Author: Ella Rigby
Alcalá de Henares, just an hour from Madrid, is a city steeped in history and proud of it; it is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes and Catherine of Aragon and every year holds the largest Medieval market in Europe. But beyond the guidebook tales, the quaint Calle Mayor and the beautifully-manicured squares lies the real Alcalá, where a no-frills paradise awaits. Let me take you on a tour of my town and help you discover some of its lesser-known historical treasures.
For our first stop, we are taking a trip back to the Spanish Civil War. In the early 20th Century, Alcalá was a stronghold of Republican and Socialist movements; it was the birthplace of Manuel Azaña, president of the Second Republic, and was the first city in Spain to elect a PSOE councillor in 1903. The city was a strategically important site during the Civil War due to its proximity to Madrid and the number of military bases there. It was heavily bombed but remained loyal to the Republican cause until the very end of the war.
Little remains of this side of the city’s past, but if you venture one Cercanías stop further to Alcalá de Henares Universidad, you can catch a glimpse of it. Opposite the Hospital Principe de Asturias, nestled amongst the trees, lies a tiny chapel, leaning slightly to one side.
THE CHAPEL HIDING A BUNKER
This is the Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Loreto and is an intriguing place in its own right but becomes more so when you realise that it was built directly above a bunker from the Civil War. Walk around to the other side of the chapel and you can see its air vents and two entrances, now covered in graffiti. The bunker has long since been closed to the public, but underneath the ground is an intricate web of corridors designed to withstand attacks from Francoist forces during the war.
No one seems to know why the chapel was built on this exact spot fourteen years after the end of the war. Perhaps it was built as a symbol of hope, or of moving on from a difficult past, or perhaps it just seemed like a good place to build a chapel. Either way, it’s an excellent place to sit and ponder the forgotten history of Alcalá de Henares.
Heading into the centre of the city now, the second stop on our no-frills history tour lies just a stone’s throw from Plaza de Cervantes, looming over a street of casas bajas. At first glance, it’s difficult to place this enormous abandoned building, but it is in fact an old women’s prison, which at one point hosted more female inmates than any other prison in Spain.
Location: Bunker antiaéreo de Alcalá de Henares
AN ABANDONED 19TH CENTURY WOMEN’S PRISON
In the second half of the 19th Century, after the University was moved to Madrid, Alcalá de Henares fell into a period of economic depression and more than three quarters of its population left to find work elsewhere. What was left behind was a city primarily occupied by monastic orders and prisons.
This one was known as ‘La Galera de Alcalá’. Galeras were specific types of prisons that focussed on the rehabilitation of its inmates through the rigour of incarceration combined with manual labour. The ‘lost women’ imprisoned here were taught to sew, and their ‘correction and moralisation’ was overseen by nuns. La Galera was open from 1883 until 1978 and was described by the prison reformer Rafael Salillas as “a mix between a jail and a convent”.
For nearly 100 years, women on the wrong side of the law were incarcerated here. But since its closure 43 years ago, the building has been abandoned and has become a towering ghost in the middle of the city. There were plans to convert La Galera into university halls but these never came to fruition and the former prison sits in its current state; a condemned building frozen in time.
Although you can’t venture inside, it’s definitely worth a visit: there are many places from which you can catch a peek of the decaying block and imagine the lives of the women who lived behind the fading green shutters.
Location: Teatro La Galera
THE OLD ROMAN CITY OF COMPLUTUM
Our final stop may seem like a more conventional historical site, but it has a no-frills twist. The Roman city of Complutum was built in the 1st Century BC and was a bustling city until the decline of the Roman Empire around the 5th Century AD.
For centuries, it lay more or less undisturbed, until the 1960s, when mass migration to the cities led to a population spike in Alcalá de Henares. Barrio Reyes Catolicos was the city’s first purpose-built neighbourhood and it was during its construction that the ruins of Complutum were unearthed (and partially destroyed). What remains gives a glimpse into life in a Roman city, with the remnants of houses, public baths and sewage systems visible from the route around. There’s also plenty of signage, a lot of which focuses on the everyday life of Complutum’s citizens.
And now for the twist. Due to the nature in which they were excavated, the ruins are overlooked by the red-brick 1960s apartment blocks of barrio Reyes Catolicos, giving a surreal and yet somehow very everyday image of a city that lives side-by-side with its history.
From the centre of Alcalá, why not take a 20 minute stroll down Calle Nuñez de Guzmán and soak up the atmosphere of modern-day Alcalá? The walk will take you down a tree-lined pedestrian path where you’ll see abuelas gossiping on benches, and catch a glimpse of some surreal guerilla gardens installed by the local neighbours.
NO-FRILLS BAR EL PASO
If you get thirsty, you could always cross to neighbouring Avenida Reyes Catolicos and stop for a caña on the terrace of Bar El Paso, surrounded by people who share their neighbourhood with the Romans.
Location: Bar El Paso
I moved to Alcalá two and a half years ago from London and didn’t really know what to expect, but I soon became completely entranced by this city, as you will now be too!
How to get there: Take the C2 Cercanías from Atocha to Estación Alcalá de Henares, which puts you right in the heart of the city.
This article was written by Ella Rigby, a teacher and writer from London who is now based in Alcalá de Henares.
Nice article Ella, I’m also from the UK well raised there, I’m also Irish, haha
Thank you for writing this, Ella! I have recently moved here from the U.K. too and am still finding my feet. I am captivated by this place too and constantly wanting to find out more!