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ALCALÁ DE HENARES
For years Alcala de Henares was home to one of Spain’s earliest and most important universities. In the mid 19th century the university was moved out to Madrid and the town fell into decline. Today the academic buildings, which since 1977 have been host to a new university, are one of the town’s principal attractions. Visitors can choose to wander around those parts of the university which are open to the public (which is most of the campus in fact), or you can sign up for a guided tour to visit some of the areas which are normally off limits, including the auditorium and the university chapel.
Despite the presence of the university, the town’s main claim to fame is as the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of 'Don Quijote' and considered the greatest writer in the Spanish-speaking world. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Cervantes is thought to have been born at Calle de la Imagen 2 (the “2” being the house number). The building is now home to a small museum, which attempts to recreate the look and feel of the house at the time of the writer’s birth.
Getting to Alcala de Henares
The town is on the railway line between Madrid and Guadalajara. Local (Cercanías) trains run frequently from Madrid’s Charmartín station, and the journey takes about 30 minutes.
This massive royal palace, finished in 1584, was built by King Felipe II as a grandiose monument to the might and importance of Spain, at that time the dominant global power. The Escorial was always intended as much more than a simple royal residence. Housing a monastery and the king’s personal library, the complex was an important academic and intellectual centre during the 16th and 17th centuries. Also here are the mausoleums of key members of the Spanish royal family.
Tour of the Escorial
The rooms in the main building that are open to the public include the library, which is still home to over 40,000 precious books, and the apartments, lavishly decorated from top to bottom. On the lower floors are the Royal mausoleums, with the monarchs in one area and princes and childless queens in another. Architecture fans shouldn’t miss the small museum at the start of the tour which explains the story behind the design and construction of the palace. For art lovers, the Museo de Pintura (also near the entrance) has work from 16th and 17th century artists such as Titian, Van Dyck and Rubens.
The area around the palace is home to Italian-style gardens and a variety of buildings, including two pretty neoclassical villas built by the famous architect Juan de Villanueva as homes for members of the royal family. The ticket for the main Escorial complex includes entrance to the smaller buildings in the grounds.
Getting to the Escorial
The easiest way to get to the Palace is using the local train network (Cercanías). Line C-8 from Madrid’s Atocha station takes you there in approximately 45 minutes.
The town of Segovia was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1975, and it’s easy to see why. The old city is remarkably well-preserved, still protected by the original walls, and would be worth a visit even if there were no other sights to see. However, most visitors come specifically to visit the city’s three major historical attractions, all spectacular in their own right: The cathedral, situated in the old town’s main square, the Alcazar, a fairy-tale fortress of spires and ramparts, and, perhaps most imposing of all, the Roman aqueduct.
Resembling a castle from a book of fairy tales or a Disney film, the original Alcazar fortress was built by the Arab rulers of the city in the 13th and 14th centuries. In fact “Alcazar” comes from the Arabic word “Al-qasr”, meaning “castle”. Unfortunately, the original structure burnt down in 1862 and the current building is considered an exaggerated and overly-idealised version of the original. Even so, visitors can’t help but be impressed with the results: the towering spires, a deep moat, ornately decorated interiors, and the spectacular views over the surrounding area.
The Roman Aqueduct
Half-a-mile (728 metres) long and 29 metres high, the roman aqueduct dominates views of the city of Segovia. The original structure was once 16-km long, but the 163-arch structure that remains is an imposing testament to the skill and ingenuity of Roman engineers. In fact, the evident erosion aside, it’s amazing to think that this structure has withstood the ravages of time for almost two thousand years old.
Segovia’s cathedral, located next to the old town’s main square, is a splendid example of Gothic architecture. In fact it was the last cathedral of this style to be built in Spain, finished in 1577 as a replacement for the previous Romanesque building which had burnt down 50 years earlier.
Getting to Segovia
Segovia can be reached by train in an hour and three quarters from the Atocha station in Madrid.
Toledo is universally recognised as one of the most historic and best preserved cities in Spain. It enjoyed its heyday in the 16th century, when it was the most important religious, political and cultural centre in the Iberian Peninsula, with Jews, Christians and Muslims all living in harmony here, and leaving a rich artistic and architectural legacy. The famous painter El Greco came to reside in the city in 1577, while for centuries Segovia also played host to the head of the Catholic Church in Spain. Toledo’s atmospheric city centre, a shadowy maze of narrow streets and sinuous alleys, today represents a big visitor attraction. However, the cramped medieval street plan (or lack of it) was partly responsible for Segovia’s downfall: when Felipe II looked to create a capital to reflect the greatness of the Spanish empire, he overlooked crowded Segovia and chose instead the green-field site of Madrid, where his grandiose plans could more easily be made reality.
Work on the current cathedral began in the 13th century and continued over the following centuries. It replaced the previous structure, the town’s central mosque, which itself had also started life as a cathedral before being converted for use as a Muslim place of worship during the centuries when the Arabs dominated Spain. Essentially the design of the cathedral is Gothic, although elements from other architectural movements, such as the Mudejar style, are also present.
The works of El Greco
In the eyes of the art world the city of Toledo is inextricably linked with the work of the famous 16th century artist El Greco, who lived in the city from 1570 until his death in 1614. Most of El Greco’s work was commissioned by Toledo’s upper classes and a good number of these paintings can still be seen in various venues around the city. Visitors should make sure they at least see the masterpiece “El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz” in the church of Santo Tomé in Plaza del Conde and stop off in the El Greco House and Museum in Calle Samuel levi. Other venues with El Greco works are the Santa Cruz museum, the monastery of Santo Domingo and the Cathedral.
Getting to Toledo
Local (Cercanias) trains depart regularly from Atocha station in Madrid and take approximately and hour and a half.
It is now also possible to take the Ave, the new high-speed train, from Atocha to Toledo. Journey times are just 30 minutes, although the tickets are much more expensive than the local service.