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Alcalá de Henares
—  Municipality  —
La Estación parade in winter


Coat of arms
Alcalá de Henares is located in Spain
Alcalá de Henares
Location in Spain
Coordinates: 40°28′N 3°22′W / 40.467°N 3.367°W / 40.467; -3.367Coordinates: 40°28′N 3°22′W / 40.467°N 3.367°W / 40.467; -3.367
Country  Spain
Autonomous community Madrid
Province Madrid
Comarca Comarca de Alcalá
Founded Pre-Roman
 - Alcalde Bartolomé González Jiménez (PP)
 - Total 87.72 km2 (33.9 sq mi)
Elevation 588 m (1,929 ft)
Population (2008)
 - Total 203,645
 - Density 2,321.5/km2 (6,012.7/sq mi)
 - Demonym Complutense
Time zone CET (UTC+1)
 - Summer (DST) CEST (UTC+2)
Postal code 28801-28807
Official language(s)
Website Official website
University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Plaza de Cervantes, shown here in the winter, is the social center of Alcalá de Henares. Visible is the statue of Miguel de Cervantes, the city's most famous native.
State Party  Spain
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv, vi
Reference 876
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1998  (22nd Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Alcalá de Henares, meaning Citadel on the river Henares, is a Spanish city, whose historical centre is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, and one of the first bishoprics founded in Spain. Located in the Autonomous Community of Madrid, 35 km northeast of the city of Madrid, at a height of 588 metres (1929 ft) above sea level, it has a population of around 200,000, the second largest of the region after the Spanish capital itself. The city is generally known simply as "Alcalá", but "de Henares" is often appended to differentiate it from a dozen cities sharing the name Alcalá (from the Arabic word Arabic al-qal'a القلعة for fortification or citadel). It is capital of Comarca de Alcalá.


The City today

The centre of the city remains essentially medieval, with many winding cobbled streets, and many historic buildings. The city centre surrounds Cervantes Square (the famous Plaza de Cervantes) and is traversed by a long pedestrian main street, the Calle Mayor.

The old city centre has been largely preserved, unlike the suburbs. There has been no clear planning by the city councillors regarding expansion, and the sprawling suburban areas are irregularly constructed, with the addition of seventies-style high rise blocks in many places.

One of the most important streets in the city is the Calle del Cardenal Cisneros which takes tourists from the Madrid Gate at the entrance of the city, to the old city center and the Cathedral in Santos Niños Square.

The city hosts a large population of international students due to the presence of the University, and in particular its Spanish language and literature programs for foreign students.

The Storks

Alcalá is well-known for its population of white storks. Their large nests can be observed atop many of the churches and historic buildings in the city, and are themselves a significant tourist attraction. Situated in the lowlands of the Henares river, the city is an attractive home for the migratory storks due to the wide availability of food and nesting material in the area.

For over twenty year's Alcalá's storks have been counted and studied, and the active protection and maintenance of their nests is by official policy. Although once in danger of disappearing, with only eleven pairs counted between 1986 and 1987, the population has grown to around 90 resident pairs today, many of which have shortened the distance and duration of their typical migrations to remain in the city nearly all year.[1]


The city boundaries have been inhabited since the Calcolithic. Romans conquered the area in the 1st century BC, and built the town of Complutum near a previous Celtiberian settlement, called Iplacea. Thus, it became the only Roman town in the Madrid region. With 10,000 inhabitants, it reached the status of Municipium and had its own governing institutions. After the falling apart of the Roman Empire, under the Visigoths, it declined, although it also became a pilgrimage place for the Saints Justo and Pastor.

Tower of the Old Castle of Alcalá La Vieja.

