Three World Heritage Declarations
Elche has not just one or two, which would be an incredible achievement, but three cultural assets registered in different categories of the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2000 the historic Palmeral Palm Grove was the first to receive this distinction, and it was followed by a year later by the Mystery Play of Elche, the first Spanish cultural event to be declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible World Heritage. In 2009, the Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage agreed to include in the Register of Exemplary Practice the Centre of Traditional Culture – School Museum of Pusol. Three prestigious distinctions in recognition of the three facts which make us unique.
Elche, with a tradition that goes back to the 19th century, it is the leading centre of production and exportation of footwear in Spain. 39% of the shoes manufactured and sold in our country are produced by our companies, and this includes many of the leading brands in the sector.
The Palm Grove
With over two hundred thousand palm trees it constitutes the largest palm grove in Europe. This World Heritage Site is the only one of its kind in the world due to the way in which it uniquely combines agricultural purpose (white palms and dates), importance as a landscape and cultural symbolism with its role as an integral part of the urban fabric.
The nine kilometres of Elche´s coastline constitutes one of the few coastal stretches in the province of Alicante which is free of urban development, with the exceptions of Arenales del Sol and El Pinet, and which has a unique ecosystem that combines dune systems and pine forests with extensive golden sandy beaches.
The performance of the chanted drama ofthe Dormancy and rise to heaven of the body and soul of the Virgin of the Assumption, is the only medieval play that has continued to be performed inside a church, the Basilica of Santa María, without interruption, since the time of its conception in the mid-15th century. With this declaration the category of Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible World Heritage came into being.
Few cities are identified with a work of art as Elche is with its Dama or Lady. Despite its long exile in Paris and Madrid, from just a few days after its discovery in 1897, the people of Elche have not ceased to yearn for the permanent return to the city of this most representative piece of Iberian culture. She came to visit us in 1965 and 2006. And we will be waiting for her forever.
Elche a green city
With almost over 4 million square metres of green spaces –more than 20m2 per inhabitant, over the recommendations of the EU– Elche is almost on top of the raking of towns with a high number of parks and gardens. Not only because of its 2.7 million square metres of palm tree groves –landscaped and mostly for public use–, but also because of the presence of green lungs as the bed of the river Vinalopó and the axis formed by avenues as Avenida de la Libertad and Avenida de la Universidad.
El Hondo Nature Reserve, which is shared by Elche and Crevillent, is the main natural space in Elche and the second most important wetlands in the Valencian Community, due to the variety and importance of its flora and its fauna. The Clot de Galvany and the Salinas are also areas with a great environmental interest.
A lively countryside
The 30 rural districts which form the so-called “Camp d’Elx” make up a humanized landscape of great interest and rich constrats, with its own personality compared with the city. Elche countryside has preserved agriculture producing excellent products and a traditional agrarian lifestyle without resigning modernity.
Celebrations and work
Work and celebrations in Elche always go together. People work a lot but they also enjoy a rich celebrations calendar all along the year. Deep traditions and current celebrations are combined reflecting a wide variety of citizens likes.
The Lady of Elche being the main representative of Iberian Heritage in the town, Elche enjoys of an extraordinary archeological richness. In the archeological site known as “La Alcudia” other remarkable archeological pieces have been found; which indicates it is a fertile land, although it remains mostly undug, and that there were an important Iberian setting in this area.
The business park Elche Parque Empresarial, with a 2.7 million square meters surface, is now housing more than 400 hundred companies. The quality of its infrastructures and equipments consisting in big open spaces and boulevards and an attractive architectural design have made it a model in Europe. The outlet route is one of the main attractions for travelers visiting the town.
ELCHE 24 HOURS
“My first contact with Elche was at dawn when I awoke amid the magic of the palm gardens. It was like entering into one of the gardens from The Arabian Nights. The city slept and silence was its breath.” Miguel Bosé
08.00 – To start, a good breakfast.
