Tens of thousands of palm trees and the exclusive ‘Misterio de Elche’ play are just two great reasons to visit Elche.
A super cute smaller city with a population of 230,000, Elche lies 25 miles southeast of Alicante. Part of the municipality is on the coast but the main part of the city where we visited is a few miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea.
Zapatos – ‘Hecho en España’
Shoes – ‘made in Spain’ are known to be comfortable and affordable and this is definitely a shoe-making country. Zapato means shoe, but the footwear industry in general is called ‘calzados’.
You may have heard of Spain’s most famous shoe designer, Manolo Blahnik from the Canary Islands, and seen his gorgeous high-end shoes. The majority of Spanish shoemakers and manufacturers however are from two cities we recently visited, Elche and Villena, in Alicante, in the Community of Valencia. While this is not a complete tally, we have counted nearly 40 different brands to date.
Two famous styles of Spanish shoes evolved from humble beginnings:
Menorquinas – this simple sandal has become increasingly popular and it evolved from a shoe that fieldworkers and farmers would wear on the islands.Today there are dozens of menorcan shoe brands.
Espadrilles – defined as a canvas or cotton fabric upper with a flexible sole made of esparto, a kind of rope made of grass or hemp.
Espadrilles may forever be tied to the Basque region and Catalonia although they did not necessarily originate here. During the Spanish Civil War, Catalan soldiers wore this working-class shoe and even though the shoes wore out and needed to be replaced more often, espadrilles were far cheaper than military boots. After Franco won the war, there were sanctions against the Basque language and culture and many people were forced to leave the country. Their espadrilles went with them and the shoe style slowly began to spread.
Catalan artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí were often photographed in espadrilles, but the biggest breakthrough for popularizing espadrilles happened in the 1970’s when Yves Saint Laurent, for the first time, had models wearing espadrilles on the fashion runway.
Haven’t we all worn at least one pair of espadrilles?
Museo Arqueológico y de Historia de Elche at all
The Archaeological and History museum is in the Palau or Palace of Altamira, a partially restored 12th-century palace. The museum displays a modest collection of antiques and artifacts spanning the length of the city’s history. The most outstanding and important piece on display is a replica of the fabulous La Dama de Elche (The Lady of Elche); a statue that dates back to the 4th century BC. The original statue was unearthed in a field in Elche in 1897. It is believed that it was used as a funeral urn but just who it represents remains a mystery. We have seen copies of this beautiful young woman in a number of archaeological museums and we are hoping to seeing the original sculpture in Madrid in April.
This sweet local wine is something we were told we must try when in Elche. Sipping a glass after dinner may be the most traditional way of trying it. We however were only in town for the day, so we ordered a glass mid-day. Moscatel is often sweet but this one paired surprisingly well with our tapas. In fact, we had to have a second glass just to confirm our conclusions. 😉
A must-do when visiting Elche is to take a walk through the palm trees and groves. Some date palms may have been planted as early as the 5th century by the Carthaginians, but the majority of the palm trees would have been planted by the first Muslims that arrived at the beginning of the middle ages. The Moors also developed an irrigation system using the brackish water of the Vinalopó river, and this same system is used today. In 2000, UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site.
A group of palm trees are called “huertos” or orchards and there are nearly 100 huertos in this city. We stopped at the tourist office and picked up a map that has a clearly marked walking trail through the more than 200,000 palm trees planted around town. The swaying fronds of these lovely plants provided the perfect environment for a stroll out of the mid-day sun.
Museo del Palmeral
Preceding our walk through the palm groves, we stopped in the Palm Grove Museum and Interpretation Center.
The museum not only showcases the palm trees and their history, but also the tools required to care, climb and maintain the trees as well as how the parts of the palm tree are used. There were plenty of examples of beautiful art pieces and weaving samples made from the leaves of the palm tree. We watched a video on how they create the “white palm fronds” that are especially prized for religious ceremonies. They cut a few fronds and then wrap and tie those around the living fronds on the trees, blocking out the light, preventing photosynthesis and wait a few months.
Voilà – white palms!
These valued white palm leaves are shipped throughout Spain usually for celebrations surrounding Palm Sunday.
Huerto del Cura
The Priest’s Garden is named after the chaplain José Castaño Sánchez, who was the owner and caretaker until 1918.
This is a beautiful and peaceful garden to walk through. There are palm tree varieties from all over the world but we also spotted pomegranate, orange, lemon, fig and kumquat trees and quite a number of types of cactus. The star attraction of the entire park is the 175-year-old “Imperial Palm” Tree, so named for Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, wife of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Hungary, after she visited the plantation in 1894.
Santa María Basilica of Elche
Jaume I conquered this city in 1265 from the Moors but it wasn’t until 1334 that a small Catholic church was built overtop the existing mosque. In 1556 a second larger church was completed on the same site however it collapsed in 1672. The third and present Basilica, built between 1672 and 1784 has one large square tower, a beautiful baroque entrance and two domes covered in brilliant blue tiles that catch your attention as you explore the surrounding town.
The Santa María Basilica of Elche is known for hosting the Misterio de Elche play, which takes place every year in the basilica.
Misterio de Elche
Mid-August each year the Mystery Play of Elche is held and this culturally important tradition has been recognized by UNESCO who declared it one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
The Basilica of Santa Maria in Elche received approval from Pope Urban VIII, in 1632, as the only Catholic church in the world allowed to put on this special theatrical and musical performance. The play dates back to the 15th century and it is believed to have been performed in the first church built in 1334.
The Misterio de Elche represents the ascension of the Virgin Mary to heaven, in which the person playing Mary is lifted through a hole in the ceiling by a piece of original 15th-century machinery called ‘la magrana’ (the pomegranate). As we were not in town in August to witness the play, we instead visited their museum called Casa de la Festa, where we were able to watch a 30 minute reenactment of parts of the emotional two-day play on video. It really is quite interesting and it would be amazing to see it in person. To go to the Wikimedia Commons page to learn more click on the photo below.
What an serendipitous discovery in this small city. It could have been easy to spend a week exploring all Elche has to offer.
We are finding that the small towns and cities in Spain offer as many enriching, unique and memorable experiences as do the larger ones. It was a good day!
Salud from these ilicitanos,
Ted & Julia