OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
After passing through several hallways and inner patios, visitors reach the San Ildefonso Chapel where the tomb of Cardenal Cisneros, founder of the university, is located. Photo: Mireya Castañeda

The good fortune so well described by José Lezama Lima would have it that, this year, a loving gift from a son would allow this writer to travel to Alcalá de Henares, where 40 and 25 years ago, respectively, two eminent Cubans, Alejo Carpentier and Dulce Maria Loynaz, were honored with the Cervantes Prize.

Seeing the town is, however, more of an obligatory stop than a chance event. Given its location just 30 kilometers from Madrid, neglecting a visit to the city declared a World Heritage Site in 1998 by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) would be unthinkable.

You can catch a train at the Atocha station in Madrid, and make the trip quickly to the ancient city of Alcalá de Henares. Upon arriving, and after a coffee at a spot humorously named The Office, you can go directly in search of streets and monuments, in search of history and culture, in search of memories of the great novelist and exalted poetess.

THE UNIVERSITY, THE PARANINFO, THE CERVANTES PRIZE

The famous university was constructed in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, and through its halls many important figures have passed, such as Calderón de la Barca, Francisco de Quevedo, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Lope de Vega, San Ignacio de Loyola, San Juan de la Cruz, and Tirso de Molina. But no, the University cannot boast of the immortal Cervantes.

It is composed of several buildings, including the Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso, one of the most historic and current site of the dean's offices, with its beautiful Renaissance facade, chapel, and spectacular Paraninfo auditorium.

After passing through the portal, visitors immediately see one of its three celebrated inner patios, the first being that named Santo Tomás de Villanueva, one of the school's most notable alumni. After this space comes the legendary Paraninfo, where since 1976, every April 23, the death of Miguel de Cervantes (Madrid, 1616) is commemorated and the most important literary prize in the Spanish language is awarded.

Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier was awarded the Cervantes Prize in 1977. In the first edition the previous year, it was presented to Spanish writer Jorge Guillén. Photo: Archive

ALEJO CARPENTIER & DULCE MARÍA LOYNAZ RECEIVE THE CERVANTESPRIZE

On the wall between the Paraninfo itself and the Hall of Togas, bronze relief sculptures of those who have won the Cervantes Prize are displayed, and there we were able to see, with pride and much emotion, those of Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, the second Cervantes, from 1977, and Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz, the second woman to receive the Prize, in 1992.

Twenty-five years ago, Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz became the second woman to receive the Cervantes Prize. The first was Spain's María Zambrano in 1988. Photo: Juvenal Balán

Once inside the Paraninfo, a magical, moving place, the first thing one notices is the ceiling work, and next, to one side, the ornate orator's podium.

It was from that spot, 40 years ago, that Alejo Carpentier (Havana, December 16, 1904-Paris, April 24, 1980) eruditely presented his Prize acceptance speech: "…with Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra - I do not presume to say anything new about him - the modern novel was born," said the author of The Century of Lights.

With his professor's voice (his literature classes at the University of Havana were legendary in the 1960s), he said that no phrase could better express his emotional state, at that moment, than the one with which Cervantes tells us: "one of the things that should most make a man happy… is to see himself, living, maintaining a good name in the language of the people, both in print and in person…"

To one side of the hall is the ornate orator's podium, where every April 23, the winner of the year's Cervantes Prize speaks. Photo: Mireya Castañeda

To conclude with a light touch, Carpentier said, "Living I am. In print and in person, I've been. Good name, I've had, but perhaps, thanks to you, I might have a much better one now. So, thank you!"

Fifteen years later, 25 years ago now, Dulce María Loynaz (Havana, December 10, 1903-April 27, 1997) at 91 years of age, stood at the podium. She didn't have the voice to read her own speech, which was read by Cuban novelist Lisandro Otero, but dedicated it, with delicate irony, to laughter.

For her evidently, this was an indispensable aspect of Don Quixote, saying, "Over the centuries this book has been read, re-read, and discussed. It would be hard to find another one with such repercussions among men of different times and different countries, with the exception, perhaps, of the Bible… the great accomplishment of Don Quixote is that it still makes us laugh… and has united, through humor, people in several centuries… Laughter is an almost volatile substance, I mean difficult to contain… it is important to emphasize the humoristic facet of Quixote, because preserving this volatile element in words written centuries ago, I believe, constitutes a truly epic achievement."

The author of ÚItimos días de una casa, Poemas náufragos, and Bestiarium, began her speech with this statement, "What you have conferred on me today is, in my opinion, the greatest honor to which I could have aspired in what is left of my life, in some way, uniting my name with that of the author of an immortal book."

ROMAN, ARAB, CHRISTIAN

For the record, the founding of this city goes back to the Celtiberian period, confirmed several years ago by the discovery of some ancient coins, one of which was inscribed with the Iberian name of Alcalá: Ikesancom Kombouto.

Next to arrive were the Romans, in the fourth century, who built an impressive city which they called Complutum, leading to the lasting descriptor of locals as Complutense.

The Arabs reached the Iberian Peninsula in 711, and continuing their conquest to the north, named the city al-qal'a Nahar (castle or fortress over the Henares), the term which evolved to the Alcalá of the present.

In 1118, Christians retook the city and the town's life definitively began to revolve around what is today the Catedral Magistral, one of the treasures to be seen on any visit to Alcalá.

CALLE MAYOR

With arch covered walkways on both sides and very Spanish outdoor cafes, where you can rest and chat, Calle Mayor leads directly to three of the most beautiful sites in Alcalá de Henares: the Miguel de Cervantes Home Museum, the Catedral Magistral, and the university.

Here, in this city of cobblestone streets, an event that would become celebrated in Spanish and universal letters took place September 29, 1547, when Miguel de Cervantes was born, author of Don Quijote de la Mancha, a masterpiece of world literature.

The cathedral is truly majestic, since in modern terms it is described as a wonder, but the Gothic church bears the title Magister because all of its priests must be university professors.

ALCALÁ DE HENARES

April definitively united Alejo Carpentier and Dulce María Loynaz with Miguel de Cervantes. The three strolled along the Parnaso in this month to which so many poets wrote. What impressively coincidental chance… that moreover brought a Cuban journalist to this very city, to rejoice in the air of history and culture of Alcalá de Henares, forever aglow with the aura of Cervantes.