SPAIN // A Day Trip to Elche


Often overlooked in favour of Benidorm and Alicante, last year's visit to the city of Elche sent it straight to my number one spot for locations on Spain's Costa Blanca. With a population of some 230,000 people, Elche has managed to maintain that 'local' rather than 'tourist' feel so rare for such a city - the cafes all loud with local language; the parks full of local children playing after school - and yet, with two UNESCO World Heritage attractions to its name, there is plenty for the average visitor to do and see.

We headed there one Tuesday and spent the day falling hard for this little city. Here's some of what we got up to..

Basilica de Santa Maria - Elche Spain

Basilica de Santa Maria 

Our first stop of the day was the Basilica de Santa Maria: an intricately carved church - with stonework by Nicolas de Bussy - and home to not only the first of the city's UNESCO attractions - the annual Mystery Play of Elche - but also to some stunning bell tower views across the city. We headed straight up the spiral staircase of this 350 year old church - our first impressions of this beautiful city forming somewhere at the top. With a 360 degree viewing platform, the panorama of this palm-filled place took my breath away for just a moment as my camera and I frantically took it all in.

Back inside the views are no less astonishing, with the interior of the church forming an ornately decorated cross, adorned with carvings, stained-glass and iconography from ceiling to floor. The details are astonishing and shrouded in history, with many artefacts linked to the Middle Age liturgical drama still re-enacted here annually.

I could probably have photographed objects and views here all day, but we were politely shooed from the nave by some quiet attendants trying to close up for the afternoon and so headed merrily on our way in search of a lunch break.

Quinoa Restaurante Vegetariano - Elche Spain

Restaurante Vegetariano Quinoa 

Unlike much of the Costa Blanca region, vegetarians are pretty spoiled for choice in Elche. We eventually settled on Restaurante Quinoa, where we sampled and enjoyed three courses plus a salad buffet from their "menu del dia" (menu of the day). I was pretty blown away by my visit to this little haven of all things veggie - so much so that I wrote it its own piece.

Elche municipal park
Elche municipal park

Parque Municipal 

On the way back towards the centre of town, we took a stroll through the city's municipal park, which makes up one part of the "Palmeral D'Elche" (more on that later!). The park is beautiful with plenty of shaded seating areas, a children's playground, water fountains and a number of buildings of Arabic-type design, but I must confess that my attention was most captured by the strange dove-come-parrot perched on the balcony of the dovecot!

Elche municipal park
Elche municipal park

Tourism office - Elche

Tourist Information Office

On the periphery of the municipal park - not too far from a convenient car park - lies the local tourist information office. Logic would have had this be the first stop on our trip, but Spanish siesta time dictated otherwise. That said, the free map we picked up from the kind lady behind the desk still came in handy for our last stop of the day..

Palmeral d'Elche - Elche palm groves

El Palmeral (The Palm Groves)

By far the most significant feature of the city, the 200,000 trees of Elche's palm groves earned the city its second UNESCO World Heritage stamp in the year 2000. The largest palm grove in Europe, it is recognised not only for its vast scale but also as one of the best preserved examples of Arab agricultural practices the continent has to offer. Divided into some 97 palm-lined plots, each "huerto" or orchard has its own network of ancient irrigation channels - mostly still-functioning - that were of particular UNESCO interest. No longer the mass producer of dates they once were, these days the groves are valued more for their cultural significance, with production limited to a much-reduced quantity of dates as well as "white palms" which are used decoratively around Palm Sunday.

Palmeral d'Elche - Elche palm groves

We paid a visit to the 'Museo del Palmeral' where many of these decorations were on display, alongside a wealth of historical information about the area. Housed in a traditional 19th century building at the 'Huerto de San Plácido', the museum is only 1 Euro to enter and I found it genuinely fascinating!

White palm decorations - Palmeral museum - Elche
Museo de Palmeral - Elche

The museum also marks the beginning and end of the 'Ruta del Palmeral' - a walking route taking in many of the most notable orchards - which is handily sign-posted and highlighted by foot prints in the ground.

Ruta del Palmeral - Elche
Ruta del Palmeral - Elche

We followed a large chunk of the route, before the heat (and my swollen ankles) got the better of us and we headed back towards the city centre in search of coffee and churros.

Palmeral d'Elche - Elche palm groves
Palmeral d'Elche - Elche palm groves

We concluded our time in Elche sitting at a cafe table overlooking a city square, soaking up the sunshine and the sound of Spanish voices all around us. Idyllic.

All in all, I had a great first trip to Elche. I certainly don't think it'll be my last visit to this beautiful little city! 



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