Knowing Elche like the palm of your hand

Elche is a city of contrasts where the old meets the new. It will be familiar to football fans as Elche were promoted to the Spanish La Liga this season where they play against the mighty Real Madrid and Barcelona. Elche has a picturesque historic city centre but is also home to the largest palm grove in Europe with more than 200,000 trees. It also has a vibrant commercial quarter. 

The city is home to a major shoe-making industry, which employs more than 18,000 people, as well as having the largest shoe factory outlet in Europe. Salvador Artesano factory, on the city’s outskirts, has thousands of shoes from sportswear to high-heeled party shoes for sale at a discounted price. 

Elche basilica

Turn back time 

Elche is a compact city so it is easy to walk around the centre and the palm grove in a day. A good place to start is by the tourist information centre. First stop is the Altamira Palace. This 12th century Gothic palace  was used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War and is now home to the archaeological museum. 

As well as artifacts from the Roman and Arab eras, there is also an exact replica of the Dama de Elche bust, an unassuming statue which has been at the centre of many heated arguments as the original is housed in Madrid much to Elche’s disgust. The Dama de Elche is an Iberian stone bust which is believed to date back to 4BC but was not unearthed until the 19th century during an archaeological dig just two miles south of Elche. 

Just a few streets away is the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria, in Plaza de Santa Maria, which is built in the Baroque style in the 17th century. Each August, Elche stages its unique mystery play inside the basilica. The mystery play, which UNESCO has declared to be a heritage masterpiece, tells the story of the Assumption and Coronation in Heaven of Mary with a rousing mix of drama, music and passion. 

Just past the basilica is the Convento de la Merced where you will find the only public Arab baths that have been preserved in the area and are open to the public. This 12th-century monument is a fitting tribute to Elche’s rich and prosperous past. 

Elche palm trees

Elche at Easter 

Elche’s rich religious tradition also comes into its own at Easter when dramatic and highly-emotional parades take place around the streets. Participants carry giant statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles which depict the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Penitents often wear long cloaks with pointed hats with slits for their eyes. The palms from Elche’s famous groves are distributed throughout the world on Palm Sunday and they are intricately woven into crosses and other religious symbols.

Make a date

After absorbing Elche’s history, it could be a good time to wander through the impressive UNESCO World Heritage site, the Palmeral palm tree park, a green oasis which dates back to the 8th century and is home to anything between 200,000 to 300,000 palm trees. However, it is thought that palms could have been here from 5BC and may have been planted by the Phoenicians.

Elche Imperial Palm

In the Huerto del Cura palm garden, you will feel like you have stepped out of the city centre and into a peaceful green oasis with tall palm trees providing shade and many interesting varieties of cacti. 

The Huerto del Cura is about 13,000 square metres with 1,000 palms and other Mediterranean plants such as lemon, orange and pomegranate trees. 

Look out for the very rare Imperial Palm, with eight arms in the shape of a candelabra, which is unique for its grandeur and age. Throughout the palm garden are also various statues, including another replica of the Dama del Elche bust, a bust of Juan Orts Roman, who owned the Huerto from 1940 to 1958 and a bust of King Jaime I, who freed Elche from Arabic dominance in the 13th century. Close to this bust is a group of prize-winning sculptures La Torre de Babel  (Tower of Babel) by Alicante artist Eusebio Sempere. 

No visit to Elche would be complete without trying the local dates and pomegranates – or taking some back with you. You could also try Delicias del Elche appetisers, which are dates wrapped in bacon. 

Pomegranate juice is a healthy and tasty option while many Elche restaurants serve pomegranate ice-cream. The best place to buy fresh dates and pomegranates is in the central market. 

Tops for shops 

After soaking up so much culture, it could be time for some retail therapy. Elche has a thriving shoe industry offering a variety of classic, casual and party shoes. One place that has to be on the list is Salvador Artesano’s shoe factory just off the main Murcia to Alicante road as you head out of Elche. This is Europe’s largest shoe factory with many different styles and colours but all with one thing in common – a bargain price. If you want summer sandals, children’s shoes, leisure shoes or party/wedding shoes with matching bags, this is the place for you. 

Close to Salvador Artesano, there is the L’Aljub shopping centre in Calle Jacarilla which is another great place to head for the January sales.  There are dozens of shops and restaurants under one roof, including C&A, H&M, Gerry Weber, Jack Jones, Lefties, Zara and the favourite of year-round bargain-hunters - Primark.  There’s also a park where you can leave the kids to play while you shop and on-site free parking. 

Elche also has the famous El Corte Ingles department store to the south of the city on the Avenida Alcalde Ramon Pastor. El Corte Ingles can be a little expensive as it sells quality and designer products. So sale time is the right time to visit as you can pick up some classic or fashionable clothes, electronic and electrical goods, household items and sports products while doing your grocery shopping too. 

Time permitting, you may want to indulge in a little more culture with a visit to the Elche Grand Theatre, which is in the old town and close to the town hall. It has a great programme including drama, dance and opera. It’s a lovely old-fashioned theatre with plush red seats and boxes for the grandees of the theatre. 

Charlie I'Anson at Elche football club

Alternatively, you can have an afternoon of high drama at Elche football stadium. Elche are a first division side playing at the Martinez Valero stadium, which has 39,000 seats and has played host to the Spanish national side. 

You can watch quality football while living out the high drama of a live football match with frantic whistling, cheering and jeering. Elche is also the only La Liga club to have an English player, Charlie I’Anson.