A Distinctly Spanish Christmas
Elche (or Elx, with the Catalan spelling) is pretty remarkable whatever time you visit. Towering date-palm trees in the Palmeral de Elche, one of the largest date palm orchards in Europe, and a designated UNESCO Heritage site.
With elaborate irrigation systems, there are 200,000 date palms within the city of Elche and another 250,000 which are growing in the city’s various nurseries.
Date palms have been growing in and around Elche since 5 BC, during the Iberian settlement.
Elche is a fascinating place, with fountains and Moorish architecture, plus history dating back to Iberian times.
The Dama de Elche, or Lady of Elche is a stone bust that was discovered in 1897 at L'Alcúdia, an archaeological site on a private estate two kilometers south of the city. The Lady of Elche is generally known as an Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC.
It's December time in Spain, so it is cool but not freezing. We're close to three towns: Alicante, Santa Pola, Elche, and two hamlets: Valverde and Perleta, and a whole host of other little villages. Soperhaps there was a fiesta that was missed. Was there a Spanish Fiesta just around the corner in December, as it usually was?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact. In Elche, the fiesta is Elche Belen. Could this be the start to the Christmas fiesta? This close to Christmas, the swaying date-palm fronds reminds you of a journey; the other journey on donkeys and camels across sand dunes following the twinkling Bethlehem star that heralded the birth of Jesus. Aaahh, if you are in Elche at Christmas, visit the nativity scene.
A unique setting in typical biblical passages, the whole experience is one of wonderment, as everything to do with the nativity scene is done with painstaking labour in miniature. The Bancaja Belen,(Bancaja Nativity Scene) is what we hoped to see, as well as the Christmas lights of Elche.
Most of the ancient centre of Elche is located at one side of the river, with crowded buildings and narrow streets higgledy-piggledy layout, and corridors lanes and alleyways.
Many bridges cross the deep gorge over the Vinalopo river to the new part of the city, a more formalised grid layout. Shoe manufacturing is the predominant industry in Elche and the surrounding areas, with over 1000 shoe factories.
But, shoes, shoes, shoes must wait for a more opportune moment. This particular visit to Elche was for seeing, not shopping: to see the Christmas lights, maybe to have some tapas, and to see what Bancaja Belen had to offer.
Belen is Spanish for 'Bethlehem' as well as the name given to the nativity story that is created in every village / town / city in Spain for the Xmas season.
Nativity displays are an important part of Spanish culture. The Belen Bancaja (funded by the provincial bank Bancaja) is one of the worlds largest nativity scenes.
It was quite late in the day when we made the trip; arriving to witness hundreds of people queuing in front of this huge, walled-up temporary structure, the Bancaja Nativity Scene, which occupies 1000 square metres.
The materials used to construct such an ambitious undertaking included 6000 kg of plaster, 3000 kg of fibre glass, 300 kg of paint, 300 kg. of floodlights, .. amongst other things. It was a huge project. Considering the lateness of the hour, we decided not to queue but we made a pact to return in a few days later. I was pleased to note that they had two entrances; one for the general public, the other was for those that'd booked a particular time.
On that night, there was a wheelchair contingent, about 4 or 5 wheelchair-bound visitors; ramps to aid wheelchair users (and well used for mothers pushing buggies, or prams), and they were in the fast queue. Great, I thought - the disabled visitors have as much chance as the next guy, to enjoy the sights if they want to, especially the Nativity Scene at Xmas. I've been there done that: been in a wheelchair due to a stroke from an AVM.
We wandered about the old town marvelling at the date-palm trees covered in crystal fairy lights and cobalt-blue starlights, taking in the street decorations and rubbing shoulders with the good people of Elche; locals and visitors, enjoying the festive season. We had very good tapas and called it a night.
We returned a few days later, earlier in the evening. It was an unusually balmy night for late December, around +16C in the evening - very still, very comfortable.
After 5 minutes of waiting, where more visitors arrived, we were ushered into a mini-auditorium. The curtain closed behind us (the last few ones in). A video presentation delivered a superb 10 minute show of the Story behind the Story of the Nativity Scene.
The chance to marvel and wonder - over 1,200 figures which recreates images of 2000 years ago, the most important moments of the birth of Jesus. The making of this whole production took 6 years, studying 52 books on the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
From the photos. every angle was calculated, the artistry of the sculptures, the minute detail of the costumes... a mammoth construction and execution, the attention to detail is an enormous undertaking.
The Bancaja Nativity Scene depicts: the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Epiphany and Three Magi, fleeing the threat of King Herod to Egypt. It was breathtaking, ... all those hours upon hours of painstaking work, there to see in quiet contemplation; it was solemn yet uplifting.
The Bancaja Nativity scene aims to rescue the true values of Christmas, one of which is solidarity. Since its inception, 11 Spanish cities have played host to this event at Xmas, among them Valencia, Madrid, Alicante, ... now in Elche. The entry is free, the Bancaja Belen will close its doors on the 6th. January 2010..