Spaniards take their festivals very seriously; after all, why pass up an opportunity to celebrate with good food, drink, and music! So, as a lover of all things medieval, when I discovered that there was a medieval festival taking place in a medieval town 45 minutes outside Madrid, I knew I had to go.
Enter Semana Cervantina, or Cervantes Week, a week-long celebration in Alcalá de Henares in honor of the baptism of Miguel de Cervantes, writer of Don Quixote. In Roman and medieval times the city was more important than Madrid, and today the historic center is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since I can’t resist getting in a little history, here are Alcala’s main claims to fame:
It’s where Christopher Columbus got Funded
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…(Did everyone have to learn that rhyme in elementary school?) You probably know that Italian-born Christopher Columbus (here Cristóbal Colón) got money on his epic trans-Atlantic journey from the King and Queen of Spain, but you may not know that they first held these discussions in Alcalá de Henares! Only a part of the original building still stands but was still interesting to be there, having been taught the ‘importance’ of the “discoverer” of the Americas my whole life. Also fitting since this Monday is Columbus Day in the United States.
It has One of the Oldest Universities in the World
Established in 1293, the Universidad Complutense (so named after the Roman town Complutum which preceded Alcalá de Henares) has since moved to Madrid, where it kept its name and prestige. But the University of Alcalá is still a functioning university! Unfortunately the tour was only in Spanish and after a long day exploring with a friend who only speaks Spanish, my brain felt like melting and I wasn’t able to absorb as much as I wanted. One fun fact that I did learn though was that the room for the doctoral exams was decorated ostentatiously specifically to distract students. The ones that didn’t pass (i.e., most of them) had to go around the town with donkey ears on their head to show their failure. Talk about public shaming! The ones that did pass were treated to a night of gorging themselves at every restaurant in town for free.
It’s a Migration Center for Storks
I’ve never seen a stork in person (in bird?) before…but their nests were all over the place here. Many of them migrate here and the protection of their nests is written into the laws of this stork loving town. While many of the storks used to migrate here for the winter, the town is so cushy that many of them have chosen to set up residence year-long (or maybe they just like the attention from the tourists that flock to see them).
Birthplace of Cervantes
While any of the aforementioned attractions would be enough to keep the town on tourist radar, the town focuses mainly on Spain’s favorite writer, hosting the prestigious Cervantes Prize (for lifetime achievement in literature) ceremony on the anniversary of Cervantes’s death, where the King himself doles out the award, and the more public friendly Cervantes Festival. Other more kitschy references to the writer include Cervantes themed menus at restaurants, a statue of Don Quixote and his trusty sidekick Sancho (at which I saw a bewildered dog bark for ten minutes straight), and a Cervantes themed train ride from Madrid to the town.
I was in heaven at the Cervantes festival. All the shop owners were dressed in period costume, the goods they were selling were locally made and delicious, and every time you turned around there was a procession going down the street. Since I was there on a weekday there wasn’t as many events (there are readings from the novel as well as theater performances), but that did not detract from my enjoyment in the least!
Of course what would any medieval festival be without some reenactments and people on stilts?
All in all it was a magical afternoon, and one I will not soon forget. I’m now going to make the effort to visit places when there are festivals going on!
What’s your favorite festival? What other Spanish festivals should I not miss? Let me know in the comments!