Alcalá de Henares: The Cambridge of Spain

Located just 22 miles northeast of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares is the perfect day-getaway for any literary love or history hopeful looking for somewhere a bit more relaxed than the bustling metropolis of Spain’s capital.

The park-laden city is barely an hour from Madrid on the Renfé, a viable alternative for afternoon-trippers who might not have the time to explore the more typically-toured towns of Toledo and Segovia. Small enough to be explored in a morning, but culturally rich enough to warrant a holiday all of its own, the City of Three Cultures is a bucket list destination for anyone in search of historical Spain.

The city is a celebration of everything Spanish

While it isn’t home to the country’s oldest university (Salamanca holds that honour), the city boasts the wonderful 13th-century University of Alcalá, which re-opened its doors in 1977 and is home to 22,836 students. This is almost a tenth of the city’s entire population, which means that Alcalá bursts to life in term-time, just as the sleepy market town of Cambridge blooms into a bustling city with its revolving doors of returning scholars.

The city was designed specifically to host a large number of students (making it the world’s first planned university city), and became the original blueprint for the Civitas Dei, or City of God, essentially a model for the ideal urban layout which Spanish conquistadors brought to the Americas.

But even during term breaks, culture brims out of the academy and into the streets. Alcalá was granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, famous for, amongst other things, being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Spain’s infamous satire on knight-errantry (and possible contender for Europe’s first novel), Don Quixote.

Don Quixote fights the windmill, mistaking it for a monster

Urban art dedicated to the bard is scattered around the city, from bronze statues gracing the outside of the Moorish Cervantes House Museum, to beautifully constructed graffiti honouring the most famous scenes of the book. The museum perfectly captures the spirit of a landed 16th-century Spanish household, while the synagogues, mosques and churches scattered around the city speaks to its (relative) tolerance of faith during the politically turbulent European Middle Ages.

Indeed, the entire city can be read as a celebration of humanity, with the bustling streets and beautiful squares expected of the Mediterranean brimming with life, boutiques and brasseries. The Museo Arqueológico, situated inside a former Dominican convent, charts humanity’s progression from a tribe of rudimentary tool-wielders to the international civilisation of today; while just outside the city walls, Jose Noja’s Outdoor Sculpture Museum ensures the modern meets the ancient, romantic battlements as beautiful as those found in Ávila flanked by figurative statues looking toward a new kind of art.

The Museo de Escultura al Aire Libre skirts the city walls

Indeed, Alcalá de Henares is a city of art as much as of literature.

Walking down Calle de los Escritorios (Street of the Writers, for those keeping track), a pretty but unassuming street near the city centre, it’s easy to miss the half-open doors which lead onto the city’s most curious sight. But if you’re looking from a certain angle, and if the light is right, you might be lucky enough to see a mysterious sign that reads ‘Taller-Museo del Pintor Toro Bravo’ – the Workshop-Museum of the Brave Bull Painter.

If you’re brave enough to step inside, you’ll find yourself lost among the colourful and sometimes twisted imagination of what must be one of Spain’s most overlooked artists. The subject matter ranges from religious imagery to depictions of Spain’s history, contorted faces and twisted aliens which blend Cubism and Surrealism with Post-Modernism in an explosion of ideas, a celebration of Spanish art past and future. Toro Bravo is prolific – hundreds of paintings grace the walls and even the Sistine Chapel-esque ceiling of the workshop – and the mysterious, messianic painter is always just around the corner, ready for a chat, or even an exchange of smiles.

Alcala de Henares is worth a visit for Toro Bravo’s workshop alone

In a word, the workshop captures both the captivating charm of Alcalá de Henares, as well as the continually-evolving culture of Spain, which looks to the past for inspiration while embracing the future with open arms and a head full of dreams.

Matteo Everett

Note: this article originally appeared on

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