An ideal place to start the day is in the urban heart of the city. Both surrounding the Santa Maria basilica and on the road to the Glorieta, along with in the refined and much frequented square, there are cafés whose terraces are open year-round and traditional ice cream parlours where horchata and lemon and barley ices are offered as refreshing alternatives to coffee and toast.
09.00 – In the tranquillity of the Municipal Park
Following breakfast, the stillness and exoticism of the Municipal Park await, promising our first encounter with the palm groves. It is absolutely recommended that you first pass by the Tourist Info office, at one of its access points: here you can find plans, brochures, proposals and, most especially, kindness and hospitality. Any questions you may have will be answered.
To reach the main entrance, to the north, take the Station walk, remodelled in 2011. The name recalls that in times past, the walk terminated at a pleasant railway building. Along this short trajectory we’re joined by the outdoor sculptures of Pablo Serrano, Knörr Ernesto Diaz Azorin, Jose Luis Sanchez, Gabino Úbeda and the Elche Sixto Marco, in the so called Espai d’Art.
Once inside the park, the first thing the visitor comes across is an evocative bandstand, where the musical band holds concerts, and beside it, a cylindrical dovecot. Feeding the pigeons is an activity especially enjoyed by children.
If you see palm trees with names, do not be surprised: this is a way of honouring local, national, and foreign persons of note, as well as collectives; and when you see a white, rounded building, be sure not to pass it by: this is el Huevo, constructed in 1946, and the present-day visitor´s centre. The Rotonda, next to the restaurant, is a magnificent outdoor venue, where cultural and social events are held.
In this natural paradise there are also ducks and swans, found in ponds supplied by water from the Mayor del Pantano channel that runs uncovered through the park from north to south. The Moli del Real, an eighteenth-century flourmill of likely Muslim origin, as well as the channel, were rebuilt in the 1980´s. Its buttresses and Roman arches, peeking out along the river way, make for one of the most beautiful views in the city, as seen from the adjoining Railway Bridge. The Hort de Baix palm grove also spreads out across the Vinalopó slope. This final addition to the Municipal Park was completed in the 1960s and has an outdoor festivities area.
Tourist info Plaça del Parc, 3. 966 65 81 96. APRIL TO OCTOBER: Monday to Friday from 09.00 to 19.00; Saturday from 10.00 to 19.00; Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 14.00. NOVEMBER TO MARCH: Monday to Friday from 09.00 to 18.00; Saturday from 10.00 to 18.00; Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 14.00.
Municipal Park. November to March, 07.00 to 21.00; April to October, 07.00 to 23.00; August, 07.00 to 24.00. Free entrance.
10.00 – MAHE and the Altamira Palace
The Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche (MAHE) is named after Alejandro Ramos Folqués, archaeologist and illustrious son of the city. Following its enlargement in 2005, it occupies two adjacent, interconnected spaces. From the main entrance one enters into the first section, located under the Diagonal del Palau plaza, which displays pieces from the Neolithic (approximately 5000 B.C.) through the Visigoth periods, passing through the Iberian and Roman eras. The museum is full of panels, audio-visuals, and interactive elements, such as touch screens, which make for a much more didactic and enjoyable visit. If you look outside you will see the remains of the wall that surrounded the medieval village and one of its towers.
You have to leave the square to access the second space of the MAHE, the fortress of the Lordship, or the Altamira Palace, as this XI century almohade fortress is more popularly known. Trapezoidal in shape, it was transformed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and finally, in the eighteenth centuries, incorporating into its south façade the residence of the Count of Altamira, from which it derives its name. The castle and the oldest remains discovered during the restoration process are incorporated as elements of the museum. In the display rooms you can see pieces dating from the Arab foundation of the city in their actual locations (ninth and tenth centuries), through the twentieth century. The great keep was the home of the Lady of Elche during her 2006 stay in the city in which she was born. The parade grounds quite often serve as the setting for concerts and theatre productions.
