Situated right in the middle of Spain, about 35 kilometres northeast of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares is a relatively small city, home to around 200,000 people, who are very proud of three things. First, of the city’s rich history and archaeology: its historical centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Second, of its population of white storks that are considered one of Alcalá’s main tourist attractions. Third but not least, of being the birthplace of one Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
A Museum For Cervantes’ Birthplace
The Cervantes legacy runs deep in the city’s veins. Every year the city gathers together to celebrate the great author on two separate occasions: on his birthday and on the day of his death. Every October 9th (which is considered by many as Cervantes’ baptism day), the city hosts the Cervantes festival and later in the year, on April 23rd, rallies together once again to honour the Spaniard with a ceremony culminating in the award of the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious award for lifetime achievement in literature in the whole of the Spanish-speaking world. Last but not least, the city is home to the Cervantes Birthplace Museum, a place dedicated to commemorating and passing on information about Cervantes and his life.
Housed in the place where Cervantes’ family home used to be – where the author was born in 1547 and spent his early years – the Museum stretches over two floors, with different rooms hosting a wide array of exhibitions recreating the customs and daily activities of its 16th and 17th century inhabitants. A room is especially devoted to ‘The Retable of Maese Pedro’ (Quixote II, Ch. XXVI) and two rooms host temporary exhibitions where the visitor can explore a variety of Cervantes’ works from different periods and in different languages.
The Cervantes Museum is nowadays widely considered one of the Top Ten Museums to visit in Spain and regularly hosts a comprehensive programme of activities that runs through the whole year, with special emphasis on important dates, such as International Book Day (April 23), Museum Night (May 18) and Cervantes Week (October 12). The activities hosted are suitable for all tastes and ages, including workshops for children and young adults, thematic visits, and musical and theatrical performances.
Upcoming during the month of July is a theatrical activity that takes its inspiration from Don Quixote’s opening paragraphs that allude to cooking and takes visitors on a culinary journey of 17th century Spain with Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s trusted squire, as the guide. The Museum also hosts conferences and is open to researchers seeking to gain access to important works by Cervantes and the Museum’s library.
The Cervantes Legacy
A visit to the Museum will surely shed light on Cervantes’ literary achievements – after all, The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha (as is the book’s full name) was voted by leading authors, including Kundera, Fuentes, Lessing and Irving, as the best work of fiction ever written and has been consistently proclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”. The author’s influence on Spanish literature and language in general is so far-reaching that the Spanish language is frequently referred to as “the language of Cervantes”.
Legend has it that Cervantes died in 1616 on the same day as William Shakespeare – or, in any case, a mere days apart, according to Harvard University. Yet his legacy far extends the realm of literature: for example, the first ever account of blackjack is found in one of Cervantes’ books. According to online sources, the first written account of a game with rules similar to blackjack is included in a series of novellas written by Cervantes between 1601 and 1602, the Novelas Ejemplares: one of those stories told of two characters who played a game called ventiuna (21 in Spanish) which bears similarities to today’s game. His impact is so great that Madrid saw its emblematic lion statues donning reading glasses and a copy of Don Quixote to mark the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death; even Google celebrates Cervantes’ birthday with a Google Doodle depicting his iconic knight ready to attack a windmill.
A Life Worth Reading About
But his work is not all there is to know about Cervantes: the Museum also chronicles his adventurous life, which includes his involvement in the Battle of Lepanto, where he was seriously wounded, earning him the nickname “One-armed man from Lepanto”. Cervantes was later captured by pirates on his return journey to Spain and spent five years in captivity, until his freedom was eventually bought back by travelling priests.
A visit to the Museum will reveal a lot more beyond Don Quixote: it will shed light on a life most exciting and peculiar, one that surely informed Cervantes’ later literary ideas and shaped the chivalrous and idealistic character of his lonesome knight.