What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

Photo Post: Palacio de Las Dueñas, the Duquesa de Alba’s Treasured Home in Sevilla

Just like on the day of her death, my phone started pinging with the news that the Duquesa de Alba’s beloved palace, Palacio de las Dueñas, would be converted into a public museum. Sleep still crusting my eyes from a Friday afternoon siesta, I search for a projected opening date, scrawled “PALACIO DUEÑAS TIX” on an open page of my agenda, and rolled back to sleep.

Several weeks later, under a post-Feria chill and dreary skies, I did a personal pilgrimage to honor Doña Cayetana de Alba, stopping at three of her favorite places – the brotherhood of Los Gitanos, Palacio de las Dueñas and Bar Dueñas.

la_duquesa_de_alba_vf_3765_622x466

Born to an aristocratic family in Madrid before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart (and that’s just the short version of her 26 names) lived her life in constant fear of being alone, bounced between London and the Spanish capital. Despite being gifted in arts and horsemanship and considered one of Span’s most beautiful young women, she only truly felt fulfilled when she was visiting her Tía Sol in Andalucía, according to her autobigraphy Yo, Cayetana.

And it was here at Palacio de las Dueñas, a 15th Century state home situated in the heart of Seville, where she’d marry her third husband, live out the happiest of her days surrounded by art and bubbling fountains, and where she’d return to die.

I began first at her final resting place, the Templo de Nuestro Padre Jesús de la Salud y Nuestra Señora de las Angustias Coronadas (locals call it Los Gitanos for the religious brotherhood that does it penitence during the Madrugá). In a humble tomb decorated with dried flowers rests the hermandad’s gran anfitriona, a large marble plaque marking her final wish to be buried near the altar. Cayetana was a people’s princess of sorts, and her devotion to the brotherhood and fervent faith was as as strong as her love of horses, bullfighting and flamenco.

House of Alba

I wandered the backstreets of a neighborhood I don’t know very well, close to Los Jardínes del Valle, to kill time. Cayetana was often seen out walking, not afraid to be hounded by paparazzi or approached by sevillanos. The only time I ever saw her, she was chattering away in a horse carriage at the fairgrounds, as if she were just another well-to-do sevillana (or at least one of those who took out a loan to guardar aperiencias and pay for the new traje de gitana).

Through marriages and kingdoms uniting over six centuries, the Casa de Alba became one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Spain. By the time Cayetana was born in 1926, the family had amassed over a dozen properties, countless works of art and handicrafts and a name that made anyone either roll their eyes at their immense wealth or sigh in wonder.

Facade of Palacio de las Dueñas Sevilla

Palacio de las Dueñas, named for a monastery that once stood on the grounds, was a place I had to visit before leaving Seville. When my friend Claudia lived next door, I’d often crane my neck over her fourth-floor balcony to see into the palace walls. Orange trees and tiles rooftops covered the patios and living quarters, and that quick glimpse of her dandelion hair at the Feria was all I’d get until she died in late 2014 and I, along with thousands of others, attended her closed-casket wake.

Even though I’d arrived a quarter hour early, the guard let me in, and I had a few moments in the inviting courtyard to breathe in the dew on the naranjo trees. The ivy- and bougainvillea-covered façade was perhaps the most inviting part of the property, a landmark that’s seen dignitaries, foreign movie stars and the glamoratti sleep in its many bedrooms.

Grand Entranceto Palacio Las Duenas Sevilla

Duquesa de Alba's Home in Sevilla

Palacio de las Dueñas Details

Typical house in Seville Spain

The 1,900 square meter property has long been closed to the public, save special events. And even with that much space, once the 11am entrance time hit, I was constantly being bumped into by old ladies or screeched at to move by the same old ladies. I lingered, letting them pass through to the inner gardens while I, like Cayetana, sought refuge in the stables (my mother would be proud).

Considering horses and bullfighting to be two of her greatest passions, the Duquesa kept horses on her property and owned several carriages – not to mention the dozen or so private farms that belonged to her before she divvied them up preceding her third marriage.