MAHE. Diagonal del Palau, 7. 966 65 82 05. Monday to Saturday: 10.00 to 18.00; Sundays and Bank Holidays, 10.00 to 15.00. General admission, 3 €, students and groups, 1 €, Carnet Jove, retirees and large families, € 1.50. Free entry: Sundays, children under 6 and persons with reduced mobility.
12.00 – Santa María, the house of the Mare de Déu and of the Misteri.
The twin blue domes of the Basilica of Santa Maria and its bell tower, 40 meters tall, are the urban skyline´s most recognizable images. Santa Maria rises up majestically opposite the palace of Altamira, in the location formerly occupied by the main mosque. In 1265, King Jaime I, having recently conquered the city, consecrated the Muslim premises to the Virgin Mary “in her Assumption up to heaven”; following the demolishing of the mosque in 1334, there were two additional churches constructed prior to construction of the present day basilica.
It was probably the first church, in the Gothic style, which existed until 1492, where the representations of the Misteri, or the Festa d’Elx, began, a religious drama told entirely in song which chronicles the Dormition and the Assumption into heaven of the patron saint, the Virgin of the Assumption, known to the people of Elche as the Mare de Déu (the Mother of God). Declared by UNESCO in 2001 to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the church dazzles the beholder with the objects that descend from the false sky installed within the high dome. The need to shelter the objects conditioned the design of the two subsequent temples: the Renaissance temple, completed in 1566 and the current, mainly Baroque temple, blessed in 1784.
The beautiful main entrance, one of the finest in the Baroque Valencian style, is the work of Nicolás de Bussi, a sculptor born in Strasbourg (France) who is also the creator of the door of San Sebastián. This access – one of a total of seven – lies at the foot of the bell tower, with a narrow staircase that leads to viewpoints set at different heights: there are 170 steps to the very top, where every 13th of August, at midnight, the palm of the Virgin is set off, putting the finishing touch on the Nit de l’Alba.
The impressive Santa María organ was built in 2005, recovering the existing baroque instrument design dating from the civil war, when the church was looted and used as a garage. Behind the altar is located a neoclassical Communion chapel, the final addition to the temple. Next to it, with access from the exterior, is the museum of the Virgin of the Assumption.
Santa Maria. Plaza de Santa María. 965 45 15 40. From 07.00 to 13.00 and from 17.30 to 21.00. Free admission.
Tower lookout. 615 33 78 21. From 11.00 to 14.00 and 15.30 to 17.00 (June to September from 11.00 to 19.00). General admission, 2 €; children and groups, 1 €.
Museum of the Virgin. Plaza de Santa Isabel, 6. 965 45 56 61. Tuesday through Saturday from 10.00 to 14.00 and from 15.00 to 18.00, Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 14.00. General admission, 2 €; children, 1 €.
12.30 – Ritual waters: the Arab Baths
Very close to Santa Maria awaits yet another surprise: the Arab Baths, built around 1150 and one of the best-kept secrets of the local heritage. Located in the basement of what was once the convent of the Clarisse Nuns of Mercy (in rehabilitation for reopening), very few people in Elche knew of its existence. Starting in the thirteenth century the baths underwent several transformations, until finally being converted into the storage space and back room of the convent building. They were rehabilitated in 1998 and opened to visitors. These baths, preserved almost in their entirety, are one of the few surviving examples of public Islamic Architecture in the Community of Valencia.
They were the hammâm closest to the mosque and to the main city gate, the Lucentina. Travellers arriving here could bathe prior to praying and entering into the walled enclosure. Entry is through the Eres of Santa Llúcia walkway. The baths are divided into three parallel rooms (cold, warm and hot), covered by barrel vaults and lit with skylights. During the tour, a voice over explains the different uses of spaces, while lights and sounds recreate the atmosphere of the original baths.
Arab Baths. 965 45 28 87. Tuesday through Saturday from 10.00 to 14.00 and 15.00 to 18.00; Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 14.00. General admission, 1 €, students, groups, over 65, large families and Carnet Jove, 0.50 €; children under 6 and handicapped, free admission. Sunday, free admission.