When in 711 the Moors arrived, they subdued the Visigothic city and founded another site, building an al-qal'a, which means "citadel" in Arabic, on a nearby hill, today known as Alcalá la Vieja (Old Alcalá). On 3 May 1118 it was reconquered by the Archbishop of Toledo, Spain Bernardo de Sedirac in the name of Castile. The Christians preferred the Burgo de Santiuste ("Saint Just's borough") on the original Roman site and the Arab one was abandoned. The city was ceded to the Bishopric of Toledo, which granted it ferial rights. Under Christian rule until the end of the Reconquista, the city sported both a Jewish and a Moorish quarter and had a renowned marketplace. Its central position allowed it to be a frequent residence of the Kings of Castile, when travelling south.

At some time in the 1480s Christopher Columbus had his first meeting at the "Casa de la Entrevista" with the Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, who financed the travel for the Discovery of America.

The city suffered severe damage during the Spanish Civil War.

Historic figures and events

Laredo Palace.

The author Miguel de Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, and baptized in the Church of Santa Maria in 1547, although his family moved from the city when he was still young. The city celebrates his birthday, 9 October, every year and organizes an annual Cervantes festival. The local university is acknowledged as a global leader in the study of Cervantes and his works.

Every year on 23 April, the anniversary of Cervantes' death, the city of Alcalá hosts the ceremony awarding the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most prestigious award for lifetime achievement in literature. The award is presented by the King of Spain at the University of Alcalá's historic "Colegio de San Ildefonso." Speeches about the importance of the Spanish language are customarily given by the King, the Minister of Culture and the laureate. The ceremony attracts a wide range of dignitaries to the city including members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, and others.

Other notable figures associated with the city are Ferdinand I of Aragon, cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the mystic John of the Cross, the theologian Gabriel Vázquez, the poet Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita, and Manuel Azaña Díaz, writer and politician, who was President of the Second Spanish Republic between 1933 and 1936.

Ecclesiastical history

Roman mosaic (part of the arqueological ensemble oof Complutum) representing the four seasons from the House of Bacchus.

The town of historic importance was one of the first bishoprics founded in Spain.

The polyglot Bible known as the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first of the many similar Bibles produced during the revival of Biblical studies that took place in the sixteenth century, was printed at Alcalá under the care of Cardinal Cisneros.

A Papal Bull of 7 March 1885, united Alcalá with (effectively merging it into) the diocese of Madrid which includes the civil province of Madrid, suffragan of the archbishopric of Toledo, which was formally speaking not canonically erected before while its foundation dated from the Spanish Concordat of 1851.

The bishop's residence has since been used for preserving historical archives. It was designed by Berruguete and has a famous staircase.

The principal towns within the Diocese of Alcalá with their populations in 1904, are: Alcalá itself (10,300), Colmenar de Oreja (3694), Colmenar Viejo (4758), Chinchon (4200), Escorial (4570), Getafe (3820), Leganes (5412), Morata (4000), Navalcarnero (3788), Pinto (2396), San Martin de Valdeiglesias (3290), San Sebastián de los Reyes (1477), Tetuan (2825), Torrejon (3081), Valdemoro (2726) and Vallecas (5625).

The Cathedral[2]

Tower of the Cathedral of the Santos Niños.

Aside from the buildings associated with the University, the city's most important and historic building is the Cathedral-Magistral of Saints Justus and Pastor, known formally in Spanish as the "Santa e Insigne Catedral-Magistral de los Santos Justo y Pastor" or more familiarly as the "Catedral de los Santos Niños." Constructed between 1497 and 1514, the Cathedral houses the remains of Saints Justus and Pastor, two Christian schoolboys martyred near the city during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century.

The western façade of the Cathedral of the Santos Niños, illustrating a "florid" or "Isabelline" gothic style.

In 414 a chapel was erected at the site of Justus and Pastor's martyrdom, and was converted into a Cathedral during the period of Visigoth control of Hispania; bishops from Alcalá were present at the Councils of Toledo beginning in the seventh century. In 1053 the old city of Alcalá (Alcalá la Vieja) was conquered by Ferdinand the Great, only to be recaptured the following year by the Moorish armies then warring for control of the Iberian Peninsula, who destroyed the cathedral as an act of retaliation. At that time the relics of Saints Justus and Pastor were taken to Huesca for safekeeping until after the reconquest of Alcalá in 1118. Although a church was rebuilt on the site in 1122, Pope Urban II, under the influence of his friend Raymond de Sauvetât, the Archbishop of Toledo, decided not to restore the Diocese of Alcalá at that time. Instead, de Sauvetât was able to secure the incorporation of Alcalá into his own archiepiscopal territories through a donation from King Alfonso VII in 1129.

