Alcalá de Henares: the City of Storks

Half an hour shy of Madrid sleeps the humble Alcalá de Henares. The Spanish city — which translates to Citadel of the river Henares — is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts a rich history which can be traced back to the Bronze Age.

Meandering through the shadowed alleyways, I couldn’t help but feel reminiscent of my time exploring the Italian city of Siena. The centre — Plaza de Cervantes — is positively medieval, and the cobbled streets carry a certain romanticism. The destination has come to be known as “the city of three cultures” owing to its three different neighbourhoods of Moorish, Jewish, and Christian origin.

It is also one of those rare places where there is a lucky dip of tourists and locals. Alcalá de Henares is a university town, so the streets are not only buzzing with travellers, but also the quiet presence of residents. For someone who unwittingly seeks comfort from dichotomies — I am only human, after all — I found this to be a little unsettling.

Crossing the threshold into Alcalá de Henares, it soon became readily apparent that humans do not run this city. Instead, around ninety breeding pairs of storks have claimed the land — and more are arriving every year. The distinct birds throne nests balanced upon every rooftop, their black silhouettes stamped into the skyline. As someone who had never before seen a stork in real life — for me, they existed purely as cartoons swinging clothed babies from their beaks — seeing them for the first time was something of a shock.

Alcalá de Henares has come to embrace the visitors, so much so that the stork population has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. For a place known as the birthplace of the celebrated author Miguel de Cervantes, that’s no easy feat. The stork has become emblematic of Alcalá de Henares, and has created something of a communal identity for its citizens.

I spent that Sunday afternoon roaming the city and practicing my broken Spanish. I sat in Plaza de Cervantes and ordered tortilla de patata, cerveza, café con hielo and vino tinto, whilst above, storks snapped their beaks and scattered twigs from their disheveled nests. My heart may belong to Madrid, but there is something doubtlessly special about Alcalá de Henares.

The storks know it too.

Catch more of my Spanish adventures here – or if you want to get choosy, take your pick out of Barcelona or Madrid 🇪🇸

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Flight of the Butterflies: Otago Museum’s Tropical Forest

“Hundreds of butterflies flitted in and out of sight like short-lived punctuation marks in a stream of consciousness without beginning or end.”

Haruki Murakami

I’m one of those people that can wile away hours and hours in a museum. Load me with snacks and a map and I’ll quite happily potter amongst the exhibitions without once consulting the time.

The thing with having lived in the same place your entire life is that eventually you grow blind to the beauty and individuality of it. I spend all my time yearning to escape and counting down the days till I board that plane, when I have a stunning city full of possibility and wonder right on my doorstep. Cheesy, but true.

I recently hosted two lovely couch surfers for a couple of days, which was a fantastic opportunity to accompany them sightseeing and experience the New Zealand town of Dunedin through new eyes. On a miserable and cataclysmic winters day, we trudged through the storm towards the heavenly embrace of Otago Museum’s Tropical Forest.

Otago Museum is the natural, cultural and scientific jewel of Dunedin. Conveniently neighbouring the historic University of Otago, the museum has a rich diversity of yearly and seasonal exhibitions on offer. Perhaps the most unique of these is the Tropical Forest.

As it’s name suggests, the Tropical Forest in a humid oasis within the confines of the museum with its own thriving ecosystem of butterflies. Yes, you heard that right: butterflies.

The aim of this “living, tropical habitat” is to educate people about these exotic, friendly insects. It’s no wonder the attraction is such a success; by entering the enclosure, you are fully immersing yourself in the butterflies’ world. Three stories of crawling vines, blooming flowers and a majestic waterfall – yes, a waterfall – make you temporarily forget you are not in fact on an expedition through the Amazonian rainforest.

Curious butterflies dance around you as you explore the striking environment. Watch your step for birds or turtles, and don’t look too close – you might spot a tarantula. But for those who aren’t a fan of creepy crawlies, don’t fret; a thick pane of glass protects you from these eight-legged creatures (*shivers*).

The Tropical Forest is a wonderful way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon, embrace your inner scientist or simply to escape the cold (hello 30° thermostat). The nature of the experience means that it’s appropriate and enjoyable for all ages, and I have never once been there and felt inconvenienced by crowds. Actually, the last time I went, we were the only ones there. How neat is that?!

Did you know?

  • Butterfly wings are actually clear; the patterns and colours are constructed by the reflection of microscopic scales
  • During winter, the Monarch butterfly migrates from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico – a whopping2,000 miles – before returning to the north again in the Spring
  • A group of butterflies is called a ‘flutter’

The ‘Deats

Name: The Discovery World Tropical Forest

Location: Otago Museum (419 Great King Street, Dunedin, New Zealand)

Website: http://otagomuseum.nz/whats-on/do/dwtf/

Hours: 10am-5pm

Price: $0-$10 (depending on age)

Tip: If you’re not a self-diagnosed lepidopterophobia (noun: a person who is afraid of butterflies and moths), I encourage you to surreptitiously dip your finger into one of the pottles of nectar and accept the challenge to try land a butterfly. Trust me, it makes for some stellar photograph material 👌

If you are traveling to Dunedin – or are a local searching for new ways to enjoy the southern city – don’t forget to add the unforgettable landscape of Lovers Leap to your list. For more information on this walking track, check out my blog post: Postcards from Lover’s Leap.

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