Jardin Huerto del Cura, Elche
Middle of summer, average +30C. Time around 2pm. Beach, pool, or just sit in the shade and have a few too many drinks? No, that was all last week. Time to do something a little different.
Elche is famed for the date palm groves, in large tracts of inner city land. We usually park in the underground car park next to the main grove, the Municipal Park, in the centre of the city and occasionally wander through this park.
Spectacular towering date palms keep sub-tropical and dry-country plants in dappled shade, crushed gravel pathways meander through past fountains, an expensive restaurant and even an outdoor arena for the many events that entertain the residents of Elche during the year.
Most times it just a peaceful and idyllic escape from the sun. I wondered sometimes what it was like to spend a few hours in the Elche Palm Garden (Huerto del Cura).
The Palm Garden of Elche, Huerto del Cura orchard, with nearly 500 palm trees, includes a very rare specimen: the one known as the "Imperial Palm". The UNESCO World Heritage site and is Europe’s only palm forest, the historic Elche Palm Grove, contains nearly 200,000 date palms is the bigger picture.
The Elche palm grove is the greatest concentration of palm trees in Europe: according to estimates, between 200,000 and 300,000 specimens. The palm tree is one of man’s most practical plants providing: dates, oil, alcohol and wine, even rope fibres, coconuts and honey. Date plams were introduced to the region during the Moorish reign 600-1100 AD.
There are other groves, most of them free public parks with a few growing wild and off-limits. The Huerto del Cura is possibly the smallest grove in terms of area, but is the headline act for Elche in that it not only has the most famous Imperial Palm, but a selection of cacti and other weird/wonderful plants that Kew Gardens in London would dearly love to have.
Waterways, ducks and a number of peacocks roaming around add to the picture. And after all this time, we’d never bothered to look into it – until today.
We also had a second agenda: to enquire at the Elche Tourist Office next to the Municipal Park to clarify exactly what was going on for the Elche’s August festival.
We arrived in the city at about 2:30pm, to a city centre almost fast asleep. The locals are either eating at home/restaurant, or sleeping anywhere cool. Street-level Elche is always +6C warmer than Perleta, and even hotter if you are in direct sunlight with no stray snippet of breeze. A Chemist shop sign with a time/temperature gauge boldly announced +36C. It was like walking in an oven.
This is typical siesta time, where no-one other than service people or tourists are about in the constant dry heat. Or us foreign locals for that matter
Zig-zagging across the city centre we arrive at the Huerto del Cura, a 15-feet high white concrete wall encompassing the whole garden. Other than the sign on the front, the density of date palms was a bit of a hint.
Entering, you focus on the jungle ahead of you, almost missing the rendered adobe-like main building with palm trunks supporting the main veranda arches. Paying a modest entry fee, it is obvious why: the complexity of the garden and variety of the species needs an army of botanical experts and horticultural staff to keep it in pristine condition.
Huerta del Cura means ‘Priests Garden’, as it was previously owned by a Catholic priest in the early 1900’s. We were but two of a handful of other people who ventured out in the midday heat to have a look.
Apart from the huge date palm trees, you will find some of the largest and painful cactii you would ever be likely to meet if you slipped off the path and fell on to them.
Many other species of palm and cacti have been growing/nurtured in this ‘garden’ for almost 100 years, and some of the dimensions make you wonder if they are real or someone is having a laugh.
On occasions, you may wonder if the cactii actually move, as if they are waiting and hoping for a human to get too close. Which is ample warning for burglars or drunks - Huerto del Cura is not a hiding place nor a shortcut; it's dangerous during the day and terrifyingly lethal at night.
The Imperial Palm is the sort of monster plant that shouldn't exist: a palm tree with seven arms, even though all up it weighs about 80 tonnes, and each ‘arm’ or branch is at least 20 feet high.
The key to gaining the ‘Imperial’ tag is the central spine has to have each successive arm starting off above ground level, as if the main trunk is supporting the combined weight of all the other arms…. which is mathematically impossible given the stresses of the height of the arms, the weight and the amount of wind the palm tree has to cater for.
We enjoyed about an hour of wandering around and taking photos, and still only a handful of other people were coming and going.
Parched and in need of some refreshment, we exited to the street, which was still quite deserted of vehicles or pedestrian traffic.
The main trunk is the only path for plant nourishment to the rest of the arms.
To be able to maintain the Imperial variety and sustain it to greater heights, a helping hand is necessary: steel frame at the base to directly support the weight of the arms and interlinked steel collars and stays between the arms higher up.
Stopping briefly for an ice-cream, ended up as a race to eat it before it melted.: +36C is like a blowtorch. A temporary cooling of the throat, but chilled beer was called for, although the Tourist Office was now open so priority takes precedence. A good twenty minutes asking the lady at the counter so many questions – she was invaluable. Many hidden hints and tips not advertised on the website, especially a few things that were ‘free’. Elche fiesta is not yet a global superstar event, therefore is supported and attended by mostly by locals, so why bother advertising what everyone knows? We left with a lot more information and a better view of what to do during the fiesta.
Then immediately to Valverde, to enjoy cheap ice-cold litres of beer, delicious tapas, and air conditioning.