If ever you find yourself in Madrid in late July, you will shortly understand why the city is so vacant. The heat in late July and August can be oppressive and hard to escape. Instead of trying to deal with it in the city, it’s a perfect opportunity to whisk yourself away to nearby Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes. For less than €5 roundtrip, you’ll find yourself in for some amazing sightseeing, a refreshing swim, and some tasty tapas.
Start out the day by wandering down by the Plaza de Cervantes, about a 5-minute walk from the train station. From there, you can immediately see the University, controversially reputed to be the oldest in Europe. Founded in 1496, the old buildings hearken back to the ancient days when the Catholic church was unabashedly influential in Spanish daily life and state business. The architecture is still as it was, including the omnipresence of storks nesting on the tops of all the buildings. A quick tour (available in English) can help broaden your knowledge of the historic university, and keep you cool within the stone walls.
From there, it is a quick walk to Cervantes’ birthplace. Keep your eyes open for it, since it’s only a small home, though easily distinguishable by the statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sitting in front. For about 1€, you can take the tour inside (and out of the heat), which is covered with ancient texts, including the original manuscript of Don Quixote.
Once it reaches midday (which, by Spanish definition, means about 2 p.m.), the sun will be directly overhead and inescapable. Take cover in a local restaurant for lunch (there are many along the Plaza de Cervantes). Or, if you’d rather beat the heat with the locals, head to the pool. Located by the Parque O’Donnell, you’ll find a large swimming pool (for the adults), a smaller pool for kids to play, a smaller-yet fountain for toddlers, and a large grassy area to lie back and relax. Municipal pools, such as this one, usually open only in summer, and cost only €5 to get in for the whole day. They always provide a place to leave your valuables, as well as inexpensive food and drinks, including beer and wine.
Once the heat dies down a bit, wander back toward the Plaza if you’re in the mood for tapas. There are myriad tapacerías lining the streets, including Al-Andalus (at Infantado 3) and Cerveceria Tapas (at Hans Sevilla 2). Any of the places will offer cool drinks, accompanied by plentiful (and free) tapas, such as chorizo in oil or tortilla. Ask for “mejillones en escabeche” (vinager-marinated mussels) to really beat the heat.
Taking a 45-minute air-conditioned train ride to a place to feed the mind, the body, and refresh the summer soul is sometimes all you need to recharge when on vacation. Next time you’re stopping over in Madrid, take some time to do all three in Alcalá de Henares, the hidden historic gem.