The church was rebuilt again some three hundred years later by a subsequent Archbishop of Toledo, Alfonso Carrillo de Acuña, who elevated it to the status of a collegiate church. It was finally reconstructed in its present Isabelline Gothic style under Cardinal Cisneros (1495–1517), the founder of the University. A tower was added between 1528 and 1582, achieving its modern appearance in 1618. The processional cloister and the Chapel of Saint Peter were incorporated into the building in the seventeenth century.

The building was declared a national monument in 1904. Nevertheless, it was burned during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and practically all of its contents were destroyed with the exception of a few minor relics and choir seats.

Cardinal cisneros' tomb, in the cathedral.
Oidor Church

It was not until 1991 that the Diocese of Alcalá was finally restored, being separated from the Archdiocese of Madrid, at which time the building was granted its present status of Cathedral-Magistral. (Although the title "Magistral" was originally granted by Cardinal Cisneros, the building was still technically only a Collegiate Church, and not yet a Cathedral within the ecclesiastical meaning of the term.)

The Cathedral of Alcalá is notable as one of only two churches in the world to be granted the special title "Magistral" (along with St. Peter's Church in Leuven, Belgium). The title reflects its former status as a Collegiate Church, and derives from the requirement that all of the canons of the Cathedral must possess the academic distinction of Doctor of Theology in order to serve there.

In addition to that of Saints Justus and Pastor, the Cathedral also houses the tomb of renowned seventeenth-century Spanish sculptor Gregorio Fernández.

The University

The plateresque facade of the old Alcala University.

The major landmark and greatest pride of the city, its university, is spread throughout the city, but generally exists in two campuses. The first is on the north side of Alcalá. This campus includes most science departments and student housing (as well as its own, separate RENFE station). The second, central campus, houses most of the humanity and social science departments, including a law school.

The architectural influence of the university can be found in other present-day academic institutions. The University of San Diego is largely based on the Spanish University; its campus and address take the name "Alcalá Park." In addition, some buildings at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, were modeled after the architecture of Universidad de Alcalá de Henares.[3]

In 1496, Cardinal Cisneros founded the Universidad Complutense in Alcalá, which became famous as a centre of learning during the Renaissance. However, for economic reasons, the University was moved to Madrid in 1836 (under the name Universidad Complutense de Madrid). A new university was founded in the old buildings as the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in 1977. Parts of the new University occupy the buildings of the old Universidad Complutense in the city centre, including the modern Colegio de San Ildefonso, and other Colegios, and the structures have served as a model for other universities across the Spanish territories in the Americas and other dependencies. For a time before their restoration and occupation by the modern University the old buildings had fallen into ruins, and where the population of the city at one point numbered some 60,000, in 1900 it had dropped to some 10,000 inhabitants.

The university chapel dedicated to Saint Ildefonso has a monument to the University's founder, Cardinal Cisneros, by Fancelli, an Italian sculptor.

It should be noted that while the present university is named "Universidad de Alcalá", the ancient institution founded by Cisneros is the one now called "Universidad Complutense" located in the capital city of Madrid ("Complutensis" is the Latin word for "native of Alcalá"). The modern University is related to the original institution in name only, although it occupies the former buildings of the Complutense.


The climate in this city of central Spain is the continentalised Mediterranean, with cold, dry winters and hot, dry summers. Rains fall mainly in spring and autumn. Temperatures vary from some degrees below 0°C in December and January to some over 40°C in July and August.


Cervantes Square.

