Monday, July 27, 2009

Next train leaving the station…

Wow, have I stumbled onto some place great! I love this type of travel: the next train out of the station. Literally.

I arrived in Madrid Chamartin station at 8:30 am, by night train from the north. It’s Monday – the Prado is closed (I always seem to end up in Madrid on a Monday) – and my flight leaves in the morning. What to do with 24 hours… quiet, cool, interesting, stress-free, unique. These are the desired criteria posed to the tourist information desk at the train station. They were of no help. Typical. If you ask a question outside of their standard repertoire, ya get nada. With temperature set to reach, yet again, 100F, hanging around a concrete city I’ve seen many times (save the Prado) wasn’t appealing. After a night train – a shower and some rest are high on the list, and were I to stay in the city, I’d seek out a hammam center for the baths and a massage.

I looked at the board: next train 09.14 Alcalá de Henares. I checked the timetable – 34 minutes away (no idea which direction). With a mere 2.55€ ticket and grabbing a general area map, I boarded. What’s the worst that could happen? A wasted day in a dull place, industrial, maybe, a bedroom community for Madrid commuters? Not so bad.

We have a winner! The birthplace of Cervantes (1547) – his very house! (now a museum, closed Mondays)… on the Calle Mayor, only the longest arcaded street in all of Spain – right next door – actually sharing a wall – with the stuccoed massive brick Hospital of Antezana, which has operated continuously in the Palace of Don Antezana since 1483, and where Cervantes’ father was a blood-letting surgeon (he had to be something, but who would have thought a blood-letter?) …and, as if it’s place in history isn’t firmly enough set, the very building where Ignatio de Loyola (before he founded the Jesuits and became a Saint) lived while he attended Alcalá University, at the high end of the street. Well, who knew?

I sit with a bottle of the local Vino Tinto that comes with the delicious Menu del Diá of gazpacho, salmon, salad, and watermelon for a scant 8€ (try getting such a bargain in Madrid!) under the massive arcade with zinc downspouts formed into serpents on every of the many columns.

It gets better. Some Saints have sisters, and St Ignatio’s sister was a nun in an exquisite convent around the corner. The architecture of everything – the Cathedral, the university, the various convents and monasteries, the patricians’ palaces – show influenced of Mudehar, neo-Gothic, Italianate, and Spanish gothic styles. Not to be dismissed as insignificant, Roman-era college in a typical 1st-century Roman villa… pretty wow, even in my well-traveled experiences… I’ve seen many a Roman villa, but I don’t recall any Roman colleges…

The Cathedral’s story is interesting – twinned with one in Lovain, Belgium, which, titled ‘Magistral’, requires all canons (kind of like an abbot, but devoted to a Cathedral instead of a monastery) to have doctoral degrees in theology from the university here. The Cathedral was built over the tomb of two schoolboy Saints martyred here in 305, Justo and Pasto.

It wasn’t hard to find a room – everything from rooms-to-let in a boarding house to a 4-star hotel – I found something quite suitable (very nice in comparison to anywhere in France where I stayed) for 24€, including a pool, breakfast, and wifi.

What a great find, this Alcalá. If I were a tourist information worker in Madrid and someone asked me how to expend 24 hours beneficially, I’d tell them to get out of the city and go to Alcalá de Henares – not a disappointment. Sadly, being Monday, most of the museums are closed, including Cervantes’ house decorated as it would have been in his day. (I love the bronze statues of the dishevelled Don Quixote and the jovial Poncho Villa on the park bench in front of the house.)

Oh, and also, there is the synagogue – just off the Calle Mayor. We all know well that 'in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,' but it was also the year that Jews were expelled from Spain, not to return for many centuries. Predating the expulsion, back many centuries when the Moors ruled the area in the 12th century, the Jewish population was strong, and the Jewish quarter of that era survives today. Pretty impressive little thing to come upon – rare in Spain.

To tie my travels together, there’s a cool-looking sister convent of Saint Catherine of Siena here – and I was just in Siena a few days ago. Go figure.

Playing the next-train-out-of-the-station game more often pays off well than poorly in my experience. Parks, palaces, museums, history, countless sidewalk cafés on narrow pedestrian street and fountain-cooled plazas… serenity, Roman, medieval, modern combined… For me, a calm, cool day on the arcaded Calle Mayor is a lovely alternative to a hot day in Madrid when the Prado is closed. Hopped the next train out of the station into a UNESCO town, of all places, and the tourist information folks had no inkling. Maybe this is what is meant by ‘Bon Courage’ I hear in France so often to people who travel – the courage to go to someplace unknown and see what it’s all about. Sometimes kind of dull, sometimes, like this place, pretty fantastic.


Amawalker said...

What a wonderful train-game!!
I played a similar game once in Paris. I had a 'Walking in Paris' guide book that had a chapter for each arrondissement. What you do is, get on the metro, count 4, 7, 9 stops and get off. Check in the book where you are and what the local sites are. That way I visited Jim Morrison's grave in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a Bataleur Eagle in the safari park, visited 2 planetariums, a chocolate factory and various other odd places.
It is great fun to do that in a large city but I've never thought of doing it out of the city!!

Rita said...

What a lovely way to spend the day. I am always game for surprises like that. Kind of travel "by the seat of your pants". It always seems to turn out well for me and I have a wonderous and unexpected adventure.

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