Thrilling. This is the word that best describes the search for the coffin containing the remains of one of Madrid’s most distinguished inhabitants, Miguel de Cervantes. On 17 March, forensic expert and search leader Francisco Etxeberria confirmed that, in all likelihood, some of the fragments found in the crypt of the Trinitarias church include those of the author of Don Quixote and his wife Catalina de Salazar. Such an important historic and cultural revelation for our city has prompted me to suggest a walking tour inspired by Cervantes. The writer from Alcalá de Henares has not been in the limelight so much for years, especially since 2015 is also the year when we celebrate four hundred years since the publication of the second part of his great work.
I recommend you start at the beginning or, even better, at the end, by going to the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Calle Lope de Vega, at the heart of the Literary Quarter, where the great Spanish Golden Age writers lived side by side. Although the original building dates back to 1609, its current appearance is the result of later extensions and refurbishments. Cervantes had a natural daughter who was a nun in the convent and he was buried here in 1616, as a plaque on one of the walls tells us. The plaque is next to a bust of the author, the work of Ponciano Ponzano, the same sculptor who was responsible for the lions in front of the Congress of Deputies building. What made Cervantes choose this church, a fine example of Madrid Baroque style architecture, for his final resting-place was probably the fact that the Trinitarian Order paid his ransom money when he was held prisoner in Algiers, back in 1580 or thereabouts.
Strolling around the Literary Quarter is a pleasure, a way of reliving history. You’ll find some of the main buildings associated with literature in Madrid, like the Athenaeum and the Teatro Español, but… don’t forget to look down! Set into the pavement you can read extracts from works by distinguished writers, including, as you might expect, the opening words of the story of the Knight of the Sad Countenance: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…”. One name you should remember is Juan de la Cuesta. He was the owner of the printing press on which the very first edition of Don Quixote was produced in 1605. The building where it was once based, at number 87 on Calle de Atocha, is now the headquarters of the Cervantes Society and houses an exact replica of the original movable type printing press. The setting in the room containing the press is very well designed, allowing visitors to imagine what it would have been like for the printers and typesetters working here in those days.
The second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615 and was also produced in the printing workshop owned by Juan de la Cuesta, but in a premises close by, at number 7 on Calle de San Eugenio. If you want to know where Cervantes lived and died you’ll have to go to the street named after him and stand in front of number 2, where there is a commemorative plaque. But the writer also lived at number 18 on Calle de las Huertas, above Casa Alberto, one of Madrid’s traditional taverns and where it’s always a good time for vermouth. If you look closely you can see a plaque that reads: “Miguel de Cervantes claimed to live in this very place when he received the letter from Apollo himself, attached to Journey to Parnassus, 1604”.
To complete your walking tour of the Literary Quarter, I suggest you go to Plaza de las Cortes, where a statue in honour of Miguel de Cervantes was placed exactly opposite the Congress building in 1834. The same year it was erected, a time capsule was placed underneath the pedestal, but it remained a secret until 2009, when it was discovered during restoration work. This hidden “treasure” contained 41 documents, including various editions of Don Quixote and a biography of Cervantes. However, it’s safe to say that the most famous monument to the universally known writer is not this one, but the one in Plaza de España. You simply must have the obligatory photo taken next to the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza… But after that, don’t forget to look upwards. The terrestrial globe that tops the monument contains other hidden figures. They are allegories of the five continents, where you can also pick out Asia reading Don Quixote almost hanging from heaven itself.
The city of Madrid has two other places connected with Miguel de Cervantes: one is the Quixote Room, in the National Library Museum, with bibliographic resources, audio-visual and multimedia displays. The other is the Instituto Cervantes, a public institution with the job of promoting and raising awareness of Spanish and Latin American culture and whose main headquarters is on Calle de Alcalá, in the beautiful Caryatids building. From April to June the Cervantes Train runs between Atocha and Alcalá de Henares. It’s a great experience, as the trip includes entertainment provided by actors and all kinds of people dressed in 17th century costume. Taking the train is the best excuse for getting to know the “Ciudad Complutense” (as Alcalá de Heanres is also known), whose historic and artistic heritage includes the Cervantes Birthplace Museum, standing on the site of the house where, according to scholars, he was born and spent his early childhood. Do you fancy doing the tour? You already know that “seeing much and reading much arouses the wit of men”. Don Quixote said it, not me.