Modern Magical 


A tour of Alcalá de Henares, home of Cervantes

by Adelaida Lucena de Lower

digital photos by Adelaida Lucena de Lower

LEGENDS TELL the story of the Trojan warriors who, having escaped death, came here and founded a fortress called Iplacea, which is mentioned by Pliny and Ptolemy. Iplacea was named Complutum by the Romans (meaning either rich fields or confluence of waters) and renamed Al-Qal’at Nahr (Fortress on the Henares) by the conquering Moors. There are Iberian remains of venerable antiquity, beautiful Roman mosaics, medieval walls, a jewel of Renaissance architecture—the university—a poplar-lined river, a cathedral and churches and convents galore, all twenty miles northeast of Madrid, in historic Alcalá de Henares.

It was here that Catalina of Aragon, Queen of England and first wife of Henry VIII, was born. Here, her mother, Isabel of Castile, met Christopher Columbus. Here as well, Cardinal Cisneros, the queen’s confessor, gathered the best specialists in the field and printed the first great polyglot Bible, named Complutensian, after the city’s ancient name. But today Alcalá—as it’s familiarly called—barely remembers these landmarks, commemorating instead what Alcalainos (its dwellers) regard as a more significant event, the birth in our midst of the man who occupies the center of Spanish literature: Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra.

In a city so rich with literary and historical events that UNESCO declared it “a world heritage site,” Cervantes has taken over. Alcalá’s main square is the Plaza de Cervantes. If you go to a meson, a typical Castilian eatery, it may be named after one of his characters (or even that of his horse). ~ [ABOVE RIGHT: Don Quixote is everywhere in Alcalá de Henares; Meson Las Cuadras de Rocinante or “Rocinante’s Stables” is a typical restaurant] ~ Walk the streets and the familiar likenesses of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza will stare at you from the shelves of tourist shops. The city is the seat of the Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute, which endeavors to disseminate the Spanish language) and of the Centro de Estudios Cervantinos (Center for Cervantes Studies), a national and local initiative. As if this were not enough, every year on April 23—the anniversary of Cervantes’ death—His Majesty King Juan Carlos comes to Alcalá and solemnly announces the Premio Cervantes, the greatest literary award for those who write “in the language of Cervantes.”

This year all of Spain is celebrating 400 years of the publication of Don Quixote, and everyone has something to say. ~ [RIGHT: 400 years of Don Quixote in official logotype] ~ Columnists salute the masterpiece as “the first modern novel.” The PP (Partido Popular, the opposition party) censures President José Antonio Rodríguez Zapatero for not showing up at a commemorative event and for only dedicating 30 million euros to the fourth centenary’s program. In Madrid, there are scheduled exhibitions, symposiums and events.

Here, in Alcalá, the event’s logotype has been hanging from a building of the Plaza de Cervantes since last December. The city is teeming with camera crews and journalists and you can’t take two steps or read a newspaper without someone reminding you of Alcalá’s most famous son. There will be street shows, music, theater, conferences at the University… Still, many Alcalainos are not satisfied. They compare Alcalá with other literary towns such as Stratford-upon-Avon and think much more could be done.

The truth is we have to catch up. Nothing embarrasses an Alcalaino more than confronting the fact that England, France and Germany loved and understood Cervantes’ greatest work at once. It took us longer, so we overcompensate. With an Alcalaino’s fine irony, Manuel Azaña, a Cervantes scholar and president of the second Republic (1936), once stated, “The good Alcalaino believes himself co-participant in (the making of) Don Quixote and even proportional creator of the person of Cervantes.” It’s here, it’s all here, Alcalainos seem to say: Cervantes’ spirit, his roots, his work.

Hordes of students from local schools visit a house on the corner of Mayor and Imagen streets, popularly known as La Casa de Cervantes. ~ [RIGHT: The house on Mayor Street where Cervantes was born] ~ Though some historians doubt its authenticity, pointing to the fact that the structure is hopelessly adulterated, the majority sustain that Cervantes was born here. Their argument is supported by the discovery not long ago of a mural painting with unmistakable Renaissance motifs. The University of Alcalá has bought the house, restored by the government in the 1950s, and it has furnished it with items appropriate to the time.

