Alcalá de Henares, Madrid

Category: Madrid

If you plan to travel to Madrid, the capital and largest city in Spain, you should definitely take some time out of your busy tour schedule to visit some of its neighboring towns and cities, particularly the city of Alcalá de Henares, located roughly 35 kilometers northeast of the Spanish capital. Alcalá de Henares, which in English means the “Citadel on the River Henares,” is a member city of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, one whose downtown historic district was recently deemed one of the United Nation’s World Heritage Sites. With a population of approximately 200,000, the city is the second largest in the region, after Madrid, and is the capital of its namesake region, Comarca de Alcalá. Most locals refer to the town simply as “Alcalá,” but for official purposes the “de Henares” is usually added to differentiate it from over 12 other cities in the world sharing the name “Alcalá”

History of Alcalá de Henares

The area now known as Alcalá de Henares has been inhabited since the Calcolithic phase of the Bronze Age. The region was conquered in the 1st century BC by the Romans, who constructed the town known as Complutum near an earlier Celtiberian settlement called Iplacea. As a result, the area became the only Roman town ever to be built in the Madrid region of Spain. Over several centuries, the population of the settlement swelled to 10,000, earning it the standing of Municipum, complete with its own governing institutions. After the eventual fall of the Roman Empire, the city rapidly declined under the Visigoths, although it became a site of pilgrimage for the Saints Justo and Pastor.

Alcalá de Henares rose to prominence again after the Christians conquered the Moors, and became well known for its diverse marketplace and centralized location, making it a popular and frequent stopover for the Kings of Castile when traveling south.

During the 1480s, Alcalá de Henares became the site of the first meeting between Christopher Columbus and the Royal Catholics, Ferdinand and Isabella, a meeting held at the “Casa de la Entrevista” that ultimately secured the funding for Columbus’ epic voyage to the New World.

The most famous resident ever to call Alcalá de Henares home was the renowned Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes, who was born and baptized in the city in 1547, although he moved from the city with his family when he was still a young boy. To this day the city celebrates his birthday every year on October 9th, a celebration that includes the very popular and well-attended Cervantes festival.

Important Sites in Alcalá de Henares

The most well-known landmark in Alcalá de Henares is the University of Alcalá, a school of higher learning spread throughout the city, but highlighted by its two primary campuses. The first of these is situated in the north of the city and includes the mathematics and science departments, student housing and its own RENFE commuter train station. The second campus, which is more centrally located, is home to the schools of social science and humanities, as well as the university’s school of law.

Aside from the many sites which make up the University of Alcalá, the city’s most historic and significant structure is the Santa e Insigne Catedral-Magistral de los Santos Justo y Pastor (Cathedral-Magistral of Saints Justus and Pastor), locally known as the Catedral de los Niños. This Catholic Church, which houses the remains of Saint Justus and Saint Pastor, two school-age children who were martyred near the city during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the start of the 4th century, was constructed between 1497 and 1514. It has since been rebuilt and renovated, but it continues to showcase some of the early architectural traits so common during that time period.

Due its close proximity to and superior transportation links with Madrid, finding your way to Alcalá de Henares to explore its many treasures could not be easier. In addition, the city has an excellent metropolitan bus system called Autobuses de Alcala, with stops at all major points of interest for a mere 1 euro per ride.