The city of Elche is 23 km southwest of Alicante and is home to extensive palm groves numbering some 300,000 individual trees, it is Europe’s largest palm forest and was originally planted by the Phoenicians. A world heritage site with the double honours from UNESCO World Heritage for the palms and the Mystery of Elche its annual medieval play. Not forgetting, due to Moorish irrigation techniques an important fruit producer. Agriculture still plays an important role here producing dates, olives and pomegranates with a busy rubber trade employing over 15% of the local population.
The third largest city in the Comunidad Valenciana behind Valencia City and Alicante respectively, with a permanent resident population of around 230,000 it is the 20th most populated city in Spain. Positioned between two international airports Alicante-Elche (ALC) and Region de Murcia International (RMU) better known as Corvera and having excellent motorway connections getting to this ancient and modern city is simple.
The city has a wide and varied history, the first Elche inhabitants can be traced back to Carthaginian and Roman origins. It was occupied by the Moors until the 13th century when James I of Aragon (James the Conqueror in 1256 AD) returned it to Spanish rule.
Due to its historical heritage Elche is filled with ancient history and historical sites, fantastic cultural events and natural wonders.
Historically, the Lady of Elche or Dama De Elx, a statue discovered in the late 1890’s that dates back to the 4th century BC. It’s origin and purpose are still not clear today, the experts are not in agreement, was it part of a larger work or funeral urn? What ever the true case is it now resides the Archaeological Museum in Madrid, however an exact replica can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in the city.
Culturally, the Mystery of Elx, a mystery play in two parts from the middle ages that re-enacts the Dormition and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is performed annually on the 14th and 15th of August in the Basilica de Santa Maria and in 2001 UNESCO declared it as one of the ‘Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
The Basilica de Santa Maria is built on the foundations of an ancient mosque, James I the Conqueror consecrated the site for Christian ceremonies and dedicated it to Santa Maria. It has been remodeled over the centuries due to deterioration but the present building dates back to the 17th century and is in the Baroque style. Viewing the city from the bell tower of the basilica is certainly worth the climb.
Nature and Culture, the Palmeral a unique landscape and an historic natural landscape that has survived for over 1000 years, in recent years it became under threat by an imported pest the Red or Asian Palm Weevil. This insect has destroyed around 13% of the trees in the Palmeral. In its present form the palm plantation is clearly inherited from the Muslim period manifested by the lay out and irrigation methods. Although principally producing dates the area possesses the white palm, used to make the palm crosses for Palm Sunday, these palms are exported all over the world.
Modern day Elche unlike many parts of Spain does not rely on the economic bases of tourism, construction or manufacturing but focuses greatly on the production of footwear and sometimes is referred to as ‘shoe town’ with over 1000 active factories. This local industry employs 20% of the inhabitants within the city and from surrounding areas and it is estimated that around 42% of the shoes worn in Spain are made here, it has been designing and making some of the best shoes in the world for over 200 years.
Going back to the 19th Century Elche based shoemakers started making and selling espadrilles, a shoe made with canvas and rope. In the 1880’s innovations in materials and manufacturing techniques led to a growth in espadrille workshops leading to the first footwear factories. The early 20th century saw continued success with expanded production of different types of footwear that led to Elche becoming an industry world leader a position that it holds to this day.
This ancient and modern sophisticated city is waiting to be explored and enjoyed by the traveller and those that live nearby, it is a vibrant and friendly place reflecting the history and culture that Spain possesses in abundance.
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