Elche, lying in the southern part of the province of Alicante, is the capital of the Baix Vinalopó region. The town has a magnificent grove of palm trees, wetlands teeming with birdlife, plus nine kilometres of pristine beaches protected by dunes and pine forests.
Elche, or Elx as it is known in Valencian, has a population of over 200,000 inhabitants. The municipal area covers 326 km2, spread over the town itself and 30 outlying rural communities, which, together with several other towns, is known collectively as the Camp d’Elx. The town stands on a plain crossed by the Molar, Tabaià and Castellar mountain ranges, the last ridges of the Baetic System of mountains, creating a varied and interesting local landscape. The Pantano de Elche dam was built in 1632 to contain water from the Vinalopó river, which divides the town in two.
This is the third largest town in the Community of Valencia, in terms of population, size and resources. A stroll round its streets reveals a fascinating historic quarter, which bears witness to a past age of splendour.
This was a fortified Al-Andalus town between the 8th and 9th centuries until it was reclaimed by the Christians in 1265. However, the original site of the town, La Alcudia, was only two kilometres south of today’s town centre and was inhabited from the Neolithic up to the Visigoth period.
The town of Heliké had its heyday during the Iberian civilisation, the period during which the Lady of Elche bust was carved. In 209 BC, the town was occupied by the Romans and in the 1st century BC it acquired the title of Colonia Iulia Ilice Augusta.
Nowadays, Elche’s past lives side by side with all the trappings of a young and lively town. It is also home to the largest grove of palm trees in Europe, giving it a unique urban landscape. The Palmeral is a legacy of Moorish farming culture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Elche also has a UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage asset: the Misteri d’Elx. The Misteri is a lyrical drama, the last living vestige of European Medieval religious theatre, performed in August every year.
The Palmeral – a huge grove of palm trees – is both unusual and stunningly beautiful. Its exceptional value was recognised by UNESCO when it was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The discovery of fossilised date stones in this part of the Mediterranean seems to corroborate the theory that palm trees have been growing in Elche since prehistoric times. In any case, it was the Moors who planted palm trees in groves, creating, with the help of irrigation, a landscape that has been inextricably linked to Elche‘s history.
The town’s relationship with the Palmeral has been one of harmony up to the present day. So much so, that many buildings and public services have been built in the middle of a sea of palm trees, in a perfect blend of inhabited spaces and palm groves, forming a uniquely beautiful combination.
The Palmeral, which has more than 20,000 specimens spread over the municipal area, is Elche‘s greatest natural asset.
Local people’s determination to preserve the Palmeral has enabled the palm groves to be maintained long after they ceased to be economically viable. In recent years, many of them have been turned into parkland for community use.
Efforts are also being made to recover traditional crafts and trades, and to study natural methods for safeguarding and publicising the palm groves. A research centre, Estación Phoenix, has also been set up to study the date palm.
The palm trees produce delicious dates and the so-called “white palm”, which makes an appearance at two major cultural events held during the year: the Palm Sunday procession, which is now a Festival of International Tourism Interest, and the Misteri d’Elx, a UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage asset and a Festival of International Tourism Interest, in which an angel carries a white palm to give to the Virgin Mary.
Clot de Galvany
This wetland area is an excellent example of coastal marshland endangered by the expansion of urban areas to meet tourism demand. The Clot de Galvany suffered heavy damage in 1978 when drainage works and earth moving changed its appearance dramatically. Local community protest saved it from destruction and Elche Town Council took charge of its management and protection.
Clot de Galvany is an interesting series of meadows growing mainly by sparta grass (Lygeum spartum) and marsh rosemary (Limonium spp.). These plant communities are joined by enormous reed beds that serve as border for the succulent thickets typically found in salt marshes and that grow on land alongside the lagoons.
Growing on the banks around the various stretches of water, you can see tamarisks (or salt cedar) trees. Other wetland plant species found on the marshes are rushes and water plants such as ditch grass and pondweed.
Near the lagoons are old terraced plots on which grass is grown for pasture. Growing amongst the grass are Mitnan (Thymelaea hirsuta) and other coastal plain species, including carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and olive trees (Olea europaea var. oleaster).
Surrounding the wetlands is a series of hills and slopes, most of which have been repopulated with Alepo pine trees. Here you can still find pockets of the original native shrubs that once grew in this area, known collectively as Alicante scrubland. The varieties you can expect to see the most of include Black thorn, Mastic, Ephedra and Fan palm.
The hills are also covered with aromatic plants typically found in the area around Elche, including Alicante thyme (Thymus moroderi) and other thyme varieties, plus rosemary and lavender (Lavandula dentata).
With luck, you may also see two of the five species of wild orchid found in the Community of Valencia (which comprises the provinces of Alicante, Castellón and Valencia), further proof of how valuable this unique wetland is for the local countryside.
What else to see in Elche
The Santa Pola Salt Pans Nature Park lies between the municipal areas of Elche and Santa Pola. The park consists of a commercial salt production area, briny lagoons bordered by salt marshes and a strip of dunes and beaches.
It was declared an Area of Natural Beauty in 1988 by the Valencia Regional Government and a Nature park in 1994. It is classed as a Special Birdlife Protection Area (ZEPA).
The town’s historic centre has several valuable buildings dating from various periods in history. The Islamic walls and the citadel of Alcázar de la Señoría, the majestic Calahorra fortress, the Basilica of Santa María with its Valencian Baroque doorway, the Renaissance-style Convent de la Mercè, and the Gothic-style Town Hall all provide a fascinating tour through the past.
The town also has a long list of cultural heritage attractions in the form of museums and exhibition halls.