13.00 – La Calahorra reconquered
This monumental center is complemented with Calahorra, the main tower of the old medieval wall, erected in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. Together with another smaller watchtower, opposite and no longer present, it guarded the most important door to the walled town, the Lucentina, which faced the road to Alicante. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a manor house was attached outside the walls with two floors and a basement, which housed the almudín (grain warehouse) of the time.
It is a rectangular prismatic construction, which widens at the base for stability. It is now 15 meters high, but originally it must have exceeded 25 meters. The deterioration and the earthquake of 1829 caused serious damage to the two upper bodies, which had to be demolished. The many reforms made by the lords of Elche completely modified its structure. Both the west-facing neo-Arabic style windows and the crenelated brick finish date from the nineteenth century.
Some of the rooms look fresh out of the early twentieth century, with panoramic views of the city. On the ground floor a room with Egyptian decor and masonic motifs particularly stands out, a lodge meeting place founded in Elche in 1858. Acquired by the Government in the late nineties, its use is given over to the Town Council, which has restored and opened it to the public for the first time in its long history. It hosts exhibitions and cultural events.
Torre de la Calahorra. Uberna, 14. 965 423 111. Tuesday through Saturday from 10.00 to 14.00 and 15.00 to 18.00; Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 14.00. General admission, 2 €, students, groups, over 65, large families and Carnet Jove, 1 €; children under 6 and handicapped, free admission. Sunday, free admission.
13.30 – A break to renew energies
At lunchtime, the downtown area offers numerous options. Restaurants offer traditional dishes like rices or cocido de pelotas and sell set daily menus at affordable prices. The Empedrat Streets, near to the Glorieta and Carmen and opposite the Town Hall, are packed with bars whose tapas are an excellent and rapid option.
15.30 – The Priest’s Garden, the jewel of the palm grove.
The Garden of Healing is quite certainly the best ambassador for the Elche palm grove. This private estate of 12,000 square meters and its crown jewel, the Imperial palm, are cited in foreign guidebooks from the early twentieth century. In 1894, the empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Elisabeth of Wittelsbach, the popular Sissi, marvelled at the rare botanical phenomenon displayed by these palms, with their seven shoots growing symmetrically from the mother trunk. Chaplain Castaño, from whom the garden took its name, christened it in honour of the royal visitor. Today, at nearly 160 years old, the garden still retains its majesty and elegance.
Declared a National Artistic Garden in 1943, the current owners, the Orts family, have continued to add attractions to this lush natural space. The route is dotted with standing ponds and botanical species from all five continents, including an extensive collection of palm trees and a spectacular rock garden with more than one hundred varieties of cactus. There are also several sculptures – one a mobile, by Eusebio Sempere – and 55 palm trees dedicated to the personalities who have visited the garden since 1900, whose autographs and dedications are preserved in 24 volumes.
During the summer, concerts are held at the feet of the Imperial palms under the title Musicians in Paradise. Next the entrance there is a stall selling dates and handicrafts.
Garden of Healing. Porta de la Morera, 49. 965 45 19 36. Check opening times according with the period.General admission, 5 €, Elche, € 2.50, students and seniors, 3 €, children € 2.50, groups, 2.80 €, groups of children, 1.80 €. Bus, E line.
16.30 – Palmeral Museum-Garden of San Placido. Walk through a traditional garden
If questions have arisen during your strolls through this palm-filled city, in the Palmeral Museum you will find all the answers. The museum´s videos, panels, display elements, touch screens and surround sound, housed in a traditional home in the garden of San Placido (very close to the Garden of Healing), reveal the origins, history, development and culture of the Elche palm grove. In coming to both enjoy and understand the grove, you will easily see why in 2000 the UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Afterwards, there is nothing better than a tour of the exterior garden, with the chance to observe the work of a palm worker (Tuesday to Friday morning, upon request) and the braiding of the white palm in the workshop attached to the museum, where Town Council trains new crafts persons in this traditional craft work.
