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.
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