Just 10 miles from Alicante, Elche is a peaceful oasis where you can soak up the history, sit in the shade of the palm trees - and do some serious shoe shopping in the footwear capital of Spain!
Most cities put trees between the buildings. In Elche, it’s the other way round. Just over 10 miles inland from Alicante, Elche (Elx in the local Catalan) is a city embedded in a breathtaking oasis of nearly 300,000 date palms, founded in the 10th century by the region’s one-time Arab rulers.
Seen from afar, churches and ancient fortresses seem to rise from the sea of palms like strange islands. As you walk through the town, the palms become a comforting presence, not just sources of shade in the hot Spanish sun but an arboreal crowd keeping you company - there’s a palm tree for each of Elche’s quarter of a million inhabitants and some to spare.
In a city so devoted to greenery, it’s not surprising Elche’s botanic gardens are among the most visited in Spain. As well as cacti and other exotica, they boast probably the world’s leading collection of palm varieties, including unique specimens such as the bizarre seven-trunked Imperial Palm - so named because it was dedicated to Empress Elizabeth of Austria when she visited the gardens in 1894.
By the gate, a stall dispenses various palm-based products, from delicious dates (on their own or made into confectionery) to palm-leaf baskets used for catching snails, an ingredient in various Catalan dishes. A couple of hundred yards from the gardens, a little museum puts the oasis into historic context, its rear windows overlooking Arab irrigation canals that have kept the palms watered for a millennium.
Elche was settled by the Iberians as far back as the 5th century BC, when it was known as Helike, and palms were cultivated then as now, though not in the profusion brought by the Arabs. After the Iberians came the Carthaginians and the Greeks, then the Romans, who renamed the town Ilici. Despite its palms, Elche became something of a backwater during the Muslim occupation, which ended with its recapture by James I of Aragon in 1264.
The city slumbered for centuries under the Costa Blanca sun, tending its crops and keeping to itself, until the arrival of the railway in the 19th century sparked a wave of industrialisation. And ladies, in Elche this meant shoes…
With over 2,000 shoe-related businesses, the city is now not only the footwear capital of Spain but arguably of Europe, and visitors have been known to ignore all the palms and history and come to Elche just to visit the factory shops scattered around the outskirts.
As well as fabulous footwear, another thing you’ll see everywhere around town is the image of a handsome woman wearing a headress that makes her look like Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. This is the Dama d’Elx (the Lady of Elche), a masterpiece of early Iberian statuary believed to depict a 4th-century BC priestess. Since its 19th-century discovery, the original has sat in a Madrid museum, despite vociferous demands from Elche for her return. Until then, there’s still much to enjoy in the town’s history museum (MAHE), carved out of the historic Palacio del Altamira, with a modern interior that contrasts with the gorgeous honeyed stones of the palace walls.
Just walking is a pleasure in Elche. In the part of the oasis known as the Huerto del Cura (Priest‘s Garden), paths snake through not just palms but also lemon, orange and pomegranate trees, and a host of other sub-tropical plants collected from all over the world.
While the Huerto del Cura is the place for quiet contemplation, the sprawling Parque Municipal is where most locals come to hang out with the trees. Broad paths wind around fascinating buildings such as the 18th-century Molí del Real, a former corn mill, and a tourist office built in a bizarre Oriental style. An amphitheatre provides an arena for outdoor performance, while the cooing birds in a towering dovecote add to the tranquil atmosphere.
Linking Elche with the sea is the River Vinalopo, and walking along the riverbank is as much of an Elche tradition as eating dates and making shoes. But while many locals start their evening paseo along the river, most end up in one of the little squares that dot the compact old quarter, perfectly placed halfway between the Parque Municipal and the Huerta del Cura.
We grab a place at one of the café tables between the palms in a square with the charming name La Glorieta, watching the theatre of Spanish street life against the real theatrical backdrop of the 1920s Gran Teatro.
With all the walking, we feel we’ve earned a treat with dinner at La Taula, one of the finest restaurants in the city. After five superb courses, we stagger out. All sounds seem absorbed by the whispering palm fronds as we wander through the Huerto del Cura back to our hotel. It’s an oasis of calm that seems a million miles from the resorts on the coast rather than just 10.
Where to stay
The Hotel Huerto del Cura offers luxurious bungalow rooms in the heart of the palm forest of the same name. There’s a pool, too, to cool off.
Where to eat
Asador Ilicitano serves an intriguing Catalan menu, including dishes such as cuttlefish with garlic and roast suckling pig.
Calle Maestro Giner; +34 965 43 58 64.
Meson El Granaino: a fine bar for informal meals with an attached restaurant serving excellent traditional stews and other dishes.
Calle José María Buch; +34 966 66 40 80; mesongranaino.com.
La Taula is one of swishest restaurant in town. Its beautiful dining room overlooks a palm-filled courtyard, while the menu is particularly strong on seafood.
Prolongacion de los Curtidores; +34 966 612 033.
Restaurante El Parque offers a wonderful location in the Parque Municipal, a core of classic rice dishes and excellent service.
Parque Municipal; +34 965 45 34 15.
Bar Aquila is a convivial bar with excellent tapas.
Calle Dr Coro.
Elche Tourism: + 34 965 45 27 47; turismedelx.com.