A Tale of Two Puertas

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The Puerta de Alcala in 2022. A floral decoration in front reads PATRIMONIO MUNDIAL
The Puerta de Alcalá in 2022, before restoration.

Built within 10 years of each other and sitting 33 kilometres apart, stand two stone structures that are not only connected by a road, but by name, use, and having a touch of the Roman influence about them.

Confusingly, the Puerta de Alcalá is in the middle of Madrid and the Puerta de Madrid is in the nearby ancient university city of Alcalá de Henares. The latter is most famous for being the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes; the writer of that classic of Golden Age literature and bane of every Spanish schoolkid: Don Quixote.

Access all Areas

Watercolour of the Puerta de Alcalá by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y de Lezama. Painted around 1930. The gate in the background has walls either side and metal gates in the arches. People dressed in 18th century clothing are strolling through the streets and there are carts and carriage. White canvas market stalls sit to the side of the road, along with a few cows.
Watercolour of the Puerta de Alcalá by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada y de Lezama. Painted around 1930, it’s actually showing how the area might have looked at the end of the 1700s, with the metal gates and walls controlling access.

Both gates were ordered by King Carlos III in the late 18th century as modern entry points into these once-walled cities, where taxes could be collected from those wanting to trade and travel. It’s easy to forget in these times of free movement, that up until the 1800s when the walls were removed, you couldn’t just come in and out of Madrid (or many other cities) whenever you pleased. The gates closed at ten at night in the winter, and eleven in the summer, and only opened again in the wee small hours. Between these times you had to pass through a checkpoint manned by portazguero (sort of a tax collector / security guard) who would decide whether you could come in or leave. Or not if you looked a bit dodgy.

Puerta de Alcalá

The central arch of the Puerta de Alcala covered in snow after Storm Filomena 2021.
Storm Filomena in 2021 gave us a rare opportunity to get close up to the Puerta de Alcalá without the traffic roundabout in the way.

Of the two gate, the Puerta de Alcalá is certainly better known and a lot more elaborate. Part of the newly awarded ‘Paisaje de la Luz’ UNESCO World Heritage Site, it sits on the edge of Retiro Park and provides a backdrop to countless tourist photos, for those brave enough to dash across the busy roundabout to the middle.

One of five royal gates (with around 11 other minor ones) that once controlled access to the city, and on the road that lead directly to Alcalá, it’s a mix of local materials with international expertise. The main structure of five arches was designed by Italian architect Francesco Sabatini, with the highest quality granite taken from mountains to the north around Segovia. The white carved decoration is by Spanish sculptor Francisco Gutiérrez and Frenchman Roberto Michel (they also did the Cibeles Fountain just down the road) and made from limestone from Colmenar de Orejo to the south. Gutiérrez and Michel worked together in Italy and that influence is clear. Constructed in 1778 at the high of the Neoclassical period, when the ancient world was all the rage, its carved shields, banners and figures representing The Four Virtues, are straight out of ancient Rome. 

Limestone decoration of Roman armour and flags on top of the Puerta de Alcala
Newly restored Neoclassical decoration on the Puerta de Alcalá.

The Three Million Euro Facelift

The Puerta de Alcalá in January 2024, after restoration.

If the Puerta de Alcalá is looking extra dazzling at the moment, that’s because just come out of a 3.1 million euro conservation project. Years of traffic pollution, rusting metal supports and humidity caused by a lead roof, meant that this puerta was at serious risk of deterioration. A team of expert stone masons, blacksmiths, sculptors and multiple conservators have worked for two years to restore it to its former glory. The first photo and the one above are a ‘before and after’ – hopefully you can see the expensive difference! The conservation team has said that the project was a fantastic learning experience for all involved, and the work will lead to a better understanding of historic restoration. However, it’s another council department’s job to consider the constant flow of polluting traffic that facilitated the erosion in the first place. That may be a battle for another day.

In the meantime, you can watch a video of the painstaking conservation work here.

Puerta de Madrid

The Puerta de Madrid allowed better access into the narrow medieval streets.

Its sister puerta to the north-east in Alcalá de Henares was finished in 1788, also in the Neoclassical style. However its less flashy, three-arched style means it’s probably only well-known to locals and fans of Stanley Kubrick films. Designed by Spaniard Antonio Juana Jordan, it was paid for by his long-term employer Cardinal Lorenzana, the Archbishop of Toledo. He presumably made plenty of money being the Archbishop of Mexico in the 1760s and 1770s, as he also stumped up the cash for the library and museum in Toledo.  

Alcalá was once a fairly decent sized Roman town called Complutum, in the centre of a road network that linked Zaragoza to Mérida. Its puerta may not look as ‘Roman’ as one in Madrid, but Kubrick thought it was good enough to pass for the ancient Italian city of Metapontum and used it as a backdrop for a scene in his 1960 classic ‘Spartacus’. Local residents and a Spanish army cavalry unit were brought in as extras to act as the army of rebellious slaves.

It may not be as spectacular as its grander sister in Madrid, but it’s always worth the short march from puerta to puerta (or take the Cercanias train) to visit the beautiful Alcalá de Henares.

And you know you’ve been dying to stand there and shout “No I’M SPARTACUS!”.

Fac, amice!

7 Responses

  1. Allison Newton

    Would, then, the Puerta de Toledo also have its sister gate in Toledo?

    Also, great factoid about Kubrick. I did tours of Alcalá for kids for a long time and never knew!

  2. Gina Benevento

    Having known nothing about these “puertas”, especially the Retiro one which I pass by often, I’m grateful for your easy-to-ingest Madrid history lesson… I loved the visuals! They helped immeasurably in telling the story. And big compliments to the storm Filomena photographer, it’s a gorgeous pic!

  3. Robert Pomohaci

    Maybe it’s my tired eyes on a morning but I really don’t see that much difference with the restoration. Also so interesting to consider that the town gates would close at night in winter, such a different time. Come back too late from a night out in Alcalá and you’re left to sleep in a bush with the bandits!

    • Clare Starkie

      Some of the sculptures have been restored and some of the interior structure has been strengthened I think, so the differences may be a bit subtle!

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