Palmeral Museum. Porta de la Morera, 12. 965 42 22 40. From Tuesday through Saturday, 10.00 to 10.00 and 15.00 to 18.00, Sundays and holidays, 10:00 to 14:00. General admission, 1 €, students, groups, Carnet Jove, retirees and large families: 0.50 €. Free entry: Sundays, children under 6 and handicapped persons. Bus: E Line.
17.30 – La Alcudia, the home of Lady
And now we come to the birthplace of our beloved Lady. Two kilometres outside town, on the road to Dolores, the 10-acre hill of La Alcudia was the original site of Elche from the Neolithic period (5000 B.C.) through the tenth century. Movements of the earth, serendipitous finds and purposeful excavations have for over six centuries been exposing parts of its countless treasures: many, and perhaps most of which, remain hidden in the subsoil.
Here in 1897 was discovered the most representative sample of the Iberian civilization and one of the most famous sculptures in the world, the Lady of Elche. Within days of coming to light, this enigmatic polychrome bust, carved in sandstone between the V and IV centuries B.C., was sold to the Louvre; it now is the showpiece of the National Archaeological Museum, in Madrid.
In La Alcudia, owned by the University of Alicante and managed by a foundation, outdoor excavations can be observed, with important remains of ancient Iberian and Roman cities, as well the Visigoth basilica. Don´t miss the visual interpretation centre, fundamental for understanding the value of some of the most emblematic field findings, exhibited in La Alcudia. You can also enjoy audio guides (in various formats), dramatized guided visits, and tours by bike or on horse, among others.
Archaeological Park and Museum of La Alcudia. Carretera de Dolores, km. 2. 966 61 15 06. Tuesday through Saturday, from 10:00 to 20:00, Saturday from October to March, from 10.00 to 17.00. Sundays and holidays from 10.00 to 15.00. General admission, 5 €, students, unemployed and teachers (accredited), 2 €, children under 6, free.
19.00 – In the urban centre
From immersion in the past we return to the present, with an evening stroll through the mostly pedestrian city center, which can be combined with shopping in the many stores that fill streets and plazas such as Corredora, Hospital, Troneta, Glorieta, Trinquet, Ample, Fregassa, Bisbe Tormo, Salvador y Almórida, among others. There is also time to enjoy an ice cream or a snack before dinner in one of the many terraces that animate the area, even in wintertime.
Let’s start with the Plaça de Baix, overseen by the Town Council, with its great central tower of Consell (century XV), built over the medieval wall and with one of its doors, that of Guardamar, converted into a Gothic launch. If you hear the tolling of the hours give or, more quietly, the quarter strokes, look to the northeast corner of the square: there, in the Vetlla tower, which was also part of the old wall, two popular automatons, the Calendureta and the Calendura, strike the clock bells installed in 1572.
In the Corredora there several buildings of interest from the first decades of the twentieth century; closing with the mansion of the illustrious mariner and mathematician Jorge Juan Santacilia, XVII century baroque, now transformed and held as private property. At the midway point is the Glorieta, the true popular and urban heart, with flower beds and trees, Valencian tile benches, a fountain topped by an angel of Mysteri and crowded terraces and shops.
22.00 – A restorative dinner
The city centre is, once again, the best choice for the repose of dinnertime. Also remember that just two kilometres away, in the hamlet of Perleta, is La Finca, a restaurant with a Michelin star which features dishes committed to the use of local produce while at the same time being cutting-edge and creative.
23.30 – Time for fun
But the day doesn´t end there. After dinner, check out Primera Planta, in the Glorieta, is one of the most popular nightclubs, while in nearby Paseo de Eres de Santa Llúcia, in front of the Arab Baths, is D10, another very popular dance club. In the same area, Flaherty’s Irish Pub offers a more relaxed alternative, while the neighboring Pere Ibarra street has another classic, Súquer, for those who prefer a more youthful ambience. On the terraces of the Congreso Eucarístico Plaza you can have a drink, a cocktail or herbal tea while admiring the night-time silhouette of the Basilica of Santa Maria.