Cross a small fenced-in garden and you enter a Castilian courtyard, one vestige of Roman and Arabic architecture. The house has two floors, the lower or social area with kitchen, receiving rooms, dining room and the office and adjoining pharmacy of Don Rodrigo de Cervantes, Miguel’s father, who was a surgeon. On the upper level there are bedrooms (one, with a very meaningful cradle) and two halls with fascinating editions of Cervantes’ work. Careful not to mislead, plaques and signs advise the visitor that none of the objects on display—chairs, bureau, braziers, tapestries, beds—belonged to the author. They are there merely to transport us to Cervantes’ time.

Actually, the house never belonged to Don Rodrigo de Cervantes either, but to his sister, María de Cervantes, a very clever lady who somehow managed to extract from her lover, the cleric Martín de Mendoza, the sizeable "alimony" of 600,000 maravedíes. Residing at the house at the time of Miguel’s birth were his aunt María; his mother, Leonor de Cortinas; his older sisters, Andrea and Luisa; Leonor de Torreblanca, his paternal grandmother; and Martina, María’s adolescent daughter. His father, Rodrigo de Cervantes, was the lonely male figure.

During Miguel's first winter (1547), the Cervantes’ women must have gathered in the estrado de las damas (the ladies’ receiving room) on the bottom floor, a place covered with carpets, tapestries, low stools and fat cushions, everything close to the floor (another vestige of the Moorish occupation). There, warmed by glowing braziers, they must have rocked “The Prince of Wit” in his cradle while embroidering or reading romances of chivalry and lives of saints.

In Alcalá, the family lived luxuriously thanks to María. Later, it would be the Cervantes women (and their rich companions) who would keep the family afloat. When after fighting in the battle of Lepanto, Miguel and his younger brother Rodrigo were captured by pirates on their return trip to Spain, it was their sisters, Andrea and Magdalena, who gathered the ransom money to rescue Rodrigo, and then Miguel. (Miguel generously gave precedence to his brother since Rodrigo had a family). In 1590, Magdalena delivered Miguel’s request for a post in the “Indies,” a post he would never get, and she welcomed Miguel’s daughter, Isabel, when the girl’s mother, her brother’s mistress, died. The Cervantes ladies were strong, cunning, and assertive women—atrevidas, Miguel would say, meaning daring.

NEXT DOOR to the Cervantes house is the Hospital of Antezana, where Miguel’s father worked as a surgeon. The hospital, the oldest of its kind in Europe, was founded in 1483 to “heal pilgrims, travelers and the poor” and, to this day, still serves as a nursing home. With a simple façade and another charming courtyard with a wooden gallery, it is another spot loaded with history. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, worked in the hospital’s kitchen when he studied at the university. Teresa of Avila may have come here to be treated for fevers. If so, patriarch Rodrigo de Cervantes must have bled her, which made the saint and doctor of the church one of his few patients.

Also born in Alcalá, Miguel's father Rodrigo was a hidalgo, the lowest rank in the Spanish nobility. The Cervantes (or Cerbantes) came from the south, from Córdoba, where they once traded in cloth. And so Rodrigo needed to work. Unfortunately, he was in the wrong place to practice medicine. Alcalá had an ever-growing surplus of excellent physicians. Miguel would write in Colloquy of Dogs, “Of five thousand students taking courses in the university that year, two thousand were being trained in medicine.” Moreover, being a surgeon placed Rodrigo on the lowest echelon of his profession (you only needed to read and be acquainted with three books, one of them a grammar text). Without a physician’s supervision, Rodrigo could patch up simple wounds, set bones and little more. The salary was meager, 17 maravedíes a day (what a tavern worker earned), and the job had its risks. After unsuccessfully treating the son of the Marquis of Gogolludo, an aristocrat from Alcalá, Rodrigo was labeled an incompetent and hounded until the family had to leave Alcalá de Henares in 1551, when Miguel was four years old.

This was the beginning of an exodus that would take Miguel from place to place. As his father before him, Miguel would have to fight all his life to earn a living. He would be a monsignor’s chamberlain, a soldier, a tax collector; he would work as the commissary of provisions for the great Armada (the invincible one); and he would unsuccessfully attempt to secure patronage, become a playwright and find several administrative posts. Until the end of his days, he was harassed because of debts and thrown into jail, always a step away from financial ruin.

IF YOU look at Alcalá from afar, the first thing that strikes you are the number of slate spires, domes and towers. Walk around downtown and you can’t find a street without an ancient convent, chapel or a church, most crowned with enormous stork nests. Two of these places have close connections with Miguel: the Capilla del Ouidor and the Carmelite Convent of the Imagen.

