Close by to where Mick and Lindsay live is the city of Elche. It is the third most populated city in the Community of Valencia (after Valencia and Alicante) and the twentieth largest Spanish city. I would never have guessed that. The twentieth largest city in the UK is Nottingham and I have heard of that of course and in USA it is El Paso, Texas which surprised me. In Australia it is the splendidly named Albury–Wodonga in New South Wales.
The two main reasons for visiting Elche are to buy a pair of shoes (footwear manufacture is the largest industry in the town) or to visit the Palm Forests which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. No one needed a new pair of shoes today because we had been shopping the day before and been in every shoe shop in La Zenia so today we were visiting the date palm orchards which date way back to the time of the occupation of Iberia by the Moors of North Africa.
In 2000 UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site citing the transfer of landscape and agricultural practices from one culture and continent to another – Moorish North Africa to Christian Europe.
Currently, in the urban area of Elche there are almost one hundred different orchards containing about seventy-thousand date palms mostly in the east bank of the Rio Vinalopó. This number however does not include other large plantations located around wider urban area and all together the number may be close to a staggering two hundred thousand palms. It is the only palm grove of its type anywhere in Europe, the northernmost of its kind and one the largest in the world outside of North Africa. Individual specimens of the palm trees can grow to a height of more than one hundred feet and be up to three hundred years old.
For statistical reasons I now digress. The tallest trees in the World are the Californian Giant Redwood which grow to nearly four hundred feet, in Australia there is a species of Eucalyptus (Mountain Ash) which gets to three hundred and thirty feet and the tallest trees in the UK are the Douglas Fir which by comparison struggles to get to just two hundred feet or so. The iconic English Oak (which we always think of a tall tree) is left way behind at only seventy feet!
We arrived in Elche at mid-morning, found a convenient parking place and wandered off towards the palm forest, none of us thought about noting down the name of the street where we had left the car!
Very quickly we were in the first orchard, a carefully managed public park with winding footpaths and clear direction signs but not very long after that we strayed into a less well managed area with winding dusty paths and not so many direction signs. Soon it became clear that we were losing our sense of direction and as anyone who has been in a palm forest will know one palm tree looks very much like all the others because there isn’t a great deal of variation in shape or form.
We wandered around a little more getting ever further from our starting point and with realistic hopes of following the same route back rapidly deteriorating and it was at about this point that it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t absolutely certain about where we had started from anyway.
Eventually we came across a busy road and close by a public park where there was an entrance fee to see the palms. Having just seen about a thousand palms for free I wondered if this was necessary expenditure but we paid up and went inside and we were glad that we did because the gardens were immaculate and there were several interesting palms in there including one known as ‘Imperial Palm’ with seven stems in the shape of a candelabra and estimated to be about one hundred and seventy-five years old . It was named after Elisabeth, the Empress consort of Franz Joseph of Austria, who visited the plantation in 1894.
The visit over we made our way to the city centre but finding it to be a modern concrete sort of place with little really to interest us, it seems that most of the historical centre has been demolished and cleared away, we turned our attention back to the issue of finding a way back to the car.
We were still surrounded by a forest of palm trees on all sides so there was quite a bit of guess work involved here and several disagreements about direction and I always get nervous when Kim assumes the role of navigator because this is rarely good news. I say nothing of course. As it happened Mick had the keenest sense of direction, overruled all of our panic suggestions and insisted on a route that soon got us back to the car without any further detours.