Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alcala de Henares

We spent today touring Alcala de Henares, an attractive town of old buildings, tiny iron patios, centuries-old churches, convents and universities topped by gigantic stork’s nests and the large, majestic bodies of these birds (there are over 100 pairs of them in town).

The main street is the second longest colonnaded main street in Europe. The magisterial church, which require that all priests also be university faculty, is only one of two in Europe (the other is in Scotland). It’s the birthplace of Cervantes and in October, the main street is converted into a medieval market. The roofs are made from red clay tiles, which presents a beautiful sight when viewed from the top of the local tower. And the city is blooming with roses, large, fragrant, of many colors.

We visited the house of Cervantes. My friend said that it isn’t his birthplace exactly. He was born just next door, on the cross street. But the city thought it was better to have his hour on the main tourist route. It was quite a nice patio-style house, located next door to the hospital where his father worked as a doctor and which still operates as a care facility for poor elderly people.

We climbed the 109 steps to the top of the tower, for a great view of the town and an interesting tour, all for one euro. The best part was the museum to the university, which is the main reason Alcala de Henares was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1887. It began construction in 1499 and opened in 1508. Two other universities were already operating in Spain, but this was the first one to be a “university town,” to have students live on campus, and even to live under a set of laws different from those outside the university. There was a jail on campus where students would be punished for infractions such as speaking anything other than Latin, returning after 8 p.m., or bringing a woman on premises.

The university is visited by the King and Queen each year, where they present the Cervantes prize to an author that writes in Spanish. The first woman to ever receive her doctorate was a member of a family close to the king and the king had to order that the university allow her to sit for her exams.

The procedure of taking doctoral exams seemed to instill fear into my husband, who has a Ph.D. The candidate has to study eight years for a licenciado, even more for a doctorate. He would stand at a pulpit with his examiners on benches on the other side of the room and the galleys full of students who would jeer, cheer and mock the candidates. Each professor was allowed to ask one question. The candidate was supposed to both show his knowledge in answering the questions and his strong character in being able to handle the raucous crowd.

If he passed, he was led out a particular victory route, thought an arch of accomplishment and into the town where he’d be greeted by cheering people. They were always happy when someone passed because a new doctor was supposed to throw a party for the townspeople from his own money.

If he failed, he was led back through the door he entered. Real burro’s ears were attached to his ears, he rode a burro and he was walked through town, where he was mocked and spit upon and had waste thrown at him by townspeople unhappy that they weren’t getting a party. Then he returned to the university, where his classmates were to spit upon him in sufficient quantity to turn his shirt from black to white.

While I’m not much of a shopper, I enjoyed doing some shopping here. I loaded up on fantastic children’s books in Spanish at Libreria Diogenes (Calle Ramon y Cajal 1), my friends took me to, El Trastero de Lula, a cute little shop with quality toys, I bought the local specialty, candied almonds, called almendras de Alcala, at one of the oldest confectioners in town, and I enjoyed window shopping in the variety of other stores.

I also enjoyed the breaks, during which we sat outdoors at cafes and drank coffee, tea, beer, water and/or sodas. The food was plentiful, but I’m finding that I need some adjustment to the high fat and carbohydrate content. We started the day with churros (fried, sweet bread) and thick liquid chocolate. Our first drink break came with bread crumbs friend in oil with a bit of sausage. For lunch, we had a huge plate of fried potatoes, fried croquettes, cod fried with egg, and some delicious octopus on top of grilled potato and tomato. That came with a free serving of super greasy fried rice. Italian ice cream was our evening snack. For dinner at 10 p.m., we enjoyed grilled hot dogs, pork and sausage, more French bread, gouda cheese and a salad. The food is so heavy I can see why the afternoon nap is part of the culture. I’m just thankful we walked many miles, which hopefully helped to moderate the effects.

Our friends live in a development about a 20 minute walk from the center of Alcala. What is nice about it is the community aspect. In the mornings, everyone gathers at the churreria for their churros con chocolate. By 10 a.m. my friend says there is a line wrapped around the block. They can walk to the vendors of different foods, to the gym, to their children’s schools, to the park. There is very little need for a car on a typical day.

Both of our friends grew up here and now live just minutes from their family members, who also stayed local. They seem content with their life here. I can see why. This is a nice place, with a very relaxed culture. Though we flew in to Madrid, we are basing ourselves here. So far, I’m not missing the city.

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