At one side of Cervantes square, right in front of the Town Hall, is a brick tower, part of what once was St. Mary Major Parish, which burned down in 1936. On the tower a plaque reads, “Church of St. Mary Major, rock of the baptismal waters of Miguel de Cervantes, spring of fabulous river, open and luminous gorge, Alcalá de Henares, 1547.” Across from this tower are the remains of walls, pilasters and archways. At the corner, facing the Town Hall, is the stern Capilla del Ouidor (chapel of the royal judge), one of St. Mary Major’s chapels. With a restored classical façade that clashes both with its Mudejar interior and, even more stridently, with its modern art exhibitions, the chapel has a treasure. In one of its darkened rooms stands a baptismal font, a modern manufactured piece with the inserted broken sections of the ancient font over which Miguel was baptized.

We are left to imagine the morning of the ninth of October of the year 1547, when, accompanied by his friend, Juan Pardo, Rodrigo walked from his sister's house, holding the infant Miguel in his arms. The quickest way to St. Mary Major is to go up Mayor Street under the medieval portico supported by stone pillars. These pillars were painted then in red and blue; you can still see traces of the colors today. The square that would later bear their name would have been full of university students, dressed in bright uniforms (purple for those studying arts, yellow for medicine, green and crimson for canon law, and white and black for theology). It is hard not to wonder whether Rodrigo, the struggling father of an ever-growing brood, did not grow sad at that sight. The boy he was carrying would never have the means to attend the city’s university.

THE CARMELITE Convent of the Imagen, once the mansion of a great lord, has an impressively carved stone front and a niche to the side with a statue of St. Teresa of Ávila. Under this niche there are two stone inscriptions, the one above commemorating St. Teresa’s stay in Alcalá, the one below honoring the memory of Luisa de Cervantes, thrice prioress of the convent and sister of “The Prince of Wit.”

Of Cervantes’ religious beliefs or lack thereof, much has been written and even more hypothesized. There are scholars that believe that the Cervantes were cristianos nuevos, "new Christians," and that they had converted to Christianity from Judaism (the expulsion or forced conversion of the Jews had taken place only fifty-five years before Miguel’s birth). One thing is certain: “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha” differs drastically from the books of his time in that it is truly a secular work. In Don Quixote and his other works there are veritable swarms of wizards, witches, enchantments and beliefs outside Roman Catholicism. We know that the writer was ex-communicated twice for expropriating Church property when he was a tax collector. And we know that, three years before he died, Miguel returned to Alcalá and (as even his free-spirited sisters had done before) entered the Third Order Franciscan. Later, he was buried in a Franciscan robe. Most likely, Miguel incorporated the totality of the landscape in which he lived, a landscape of faith and superstition, for that is what Spain and his Alcalá were at the time.

SUFFICE IT to mention the greatest event in Alcalá at that time: the return, after a 700-year absence, of the relics of the Santos Niños (Saintly Children), Iustus and Pastor, whose martyrdom the city still celebrates.

Born in Roman Complutum, Iustus and Pastor were two brothers, aged nine and seven, who, after witnessing their Christian faith, were cruelly beheaded. Shortly after their martyrdom, people began to visit their grave and so a little chapel was built on the spot. Later, the neighbors of the place erected a bigger church, disinterred the remains and lovingly placed them in a jasper urn. At the time of the Moorish invasion in the 8th Century, the people of Complutum were faced with a terrible dilemma: how to protect their relics from the advancing infidels. Enter the little Benedictine monk Urbe (or Urbicio). He takes—in another version, he steals—the relics, goes to Narbonne, and then to Huesca, in Spain. Centuries pass, the Moorish occupation ends and Alcalá asks to have its relics back. Naturally, the people of Huesca refuse. Relics, especially relics with healing powers, could not only bring pilgrims and enormous revenues, but ward off epidemics and disasters. Suits and countersuits followed, and the Alcalainos—not a docile crowd—resorted to a series of kidnapping attempts that failed. Finally, King Philip II secured a papal judgment. The relics of St. Iustus and Pastor went back to Alcalá in solemn procession, with all pomp and ceremony, entering the city on the seventh of March, 1568.

