In The Footsteps Of Cervantes

It is 400 years since Miguel de Cervantes, the father of the contemporary novel died. In a heroic literary quest to follow in the footsteps of the author of Don Quixote, Tony Bailie travels to Madrid and does battle with some rather ironic wines and tapas, with a dramatic twist along the way

Modernity segues into the Middle Ages, the banal and functional architecture of contemporary living juddering to a halt and opening into the baroque and neoclassical. Alcalá de Henares is one of those perfectly preserved small Spanish city centres that has somehow stayed true to its history and yet been incorporated into the 21st century. The facade of Alcalá’s university dominates the central plaza, while down a cloistered street, the former Jewish quarter, lies the birthplace of one of Spain’s most iconic figures. Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547, the son of a doctor, and spent his early childhood in Alcalá de Henarez, which lies 35km from the centre of Madrid. The house where Cervantes was born has been turned into a museum, outside of which statues of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza have been placed.

The living quarters and the doctor’s surgery in which Cervantes’s father would have worked have been recreated, complete with period furniture and artefacts from the late 1500s. The university is one of the oldest in the world and is spread over five campuses. The landmark building in Plaza Mayor is free to wander through, but you will need to join a tour to visit the ornate Chapel of Ildefonso.

One of the world’s richest literary prize ceremonies, named after Cervantes, also takes place in the university. In a lavishly decorated chamber the €125,000 and plaque are handed to writers from throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

writers from throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Past winners have included Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, Mexican Octavio Paz and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (who in one of his most recent novels, The Dream of the Celt, took on the life of Roger Casement as his subject matter). Alcalá de Henares is easily reached from Madrid by rail, with trains departing every 10 to 15 minutes from the huge station at Atocha.

Cervantes lived in many parts of Spain and has particular associations with Valladolid, Seville and Toledo, where his wife was born. But it is in Madrid where he spent the last years of his life, wrote the second part of Don Quixote, became part of its vibrant cultural scene and embroiled in literary rivalries.

Madrid only became the Spanish capital in 1532. Until then the Spanish court had relocated from city to city, but King Philip II wanted a permanent base to bring some stability to the newly unified country. The last of the Arab Moors had been defeated less than 50 years earlier with the reconquest of Granada. Madrid, centrally located on the Iberian peninsula, quickly grew from a town of 30,000 people to become the political and cultural capital. As well as Cervantes, it was home to the playwright Felix Lope De Vega and the painter Velazquez. Cervantes and Lope De Vega became bitter rivals, with the playwright describing Don Quixote as “trashy”’.

In a twist of irony, streets named after the two writers run next to one another in Madrid’s Barrio de Letras (literary quartrer), with Lope De Vega’s former house, now a museum dedicated to him, in Calle Cervantes. Meanwhile the supposed burial place of Cervantes is located in the Church of San Ildefonso in the grounds of a convent in Calle Lope De Vega. Despite the international success of Don Quixote, Cervantes died in relative poverty and his remains were interred in a communal grave. DNA tests on bones discovered last year are being carried out – a complicated task as his only daughter became a nun and he has no direct descendents.

At the centre of the Barrio de las Letras is Plaza Santa Ana with statues of 17th-century writer Calderón de la Barca and the 20th century poet Federíco García Lorca who was shot dead by Franco’s troops during the Spanish Civil War. On the east side of the plaza is Teatro Español which was built in the 1800s but is located on the site of an open air theatre which dated from the days of Lope De Vega and Cervantes.? Plaza Santa Ana is one of the best places in Madrid to indulge in that peculiarly Spanish pastime of tapas. While it is pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor tables, take a look into Cerveceria Alemana, former haunt of Lorca and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali as well as Ernest Hemingway, whose classic novel For Whom The Bell Tolls was set during the Spanish Civil War.

A short walk from Plaza Santa Ana is Plaza Mayor, one of Madrid’s most iconic locations, surrounded on all sides by balconied apartments, below which are clustered numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. You will pay above the odds to sit here, but it is one of those ‘must-dos’ in Madrid. Puerta Del Sol is the centre of Madrid and, in terms of the country’s road network, the centre of Spain itself. A stone in the ground marking ‘Kilómetro cero’ (zero kilometres) is where all the country’s roads radiate from.

Another must-do is the Prado Museum, home to Spain’s richest and most diverse art collections, with dozens of galleries containing works by Cervantes’s near contemporary Velazquez as well as El Greco, who the writer is believed to have known because of their common connection with Toledo, and Goya.

Nearby is the Museo Reina Sofia, home to a much more contemporary and in many ways more interesting and disturbing collection. Some of Salvador Dali’s best known works hang here, alongside Catalan-born Joan Miró. But its centrepiece is Guernica by Pablo Picasso, which commemorates the 1937 air raid on a Basque village by German and Italian planes, ordered by Franco’s Nationalists.

The depiction of the disembodied limbs of women and children, soldiers, bulls and horses, the look of horror on an observer’s face, in stark black, whites and greys on a huge canvas stands as one of the most powerful anti-war statements ever produced.

Who was Miguel Cervantes

Miguel Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcala De Henares. His family moved frequently and when Cervantes was in his 20s he went to Rome to study before joining the Spanish army. This period of life for the father of the modern fiction reads like a novel itself. He fought in battles, was wounded, criss-crossed the Mediterranean and was eventually captured by Turkish pirates who took him to north Africa and held him hostage for five years. Although he tried to escape on four occasions he was only freed when a ransom was paid and he was able to return to Spain where he became a tax collector.

He would use incidents from this period in the plays that he started to write and in his most famous work, Don Quixote De La Mancha, which was published in two parts during his life in 1605 and 1616. Don Quixote tells the story of a delusional nobleman and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Quixote, is in denial of the real world and tries to live out a life of romantic chivalry as a knight, attacking windmills because he believes they are giants, mistakes a tavern for a castle and prostitutes for courtly ladies.

It is regarded as the first contemporary novel and was a huge success throughout Spain and within a few years of appearance of the first part had been translated into English and French – the first international bestseller. Despite its success, Cervantes never became rich. The laws of copyright had not been established at that time and Cervantes died in poverty in 1616 in Madrid.