

Just a twenty minute walk away, you will soon find yourself faced with the institution’s intricate facade and bustling roses in the Plaza de San Diego. 

Although you can have a look around for free, the university also offers guided tours for a purse friendly €6. 

We took a Spanish guided tour and I hastily translated everything for my mum and brother, making sure they missed none of the surprising, amusing and intriguing history of the university. 

There are also tours in English, but they only run once a week (Saturdays at 02:00 pm), so an audio guide might be your best bet. 

Built as the ‘model’ Spanish city by Cardinal Cisneros, the university represents the start of the Spanish golden age after their reconquest of many moorish territories.

Unfortunately, only the assembly hall remains of the original building, with fascinating mudejar features and Cisneros’ masouleum. 


Photo: The Olive Press

This is in part due to the decline of the university in the 19th century, leading to the hall’s use as a stable until the people of Alcala took back ownership. 

The main plaza echoes Madrid’s Plaza Mayor while the second plaza was once home to the dormitories and a jail. 

Photo: The Olive Press

Literary devotees will love the auditorium, where Spain’s answer to the Nobel prize for literature is awarded by the king. 

As you leave, make sure to admire the facade, designed by famed Spanish arquitecht Rodrigo Gil de Hontañon. 

After the university, make your way to the nearby tourist information centre in the Plaza de Cervantes. 

The Plaza de Cervantes 

On your way, make sure to admire the towering statue of Cervantes’ legendary work, Don Quixote and the surrounding rose bushes. 

There, the helpful guides will give you a map of Alcala’s main sights, starting in that very building. 

The tourism office is found in the Capilla del Oidor, an ancient church which houses a brief but interesting exhibition about Cervantes. 

Photo: The Olive Press

Then, cross the plaza to the Santa Maria tower, where you will get privileged views over the city. 

You may have noticed a number of white storks flying overhead as you wandered around Alcala and from the viewpoint, you can spot dozens of nests on church towers, trees and ramshackle roofs. 

Known as the city of storks, Alcala has over 90 breeding pairs and thanks to their conservation work it now has the largest population of the birds anywhere in Spain. 

Once you have admired the views, make your way down the steps and head towards the Cathedral Magistral de los Santos Justo.

The Cathedral de los Santos Justo 

Along the way, admire the unique architecture of the city, with orange bricks buildings and cobbled streets. 

Photo: The Olive Press

You can enter the cathedral for free and although it’s certainly worth a look, it pales in comparison to the majesty of other Spanish cathedrals like Sevilla or Granada. 

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Calle Mayor

From there, enjoy a drink in the square or begin to make your way down Calle Mayor, the longest porticoed street in Europe. 

Echoing fairytales and fantasy, the tudor-esque buildings were delightfully different to what I normally see in Andalucia and I loved dipping in and out of the porticoes to discover gift shops, cafes and hidden alleyways. 

Photo: The Olive Press

We stopped along the way at Empanadas Lulu, a family business serving a variety of pastries, complete with veggie and vegan options. 

After following a sign for the old synagogue, we also found a quiet square and enjoyed a moment of calm in this tucked away bar. 

The Cervantes Birthplace Museum 

After enjoying our snack, we continued to the Cervantes Birthplace Museum. 

Don’t forget to get your snap with the bronze figure of Don Quixote outside the museum, which is free to enter. 

Photo: The Olive Press

A window into what life was like in Spain in the 1500s, it focused not just on the writer himself but gave context to the world in which he grew up and penned his literary legacy. 

I particularly enjoyed the room dedicated to his father’s medical practice, though just looking at the sharp tools and spikes made me glad to be born in the 21st century. 

Museo Hospital de Antezana

Just next to the museum, pop into the Museo Hospital de Antezana, believed to be the first modern hospital in Spain. 

Although unfortunately it wasn’t open when we arrived, you can visit on Saturdays and Sundays for €6 or book a guided tour to visit during the week. 

Once finished, make your way down the street to admire the Plaza de Cervantes one last time, before heading back to the train station.

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