Inspiration to write: The Birthplace of Cervantes

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This last phase of my thesis process has not been about generating new ideas or even reinterpreting facts. Instead it has been a process of clarifying my conclusions through multiple revisions. It’s hard enough to produce creative succinct writing in English, and doubly more so in Spanish. Therefore, to take a break from the puzzle of word combinations I traveled to Alcalá de Henares, a small town to the northeast of Madrid, where the acclaimed Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes was born. Cervantes is best known for his novel El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605), which satires the then popular genre of caballeresco novels, by presenting a hero, Don Quijote for whom nothing goes according to his plans. His quick wit and prose have made a lasting impression on readers and is still considered to be one of the greatest literary achievements in Spain.

Upon entering the city from the train station (it is only about 30 minutes from Madrid) I passed by the Laredo Palace, a great example of 19th century neo-mudéjar design (mudéjar is the academic term used to describe architecture decoration and construction found through the symbiosis of styles from Christians and Muslims living together in Spain). Currently the building is a center for historical studies. It was closed throughout the month of August, as were many other sites that I visited.

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Following the maze of little streets, I finally arrived in the Plaza de Cervantes, the central point of the city. This plaza unlike many others in Spain has roses planted in the middle creating various passageways, instead of a flat expansive space. The tourist office gave me a map and a list of activities, with the hours, which helped me plan my day; however, there were a few slight mistakes.

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My first stop was to the Universidad Complutense, which is one of the oldest universities in Spain having been founded in 1293 by Sancho IV of Castile. In 1517 scholars here produced the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, cementing its fame as a center of learning for the Renaissance Man. Different faculties of the University are spread throughout the city, under the plan of creating a utopian center for learning. Since it was Sunday they were not offering tours of the interiors to the various buildings and I had to be content with their facades.

 

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My first stop was to the Universidad Complutense, which is one of the oldest universities in Spain having been founded in 1293 by Sancho IV of Castile. In 1517 scholars here produced the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, cementing its fame as a center of learning for the Renaissance Man. Different faculties of the University are spread throughout the city, under the plan of creating a utopian center for learning. Since it was Sunday they were not offering tours of the interiors to the various buildings and I had to be content with their facades.

 

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From there I headed towards the main street of the city, aptly called Calle Mayor to see the birthplace of Cervantes. Cervantes, born October 9th, was baptized in the city in 1547. Despite his family moving in Cervantes’ youth, the city still celebrates his birthday and death with great festivals. Additionally, the city grants the Cervantes Prize, the leading award for lifetime achievement in Spanish Literature.

Outside the house sit the two bronze statues of Don Quijote and his trusty page, Sancho Panza. I have found versions of these sculptures throughout the world, in Mexico, Peru and of course in Madrid. Typically, Sancho Panza is riding the mule while Don Quijote rides his horse carrying a lance. Here however, the two characters sit on the park bench seemingly deep in discussion, perhaps Don Quijote is trying to cajole Sancho to join him on another wild adventure.

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Cervantes’ house is typical of many Spanish houses of the 16th century. The two stories are placed around the perimeter of a square patio. The museum has attempted to decorate each room with items that were in use during the 16th century to give an idea of the quality of life during this era. Since Cervantes’ father was a surgeon, they replicated his operating room with all of the tools and devices used to cure various ailments.

After a tour of the rooms, I was able to catch a performance that the museum organized to explain the types of food found in these homes. From one of the descriptions left in the book, they re-created the recipe for Cocido (generally speaking cocido refers to a dish containing vegetables, meat, beans, and or pasta all simmered together. There are various versions depending on the region in Spain and what was available, this winter I am determined to finally try Cocido Madrileño.) Our head chef distributed all of his napkins, which held the various ingredients and then asked us individually to join the main stew. I was thankfully an egg, which is a universally easy sign to distinguish, instead of some of the very specific cuts of meats that were included. I was one of the last ingredients to be added to our pot. We were not able to try a real version of our hypothetical stew; however, we did all leave with a recipe that I can try to make at home.

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After a taste of Cervantian life, I headed towards the Convent of Saint Bernard, passing by the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace. Most of the chapels of the Cathedral are under restoration, and I was not able to see its typical luster. According to plaques the Archbishop’s palace is not open to tourists. However, it was here that Queen Isabel first interviewed Christopher Columbus surrounding his voyage in search of the Indies.

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The Convent of Saint Bernard was a project by the Cardenal Sandoval Rojas started in 1613 to be attached to his archbishop palace. Such projects were generally commenced in Spain to highlight the prestige and religiosity of the founder. This foundation is particularly interesting for the elliptical layout of its church. The flat façade hides this unique layout, and its dome is not visible except from the farthest corner of the plaza.

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Inside there are six chapels placed in the perimeter dedicated towards various saints. In the upper register of the building there are seven balconies that were reserved for noble families. The one facing the altar was for the Cardinal; however, he did not live to see the building completed or use this balcony. Not only did these balconies segregate the population and give the nobles preferred views towards the altars, but also, as our tour guide hinted, allowed for them to communicate with those below, especially the bourgeoisie that bought rights to sit in particular chapels to be within their view. I was particularly struck by the two-tiered choir directly behind the main altar. Generally speaking, the grilla are supposed to obstruct viewing of the nuns; but as you can see in the last photo, while standing on the balcón of the Cardinal I could clearly peer into their choirs, proving that this rule might not have always been followed perfectly.

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Unfortunately, the rest of our tour of the complex was rather limited and did not include the various cloisters adjacent to the church.

Since I was next door to the Regional Archaeological Museum, I decided to take a peak in before heading to lunch. The Museum is housed in old monastery of the Dominican Friars, La Madre de Dios that was founded in 1565. Like many of the clerical buildings in the country, it suffered at the hands of the Desamortización of 1835, when the government tried to reign in the religious power in the country by appropriating their convents and monasteries for secular uses. The building was transformed into the museum in 1985 and opened to the public in 2003. The permanent exhibition displays artifacts from the first cultures dating before the Romans through the transformation of the area by the establishment of Spanish court in Madrid, giving a good overview of human development in the region.

At this point in the journey, I was famished and looking forward to a good meal. Alcalá de Henares is known for their delicious tapas that always come with ordering a drink. I was tempted to order something from a bar, but when I arrived in the Plaza de Cervantes I saw that there were a bunch of wooden stalls preparing food and drinks for a mini-festival. I decided that that would be more fun and worked my way back to the central square. While sipping on my Tinto de Verano (Red wine and casera (lemon gas water)) and eating Morcilla (blood sausage), I watched a few girls dance flamenco to the live music playing.

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Finally I was ready for my last adventure, the Roman Ruins. As I started off, I walked through the Puerta de Madrid (seen below) and then ran into a woman who told me that the hours for the Ruins were changed for August and it was now too late to visit. I was slightly bummed because I was looking forward to visiting this part of the city, since it was an integral part of my class on the history of the city of Madrid. However, on the upside, I now have an excuse for another day trip!

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To close today’s post I would like to leave you with some inspiration from Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. May we all see the adventure in the windmills!

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“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

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