A day trip is a great way to see more places without the hassle of checking into a new place. We took several of them during our last stint in Europe. And Madrid offers many great day trip options: Toledo, Avila, Segovia. But since we wanted a place as easy to reach as possible, in addition to being historic and preferably UNESCO-recognized, Alcara de Henares proved to be our perfect day trip choice.
Reaching Alcala from Madrid
One great thing about Alcala is that it is part of Madrid’s easy-to-use suburban rail system, which is called the cercanias. We chose a Sunday for our day trip and even with a lighter rail schedule there were still trains available every 15 to 20 minutes. Our apartment in Madrid was only a 10-minute walk from the Piramades rail stop (which has both metro and cercanias connections) so we bought our ticket to Alcala there for just 3.80 euros each and were on our way to Alcala with just a brief connection at the main Madrid railway station, Atocha. It was super easy. We left mid-morning with intentions to arrive in Alcala in time for a picnic lunch at Parque O’Donnell, which is near the train station. We picked up a great Spanish spread including fresh orange juice at the Carrefour Express and enjoyed our picnic very much.
The “Henares” in Alcala de Henares refers to the river it is on. That river has attracted dozens, maybe hundreds of storks to make Alcala their breeding grounds. There are huge nests built on top of most of the tall buildings and monuments. The storks stand tall watching the ground from their nests or nearby rooftops. It was very cool to see, especially since we like birds anyway.
Our main draw to Alcala, in addition to the fact that the city is a UNESCO-designated historic site for its university and historic district, is that it is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote. I read it in college and Chad started reading it as we prepared to depart for Spain. If you’re not familiar with the novel, it is a very famous piece of early-17th century literature and one of the highest regarded works of Spanish literature. It was also the basis for the musical Man of La Mancha (and now you have “The Impossible Dream” stuck in your head, right?).
In Alcala you can tour the house he was born in and see statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (we’ve seen other DQ and SP statues in other parts of Spain too, including at the Plaza de Espana in Madrid; the Spanish people seem to really love that work). It was definitely worth the trip for just the Cervantes connection.
Our next stop in Alcala was the Regional Archaeological Museum of Madrid, which is housed in a cool old building that was once a convent (this seems common in Spain) and had some very interesting exhibits about the inhabitants of this area from prehistoric times to when the Spanish royal court moved to Madrid in the 16th century.
My favorite part of the museum was a temporary exhibit set up in the Garden of Antiquities that featured Roman-era artifacts displayed with computer renderings of how life would have looked at that time. But all of the exhibits in the museum were very well done. It isn’t a huge museum so we were able to see everything in under 90 minutes.
Coffee and Tapas
After our museum visits, we stopped for a quick coffee in the historic district and then walked about 30 minutes to the area where there are ruins of the Roman city of Complutum. Though it was a hot day (like all our days in Madrid), it was mostly through a lineal park and not unpleasant. Google showed that the ruins were closed each day from 2 to 4 p.m., so we planned to arrive in the area with about 45 minutes to spend enjoying a beer at a nearby bar called Bar La Mezquita III. It had a shaded outdoor area that we couldn’t resist even though there was a boisterous Spanish family seated there. The service was good, the beers were cold, and the complementary tapas that came with the beer was a pair of fried chicken wings and a dish of boiled almonds. It was pretty much perfect.
We arrived at the ruins a few minutes after 4 p.m. only to find them closed. Unfortunately, Google had the times wrong and instead of being open from 4 to 6 p.m., their summer hours were 5 to 7 p.m. So we had another hour to spend. We walked around and found another bar with outdoor seating. This time the free tapas with our beer was the Spanish tortilla (egg and potato dish). It wasn’t as good as the chicken or almonds but still a generous tapas.
Finally it was 5 p.m. and we were able to go to the ruins. There was only one other couple there and they spent a long time talking to the entrance person, so we had the place to ourselves as we walked around. It was far less impressive than other Roman ruins we’ve seen and only partially excavated. And it was 100 degrees with full sun. So we only stayed about 15 minutes before walking to the other Roman site.
The other, called Casa de Hippolytus, is a 10-minute walk from the Complutum ruins and very worthwhile. And covered, so much cooler! This was part of a large estate on the outskirts of the Roman city and was a “youth college.” Within the structure there was an area for public baths and a latrine and lots of neat mosaics. The visit didn’t take long (maybe 30 minutes) but it was very worthwhile.
After all the ruins we decided we preferred to just head back to Madrid rather than spending the evening in Alcala de Henares. Luckily there is a train station near the ruins called La Garena, so we didn’t have to walk back to Alcala to catch the train.
I almost forgot to mention one of the best parts of Alcala. The entries to the museums and ruins were free (gratis as they say in Spanish). So in addition to being a convenient, manageable, and really cool day trip from Madrid, Alcala is super-affordable. Between our picnic, beer, and the roundtrip train tickets, we spent maybe $40 for the whole day.
If I were planning the day over again, I might start at the Roman ruins (get off the train at the La Garena stop), then walk into town, picnic, see museums and then do tapas in the old city. But honestly I’m really happy with how it turned out. Our two bars we visited were definitely more locals-oriented, which we like, and the ruins were nearly empty at their 5 p.m. reopening time.
Either way, I’m glad we made the trip out to Alcala de Henares and will definitely recommend it to anyone spending more than a few days in Madrid.