Travel: Hidden treasure in a Spanish suburb

Key moments of Spain's history were played out at Alcal de Henares.
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About 15 miles east of Madrid, a dull half-hour bus ride along the equivalent of the M4 corridor, is Alcal de Henares, once a great cultural centre with one of the most important universities in Europe. Key events in Spain's history took place in its lavish Renaissance buildings.

When I was there, the tourist office was closed. Its 17th-century premises were being restored, and Juan Carlos, whose job it was to deal with the thin trickle of visitors, had been temporarily re-housed behind a small desk in the corner of an adjacent historic building, which had already been done up and was now an exhibition centre.

Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's greatest writer, was born here, as was Catherine of Aragon. In 1486, when Columbus was trying to get backing for his expedition, he came here to meet Queen Isabella at the archbishop's opulent palace. A former mansion is the headquarters of the Cervantes Institute, the worldwide organisation to promote the Spanish language. Spain's most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Cervantes, is awarded in the university's great hall.

Visitors today can stroll along the charming, colonnaded high street, gaze up at storks nesting in the belfries, drink at one of the numerous student bars and eat at one of several smart restaurants. As if that were not enough, restoration work is nearing completion on the Teatro Cervantes, the only theatre in Europe to have been almost continually in use for 400 years.

You might think all this would guarantee busloads of tourists for Juan Carlos to deal with. But no, the most he could hope for was a couple of dozen visitors at weekends. For somewhere with such a rich heritage, it is amazingly low-key. There are no tourist shops and very few hotels. The extensive restoration programme - dilapidated colleges, convents and mansions have been sympathetically revamped to serve a variety of useful civic, educational and cultural purposes - is aimed at improving conditions for the locals rather than attracting tourists.

The university was founded in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, head of the Spanish church and confessor to Queen Isabella. Its greatest period of eminence was in the 17th century, when it comprised 40 colleges, attended by numerous luminaries of Spain's Golden Age, including Quevedo and Lope de Vega.

Its prestige began to wane in the 18th century, culminating with the transfer of the institution to Madrid in 1836. It was re-established in 1977, and has been slowly expanding ever since.

The main building has a magnificent Renaissance facade by Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon, architect of the cathedrals of Salamanca and Segovia. Guided tours are provided by the students, who lead you through a series of courtyards, the third of which is called the Patio Trilingue, after the schools of Latin, Greek and Hebrew that originally formed three of its sides. The fourth side was a student hostelry, and is now a renowned restaurant. The main hall and chapel have remarkable Mudejar coffered ceilings.

Cervantes was born in October 1547, on the corner of Calle Mayor and Calle Imagen. The Cervantes Museum, which recreates a typical house of the time, now stands there.

The Teatro Cervantes is currently concealed behind a nondescript 20th century facade. It will, however, be a few months yet before the scaffolding is removed and its intriguing interior is opened to the public as both a museum and theatre.

Starting off as a corral de comedias (courtyard playhouse), where plays by Caldern de la Barca and Lope de Vega were performed, it retains its original layout and cobbled stone floor. Also still surviving are the roof, added in 1785, and the elliptical tiered boxes installed in 1830. Converted into a cinema in the Seventies, it closed down soon after.

The discovery of the structure's unique heritage was made in 1980 by three curious students who went in with torches and peeled back the layers to reveal the various stages of its past. Unlike its counterpart in Almagro in La Mancha, or the Globe in London, which are both reconstructions, the Cervantes is authentic evidence of four centuries of theatrical history.

Already attracting international attention, perhaps this substantial addition to Alcal's heritage will tempt a few more people to a town that for too long has been written off as a dowdy suburb of Madrid.

Fact File

GETTING THERE: Iberia (0171-830 0011) from London to Madrid for as little as pounds 93. Or British Airways (0345 222111), Debonair (0541 500300) and easyJet (0990 292929). From central Madrid, Continental Auto runs buses every 30 minutes from Avenida de America. Fare pounds 2.50.

Staying: Hotel el Bedel (3-star, 00 34 91 889 3700), Plaza de San Diego 6. Hostal Miguel de Cervantes (2-star, 00 34 91 883 1277), Calle Imagen 12. Hostal Don Juan (2-star, 00 34 91 883 3484), Calle Don Juan 1.