The treasures outside of Madrid’s walls
The Hayedo de Montejo, the University of Alcalá, Aranjuez Palace and the El Escorial Monastery, all declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, are perfect for enjoying your Stopover Hello Madrid.
The complex formed by the historic precinct of Alcalá de Henares and its university is one of the four sites protected as a World Heritage Site in the Autonomous Region of Madrid. The other sites are the Royal Palace of Aranjuez and its gardens, the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the Hayedo de Montejo forest, spread among the four points of the compass. This year, the city has submitted the candidacy of a fifth site to join this list, the so-called Prado-Retiro Axis, filled with the city’s museums and history.
Alcalá de Henares, home to Cervantes
The University of Alcalá was founded in 1499 and its Renaissance facade has great political and sociological importance. Guillermo Mora, a visual artist from the city, had the opportunity to grow up surrounded by unique monuments. For him, the World Heritage Site in the region – carved stones, fired clay roof tiles, centuries-old beech trees – has “weight”. “My work relates to Alcalá in that, if there is something that interests me about a city, it’s the walls, that which protects and hides the other side from sight. My work serves as a parapet or a boundary that hides things from the other side,” he explains. Mora – who studied in Chicago, received a scholarship from the Academy in Rome and won an award at the ARCO contemporary art fair(LINK DIGITAL ART ARTICLE), – shares his birthplace with artists such as the writer Luna Miguel and the trap singer Love Y-I Valvanne. They all grew up among the tapas of the colonnades of Calle Mayor, the secluded silence of Bernardas Square (Guillermo’s favourite spot), the house where Cervantes was born and the Roman ruins of Complutum.
The city of royal retreats: Aranjuez
Aranjuez, on the banks of the River Tagus, and the springtime retreat of the Bourbons, is something else. It has fewer than one-third of Alcalá’s inhabitants (59,000 people) and its day-to-day life is at least three times calmer and proudly provincial than that of the university city. Just 50 kilometres from Madrid, it was the first place that Isabel II connected by train to the capital in 1851. The 18th-century Royal Palace, the Falúas Reales Museum, the Casa del Labrador palace (all built in the French style brought by the Bourbons) and the 200-year-old bullring, along with the old town, are part of the tour. The Concierto de Aranjuez by the composer Joaquín Rodrigo is dedicated to its gardens and can be heard in the town’s bells.
The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, symbol of the Community of Madrid
San Lorenzo de El Escorial is even more secluded. The reason for its existence – the monastery – was also a palace, the sepulchre of kings and a seminary. Philip II had it built in only 20 years on plots of land in several towns located in this valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama in the 16th century. The remains of Spain’s monarchs – both Bourbons and Habsburgs – have rested here ever since.
Besides the wealth of the heritage that led it to be protected by UNESCO in 1984 (the library, the basilica, the Monarchs’ Courtyard, the gardens and the Pantheon of Monarchs), San Lorenzo is a place where you will enjoy walking through the Herrería Forest, the Abantos pine forest and the walk to the Silla de Felipe II, a spectacular viewpoint. You’ll enjoy eating too: traditional mountain cuisine and D.O. Guadarrama meats are served at taverns and in a Michelin-starred restaurant, Montia, which focuses on local biodynamic and organic products.
Wilderness in the Hayedo de Montejo
The last of the World Heritage Sites is the Hayedo de Montejo, a unique forest in the Sierra del Rincón Biosphere Reserve. Beech and oak trees share space in an impeccably wild hillside that runs down to the River Jarama. “Despite all the climate changes, it has been preserved in a unique way and is one of the most northern beech forests in Europe,” explains Pedro González, a mountain guide and manager of Amadablam, a multi-adventure agency that organises hiking routes through the Autonomous Region of Madrid and surrounding areas. There is a limited number of guided tours of the forest available daily. They usually sell out in autumn, when the forest offers the most beautiful scenery. “In just a few weeks, the beech leaves turn from a very intense green to darker reds, browns and ochres when they start to fall,” says Pedro. His agency organises a route around the forest, where – he says – there is much more to see: “Here, wilderness combines with isolated hamlets in an area that became known as the Poor Mountain Range, which is now being recovered”.
Images by Ben Roberts