At an average of 654 m of altitude, on the southern part of the Meseta Central and occupying some 88 km²; the city was for a long time encapsuled between the hills and the river Henares to the south and east by the Madrid-Barcelona railway on the north and west. However, the expanding population has forced two new residential areas to be created between the railway and the motorway and beyond the latter. The historical centre lies roughly in the middle of the urban area. It is characterised by lower, Spanish Golden Age buildings, of which the most lavish belong to the University. These historic buildings gained for the city the title of World Heritage Site, awarded by the UNESCO in 1998.

Surrounding it there are the awful, high, swiftly built blocks of the 1960s, the Francoist era. They fill spaces to the north up to the railway line and to the west until the industrial zone begins. This was erected in the early 60s and has developed and expanded. Now it occupies a good third of the city's area being cut by the mentioned railway and motorway. To the east, the old blocks limit with a more recent area of lower blocks with gardens and (semi-)detached houses. This kind of construction also makes up the landscape of the new districts beyond the railway and the motorway.

The river remains widely underused. Although there are plans now in force to reconvert it into a major leisure place for the alcalaínos, it still presents no more than fairly good tracks for cycling and walking.


Mayor street.

Some 18% of the population are of foreign origin, according to the official data, a large part of the newcomers (30%) are immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many Chinese businesses have also been established in the city. Alcalá has the largest community of Romanian immigrants in Spain, with over 22.000 people. For the first time legal immigrants from Romania created a political party for the elections on 2007. There is also a festival once a year, celebrated at the city central square (Plaza de Cervantes) dedicated to the people of Romania in Alcalá.

Transport and Tragedy

Alcalá's excellent transport links with Madrid have led to its becoming a commuter town, with many of its inhabitants travelling to work in the capital. It was affected particularly badly by the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings in Madrid as all the bombs were placed on trains that originated in, or passed through, Alcalá.

A Statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza front at Cervantes's natal house.

Sister cities

Alcalá de Henares, as the birthplace of Catherine of Aragon, is twinned with the English city of Peterborough in England, her final resting-place.

Photos of Alcalá de Henares


  1. ^ "Las cigüeñas de Alcalá at The City of Alcalá's official web site (in Spanish)
  2. ^ This section incorporates information from the Spanish Wikipedia article Catedral de los Santos Niños Justo y Pastor de Alcalá de Henares licensed under the GFDL.
  3. ^ Barrick, Nolan (1985). Texas Tech... The Unobserved Heritage. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press. pp. 18, 23. ISBN 0-89672-125-6.  

Sources and external links

See also

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Alcalá de Henares is a city in Madrid in Spain. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site

Get in

Trains run from Madrid to Alcalá at Atocha Station.

Buses leave from Madrid to Alcalá at Avenida de América.

Get around

Alcalá has a bus service that costs 1 euro per ride. The historic center is compact and can be explored on foot.


La Universidad de Alcalá: The university was founded in 1499 by Cardenal Cisneros and was the center of academic excellence in Spain, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. The famous facade is an excellent example of the estilo plateresco (plateresque style). The University is also the site where the Cervantes Literary Prize is presented by the King annually on April 23.

El Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes: See the house where the famous author of El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha lived. The museum recreates life in 16th century Spain and includes a room of manuscripts from around the world.

La Catedral-Magistral: One of only two magisterial cathedrals in Europe. Inside one can visit la Cripta de los Santos Niños, the tomb of persecuted Catholic children.


Take a stroll around La Plaza de Cervantes, a great place for people-watching, and the center of the city's historic sector. The plaza is lined with many restaurants and shops.

Look up to the rooftops and you will see storks nesting high above.


Alcalá is not the place to find dozens of stores teeming with tourist goods. That being said, typical products of the region include ceramics and jewelry.


Your Spanish experience is not complete until you've had tapas, which are small appetizers served along with your drink.

Alcalá is known for its almendras, a sugar-coated almond candy. You can get them at El Convento de San Clarisas de San Diego, a cloistered abbey where the nuns make the candies with nothing but "almonds, sugar and love."

Get out

A bus ride away is the excavation of the Roman village Complutum.

Alcalá is a half hour train ride away from Atocha, Madrid's main train station.

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