Strange or fantastic happenings are not extraordinary in Alcalá. In September of 1597, the Henares River overflowed and flooded the villa. An inspired friar, armed with a staff, took care of the problem by opening a great hole in the monastery of St. Diego. (Speaking of St. Diego, he was also buried in Alcalá’s cathedral, near Iustus and Pastor.) In 1562, Philip II’s son, Prince Charles, while studying in Alcalá at the University, fell down the stairs, hitting his head and falling unconscious. Fearing that the young man was dying, the priests brought St. Diego’s uncorrupted body to his chambers, and the young man woke up at once.

TWO PLACES in Alcalá are tied to Cervantes’ literary production. La Galatea, Cervantes’ first published work, saw the light in a printing shop on Libreros Street in 1585, a site where nowadays stands the main office of the mighty Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute).

Down the street where once stood St. Mary Major is the Colegio de Teólogos de la Madre de Dios (College of Theologians of the Mother of God), founded in 1513. Today, it serves as the seat of the lawyers association of Alcalá. Here, on a plaque by the door, the visitor can find an inscription stating how on the first of December, 1604, the Licentiate Francisco Murcia de la Llana signed Don Quixote’s testimonio de las erratas. The commemorative edition I bought in Madrid (a steal, at six euros) carries Licentiate Murcia’s note declaring to have checked the book against the original manuscript and there being no errors (it was, indeed, full of errors). Here it all started. Don Quixote continues to be printed worldwide, without interruption, in vast circulation, second only to the Bible.

~ [LEFT: Detail of panel of Don Miguel’s statue, Cervantes Square] ~ Other cities in Spain have claimed to be “the true cradle of Cervantes.” My new edition of Don Quixote bears a little map and I can see their locations (they even have Internet sites broadcasting their preposterous claims, but I will not name them because you should not encourage fools). These cities allege that Alcalainos have deceived the world through scams and forgeries. Why, Alcalá is not even mentioned in Don Quixote! Of course, that is untrue.

In his Meditations on Quixote, the writer and philosopher Ortega y Gasset wonders how Don Quixote dreams up the giants he thinks he sees in the windmills of Criptana. “True” he writes, “that Don Quixote is not in his right mind. But the problem is not solved declaring Don Quixote insane. Maybe those were not giants, but what about the others? I mean giants in general. How has man dreamed up giants?”

I don’t know about man in general, but Miguel did not have to go too far. After all, his father was born and raised in Alcalá. If you look to the east of Alcalá, you will see a hill called Vera Cruz (of the True Cross). There, you will find a humongous cavern with passages that supposedly go all the way to Guadalajara or to the Knights Templar castle in Santorcaz. People swear that this cave is inhabited by devils and giants, which is why it’s called La Cueva de Gigantones (the cave of the Giants). Any Alcalaino will tell you giants are the protagonists of many of our tales.

It gets better. South of the Henares River rises another hill called Mt. Zulema. According to local lore, Zulema is a magic mountain, residence to witches and other enchanted people who are keepers of many treasures. Evidently, when the conquering Moors swept past these parts their chieftain Muza (or Muzaraque, as Christians called him) found the fabled Table of Solomon (Suleyman, Zulema) hidden in one of these caves. The table, encrusted with emeralds and pearls, was so beautiful that Muza presented it to the Caliph Walid I in Damascus. In punishment for this theft, his spirit was sent back to Zulema after death. There you may still see him at night, riding a crazed alfana, a huge horse.

At this point, I will ask you to open your Quijote, Chapter 29, Part One. See for yourself what our Miguel puts in the mouth of the priest:

       “And still I will make believe I am knight on the horse Pegasus,
       or that zebra or alfana on which rode that famous Moor Muzaraque,
       that even now is enchanted on the great slope Zulema, which is not
       too far from the great Complutum.

ON A starless January night, I walked along Mayor Street toward the Saintly Children square and stopped in front of the Cervantes house. And I smiled. Someone in the Town Hall had done something very right. Since the first of the year, they have been projecting the text of Don Quixote on the façade of the building. The light show will continue this year, changing from one symbolic building to another. Trying to read the text as it appeared to emerge from the ground, I stood and watched, enthralled. Up and up, the lines moved from the first floor to the second, up to the roof, until the words seem to sail away into the cold Castilian sky.

Freelance writer Adelaida Lucena de Lower is proud to be an adopted Alcalaina.



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