By: Andelyn Russell, Columbia University
After two weeks in Madrid, I learned that Miguel de Cervantes was from the nearby city Alcalá de Henares. I was set on attending the CIEE visit. Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, was the father of the modern Spanish novel; now I could send a picture of his house to my former Spanish teacher! That was all I needed to know, and I was ready to go. When touring the town, our first stop was the visit to Cervantes’ house. Yet visiting the house was one of several highlights in Alcalá de Henares’ range of sites. With rich stories, this UNESCO cultural heritage city revealed its surprising traditions and quirks. Convenient for an afternoon visit, Alcalá de Henares is a 30-minute train ride from Madrid. Albeit on a smaller scale, I expected the old sections of the town to possess a similar architectural style as the old sections of the capitol. Instead, we noticed that the sidewalks ran under the first floor (second floor in American English) of buildings lining the streets. Our Resident Director, Eero, explained that the covered sidewalks were designed to protect pedestrians from the summer heat. These covered sidewalks bordered Calle Mayor (Main Street), where we went to Miguel de Cervantes’ house. Rather, the house of Miguel de Cervantes and his neighbors. In sixteenth century Alcalá de Henares, multiple families would live in a large house together. Though families had their own bedrooms, social rooms (separate for males and females) were shared by all. Walking through the Cervantes house, we also saw a recreation of Miguel de Cervantes’ study and his father’s medical office. Primarily, the rooms were dimly lit, with whitewashed walls, tile floors and wooden furniture accented with iron and leather. At the center of the house was a sunny courtyard framed by stone pillars. Had I lived in sixteen century Alcalá de Henares, I wouldn’t have minded staying with Cervantes and his neighbors. Their house contrasted with the image I held of centuries-old typical homes: meager dwellings void of comfort and technology. Granted, there was still no technology (read: electronics), but the rooms displayed a sense of stability that I found welcoming. Saying goodbye to the Cervantes house, we continued on to the Cathedral of Saints Justo and Pastor of Children. Here, Eero introduced us to Alcalá de Henares' white storks. Due to climate and migratory patterns, the town hosts around 90 pairs of storks. Their nests were quite strange at first glance. After seeing the large twig bundles on the cathedral bell tower, several roofs and unused chimneys, they grew oddly normal. The stork nests dotted our way to the old university entrance and the San Diego Convent, where we stopped to try the nun’s signature glazed almonds.
As the nuns are completely isolated from the outside world, Eero demonstrated the special manner of purchasing the confection. On a wall of the convent foyer, there was a counter with a revolving tray. Mounted on the tray were wooden boards, preventing us from seeing into the convent. Eero stepped up to the counter and waited to hear the traditional greeting: Ave María Purísima (Hail Mary Most Pure). To this, we replied with our “Sin Pecado Concebido” (Conceived Without Sin). Having exchanged this greeting of “passwords,” we could order the almonds. The flavorful, crunchy nuts were delicious; we finished them all! Closer the program end date, I’ll return to Alcalá de Henares to purchase glazed almonds for my family.
When the end of our visit arrived, we stopped at a well-known local tapas bar on the main street, called Indalo. I already looked forward to returning to Alcala very soon. Visiting Miguel de Cervantes’ house provided a new perspective on historical life, and as intended, I have great pictures to send to my former Spanish teacher. But when thinking of this city, I also remember the rustling of storks in their nests, the shaded sidewalks and sweet glazed almonds.