Have you ever imagined being born in a different historical age? Why not choose the Middle Age? In Alcalá de Henares this could be much easier than anywhere else, especially in October. The city - about 30 kilometres (19 miles) outside central Madrid, and declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1998 - is very proud to be the place where Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish writer most famously known for the novel, Don Quixote, was born in 1547. For this reason, every year around this time, Alcalá celebrates its “Semana Cervantina”, or Cervantes Week, in commemoration of Cervantes’ baptism, which happened with certainty on October 9th. During this week there are many events, (theatrical performances, storytelling, concerts, conferences) all relating to the Spanish Medieval age, which is when Cervantes lived and wrote his most famous works.
These events take place in various corners of the historical centre of Alcalá, and the biggest (and most visible!) of all is the spectacular Medieval Market, which lasts 6 days. Follow me to discover all the characteristic features of this unique event.
Europe’s biggest medieval market
These kinds of historical markets became popular all over Spain, and gave the name of Medieval Market not only to the one in Alcalá, but also to other relevant fairs, such as Puebla de Sanabria and San Froilán, in León. However, only the Cervantes Market holds the record for being the biggest medieval market of both Spain and Europe! Celebrated since 2000, this event turns the complete historical city center into alive scenery that transfers us back to the sixteenth century. What makes it so large is the fact that the complete historical city centre is occupied by the fair – from Plaza San Diego, where the famous ancient university raises, to Plaza del Palacio, where the Archbishop’s Palace is located, next to plaza de los Santos Niños. Over the last years, the market welcomed more than 300,000 visitors, so be careful because you could even find hard walking down the streets throughout this week!
Try and taste the different foods!
Don’t miss the opportunity to taste all the food specialities that the market offers. Starting from the traditional Spanish plates to the most unusual Medieval bites, homemade food such as bread, meat and fish pies (empanadas) and double layers cakes can be found. You can also try, roasted chestnuts, octopus, kebabs, homemade potato chips, natural honey, aromatic spices, coloured cheeses and, of course, beer, cider, mixed cocktails and old liquors. Served both to go and to sit down and eat, market-goers won’t get hungry here!
But the food is not the only protagonist of this incredible mix of colours and perfumes; the market in fact is also full of stands selling handicraft trappings, dried flowers, rag dolls, wood utensils and a great variety of artisan objects, always in sight of visitors. Every stall and its vendors, any trader, artisan or assistant are dressed up with clothing from Cervantes period. The stalls are exhaustively decorated in the period way, and the City Council demands a strict attention to details in order to create a real ancient environment: The vendors are asked to avoid carrying watches or using their mobile phones in view of visitors. For the same reason, you will not find any stall within Alcalá’s Mediaeval Market anyone who will give you whatever you buy inside a plastic bag; neither will you see anything in the market made with that material.
Even information centres get involved with this medieval environment, as all staff involved with the event organization get dressed in period clothing.
Parades (pasacalles), musicians and “tunas”
The festivities start every year on the 8th of October with a singular “pasacalles”, the Spanish name to indicate a parade that advances street after street; an official event that opens the fair with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s characters. During this time, on every square and corner, visitors will meet small street exhibitions, short theatre performances, snake charmers or falconers with gloves holding falcons and owls (many times the birds are domesticated up to the point that people can take photographs with them!); even children certainly have a really good time with all these activities.
Surely the performance won’t stop at the end of the parade! Strolling through the market, you’ll keep hearing a band come by every now and then, playing the bagpipes and drums, just as they did in the Golden Age. All the musicians go around in medieval clothing: women wear long dresses with a corset adorned with laces and sometimes a puffball blouse, tights and leather shoes; men are dressed with skinny britches, a tunic shirt with collar, leather shoes and a coloured hat. A musical band, composed only by men dressed this way, arranges the so-called “tuna”, very popular in many Spanish cities. Regarding music, you may attend the Renaissance and Baroque music concerts in cosy places, such as Plaza de las Bernardas, the meeting point of municipal bands.
Don Quixote’s popular reading
After the official parade, authorities and public in general who desire, may approach to the Corral de Comedias, one of the oldest theatres in Europe, where the popular reading of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote, is given. From the mayor to the Alcalá’s University president, going through a great number of representatives of the economic, cultural, social and political life of the city take turns to read or recite small fragments of the novel of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Anyway, this is only the first of a long series of performances, both indoor and open air, along the streets. Based on the texts and interludes of Miguel de Cervantes, it is a wonderful occasion to see a dramatized work, usually a short one, from the author native of Alcalá. Works take place in Corral de Comedias – the seventeenth century theatre still used nowadays – as well as in the main square (plaza de Cervantes), or in Cervantes Birthplace Museum and corners of the historical city centre.
Medieval joust: an alternative weekend match
Every year, just for a week, the classical football matches are replaced in Alcalá de Henares by another game: the tourneys among medieval knights riding their horses.
The joust shows want to recreate Don Quixote’s famous deliriums, represented by citizens dressed up and trained for the particular event. Starting with some riding competitions, the tourney goes on with duels in the arena using long spears, shields, swords and sticks. The actors have to wear pieces of the original armours belonging to the ancient knights company of the city, in order to show to their fellow citizens what really happened in Spain’s jousts during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
Don’t miss the chance to come back in time
Whether you like it or not, you can’t deny that the Market is very interesting and definitely worth seeing. Come and enjoy the great number of tourists who come every year to Alcalá de Henares specifically to follow this lively and always surprising colourful market!
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