Greetings from Spain! This semester I am attending the Universidad de Alcalá in Alcalá de Henares – a town located just outside Madrid. Having been here three weeks, I’m now properly settled in and have had the chance to explore Alcalá. I did some research before I came here, but I didn’t realise just how much history was packed into this small town. The town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site and I’m not exaggerating when I say every street has a story behind it. As I study Spanish literature as part of my degree, you can imagine my excitement when I realised that almost everywhere I went, I encountered the names of some of the most famous Spanish literary figures.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the literary figures of Alcalá without starting off with the most prominent and well-known of them all – Miguel de Cervantes. Born in Alcalá in 1547, Miguel de Cervantes would go on to become one of the greatest writers of the Spanish language. His seminal novel Don Quixote (Don Quijote de la Mancha in Spanish) is widely regarded as one of the first modern novels, as well as claiming the title of one of the most translated books in the world. Cervantes’ influence on the Spanish language has also been profound. The world-renowned Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute) is a cultural organisation and official institute of the Spanish language. The Cervantes Institute has a location in Alcalá, complete with its own library.
Named after the man himself, Plaza de Cervantes is arguably the focal point of Alcalá. Previously known as Plaza del Mercado, the name of the square changed in 1879 to commemorate the writer, who was baptised in the Church of Santa María. The remains of the church are located at the south side of the square, much of it having been destroyed during the civil war. Cervantes was baptised in the church on the 9th of October 1547, and so the annual festival, la Semana Cervantina de Alcalá de Henares (Cervantes Week), is held on this anniversary. A statue of Cervantes stands at the centre of the square and serves as a popular meeting point.
If you want to learn more about Cervantes, it would be worth visiting the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes on Calle Mayor. The museum is located on the site where it is believed that Cervantes’ family home was and where Cervantes is believed to have been born.
On a bench in front of the museum are the sculptures of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, offering a great photo opportunity. Alcalá is also a university town, and the Universidad de Alcalá is as passionate about Cervantes as everyone else. The Faculty of Philosophy and Arts offers courses about Cervantes and his work, and in Colegio San José de Caracciolos there is a classroom named after him.
Cervantes is undoubtedly the most famous figure to come from Alcalá, but there are nods to a plethora of other literary figures throughout the town. In addition to the Aula Cervantes, in Colegio San José de Caracciolos, there are classrooms named after Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickenson, Samuel Johnson, Henry Sweet, Molière, Goethe and Shakespeare. The street names in Alcalá also pay homage to literature, some prime examples being Calle Escritorios (translating to the Street of Desks), Calle Cervantes and Calle Federico García Lorca – the famous Spanish poet and playwright, and a member of the Generación del 27. Lorca is also mentioned on a sign outside Hosteria del Estudiante, detailing his excursions to Alcalá along with other members of the Generación del 27.
Calle Lope de Vega is another street name found in Alcalá. Like Lorca, Lope de Vega was not from Alcalá, but in 1577 he came to the town and studied at the university. He stayed on Calle Colegios, on the site of what is now the Parador hotel. The student residence opposite the hotel is named after him – the Residencia Universitaria Lope de Vega. Lope de Vega would go on to mention Alcalá and its university in his works.
Alcalá de Henares may not be a big place, but every nook and cranny oozes literary history. I’m still new here, so there is probably a lot more to discover. I’m still not over the fact that I’m walking the same streets as some of the greatest Spanish writers. Being a common denominator in the lives of these literary icons, perhaps Alcalá de Henares is a bit of a lucky charm .