29km (18 miles) E of Madrid
The Spanish Renaissance came to Alcalá de Henares when the powerful Cardinal Cisneros established its university in 1499. While the Inquisition was busy closing minds, Alcalá was opening them. The father of the modern Spanish language, Miguel de Cervantes, was born here in 1547, and the town’s elongated square, Plaza de Cervantes, honors him with a fine bronze statue, quill in hand. (Cervantes’s family moved away shortly after his birth, but Alcalá is not letting that get in the way of a good story.) After the original university moved to Madrid in the 19th century, Alcalá went into decline, but the arrival of a new university in the 1970s has given this appealing small city another renaissance.
Despite its outwardly modern appearance, Alcalá de Henares is a historic city with a glorious past. Its discreetly hidden medieval center still abounds with colleges, monasteries, and palaces, and its Calle Mayor (main street) is among the oldest in Madrid province. When a university was founded here in the 15th century, Alcalá became a cultural and intellectual center. Europe's first polyglot Bible (supposedly with footnotes in the original Greek and Hebrew) was published here in 1517, but the town declined during the 1800s when the university moved to Madrid. Today Alcalá is one of the main centers of North American academics in Spain, cooperating with the Fulbright Commission, Michigan State University, and Madrid's Washington Irving Center. Overall, the city has taken on new life. Commuters have turned it into a virtual suburb, dubbing it "the bedroom of Madrid." (Prominent among its noncommuting inhabitants is the perennial community of highly urbanized storks that nonchalantly squat in their roof- and spire-top nests or, wide-winged, wheel effortlessly overhead.)