Duchess of Alba Horses

House of Alba Crest

The humble stable opens up into a small, dense garden lined with tiled benches, pockmarked with fountains and reminiscent of other famous residents of Dueñas.

Antonio Machado, poeta celebré of Andalucía, was born in the palace when it was still a corral de vecinos, immoralized in ‘Autorretrato de Campos de Castilla’:

Mi infancia son recuerdos de un patio de Sevilla
y un huerto claro donde madura el limonero[…]

Gardens in Palacio las Dueñas

What does the Duchess of Alba's house look like

Framed by Arabic lattice work etched in marble, arches lead from the private garden into the main living quarters, themselves surrounding a breezy interior patio decked out with sculptures, tapestries and paintings. More than money in the bank, the Casa de Alba’s legacy lies in its numerous land holdings and priceless art collection, protected by the Fundación Casa de Alba.

Living Quarters in Dueñas

Interior of Palacio de las Dueñas

Details of Dueñas

Artwork in Dueñas

Artistry at Dueñas palace

The tour leads guests through half a dozen rooms on the ground floor, a glimpse into how the Duquesa lived and a taste of her greatest aficiones evident in the decoration and her personal items. Betis flags, sketches, Spanish history books and old Fiestas de Primavera posters seemed to cover every inch of wall, statues scattered throughout great halls.

The most curious item? A white zuchetto, enclosed in a glass case near the altar where Cayetana wed her third husband.

sala del bailaora

The Duquesa de Alba's personal things

Duquesa de Alba's art

Sala de Carteles

Like Cayetana, I know that Seville is a city that gets under your skin – it’s one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had – and Dueñas celebrates her eccentricity and the beauty and cultural tradition of the city. Like Sevilla, the house is timeless and at its most beautiful in the springtime.

“Todas las primaveras
tiene Sevilla
una nueva tonada
de seguidillas;
nuevos claveles
y niñas que, por mayo,
se hacen mujeres”
-Antonio Machado, “Sevilla y otros poemas”

Inside the Duquesa de Alba's home

Seville has several beautiful casa-palacios open to the public – Casa Pilatos or Casa de la Condesa de Lebrija being standouts – but Palacio Las Dueñas seems to capture recent history in a way that the former miss.

After passing through the grand vestibule, I paused in the Jardin de Santa Justa and looked at my watch. It was nearing 12:30, the perfect hour to hop across the street to Bar Las Dueñas, a humble tapas bar where Cayetana would have her daily cervecita. I toasted silently to Cayetana’s memory, her legacy and the sevillano sun beginning to break through the clouds.

Palacio de las Dueñas

If you go: Rumor has it that the reason the palace has been opened to the public is strictly financial: the Duquesa’s heir couldn’t pay the taxes it. Regardless, it’s a fine example of sevillano architecture and a museum to one of the city’s most prominent figures in recent history.

Dueñas is open to the public for self-guided tours for a price of 8€, closing only on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and the Epiphany. Summer hours stretch from 10am until 8pm; the palace closes in the winter at 6pm. You can nab tickets at the gate (note that there’s a limited number available, and tickets have an hourly entrance time) or on ticketea.

I opted for the audio guide, which cost 2€ after the entrance fee. The guide not only gave me a solid understanding of the Alba family’s legacy, which stretches back four centuries, but also pointed out architectural and aesthetic details. This house has museum status, so spring for it!

Have you been to the Palacio de las Dueñas or other state museums in Spain? Check out my posts on the Monastery of Yuste, where Emperor Carlos V went to die and the preserved medieval walls at Ávila.

Seville, I’m breaking up with you

Querida Sevilla mía,

You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.

Te estoy dejando.

giralda sunset1

My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.

You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.

tapas bodeguita romero typical Spanish tavern

Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.

Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.

Plaza del Altozano Triana

But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.

Like I said, it’s you, not me.

I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.

But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.

And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.

But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.

Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.

my first feria de abril

And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.

You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, . Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.

But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.

Expat in Seville Cat Gaa

Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.

I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.

I love Seville Heart Necklace

This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.

But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.

Con todo mi cariño,

Cat

Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!

No time for complatency

Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through! 

I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!

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